Friday 23 August 2013

Parents' mindset key to education change: Heng Swee Keat

View measures as part of whole approach - not in isolation, he says
By Janice Heng And Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 22 Aug 2013

THE shifts in education policy announced in last Sunday's National Day Rally (NDR) must catalyse mindset changes among parents or they will have no impact, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said last night.

"If parents' mindsets don't change, whatever changes we make will not have any impact," he said, rounding off a public forum on the Rally held by government feedback unit REACH.

About 180 people - ranging from grassroots leaders and unionists to business representatives and students - attended the forum at Rendezvous Grand Hotel.

Some of the 21 participants who spoke were sceptical about the effectiveness of proposed moves, such as replacing the T-score for Primary School Leaving Examination results with broader bands of grades.

In response, Mr Heng said the changes announced in the Rally should not be seen in isolation.

In education, for instance, the overarching aim is "to be able to create opportunities for every child regardless of background".

He reminded the audience of his ministry's work in that regard over the past few years, from investing more in pre-schools to giving needy children a stronger foundation in basic skills such as mathematics and languages.

And in the NDR speech, one measure to create opportunities was giving flexibility to Secondary 1 students in all streams to study subjects at a higher level, if they are good enough.

"If you look at this whole package of measures, it is not about one measure announced by the Prime Minister... It is part of our whole philosophy or approach," he said.

The minister also defended the ideal of making every school a good school.

Some participants had questioned this.

Student Sun Jia Ying, 13, for instance, would like to study pure humanities subjects at Secondary 3. But her school, Pei Hwa Secondary, said it could not offer her the opportunity as it did not have enough qualified teachers.

"Why are there not enough qualified teachers... when all schools are meant to be good schools?" she asked.

Mr Heng did not answer that question directly, but noted that a good school "cannot just be defined by an academic yardstick".

Though Singaporeans are used to thinking about schools only in one dimension - grades - being a good school is about helping children develop in their areas of strength, which might be in arts or sports. Parents cannot expect all children to leave their schools with all As, he said - and if that is the measure, then not every school can be a "good school".

Over at The Grassroots Club, Minister for Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim chaired a closed-door session with members of the Malay-Muslim community.

Their top concerns were in housing, education and health care, he said, including the affordability of homes and the expected rise in premiums for MediShield insurance - now being expanded to cover all for life, including those with pre-existing ailments.

On housing affordability, Dr Yaacob said the Prime Minister had gone on the national stage and offered to be Singaporeans' property agent to stress that the Government would keep homes affordable, especially for first-time buyers. "He's putting his reputation on the line," Dr Yaacob said.

On MediShield, he said the Government has pledged to help those who cannot afford the premiums.

Education changes must not be seen 'in isolation'
Focus on what the sum seeks to achieve, Heng Swee Keat urges
By Amelia Teng And Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 27 Aug 2013

THE changes in education policy announced at the recent National Day Rally should not be seen "in isolation", Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

Instead, he urged parents to "focus on what the sum of these changes seeks to achieve".

Mr Heng, speaking on the sidelines of a scholarship ceremony, described the announcements as "an important change in the direction of our education system".

"We must focus on how we can educate our children better for the future, and not just look at what we have in the past and seek to continue with the things we are familiar with," he added.

He was responding to feedback from parents on the changes, which included setting aside 40 places in each school during the Primary 1 registration for children who do not get priority because their parents are not alumni, and replacing the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-score with wider grade bands.

Some parents felt that 40 places were too few, and they should not apply to parent volunteers or those with church or clan links. Mr Heng, however, had indicated at an event on Sunday that further changes to the registration system would be unlikely.

Others questioned whether wider grade bands for PSLE would mean more stress because their children would need to do consistently well in all subjects.

When asked to elaborate on the changes yesterday, Mr Heng said more details will be released soon.

He was speaking at a ceremony at the National University of Singapore where 97 students received the Singapore-Industry Scholarship (SgIS).

The scholarship is open only to Singaporeans. Launched last year by the Ministry of Education and the Economic Development Board, it aims to develop "a Singapore core" of talent in the strategic sectors.

Recipients will have their undergraduate studies paid for, and eventually work for two to four years at local companies or the Singapore office of foreign firms.

This year, the recipients were selected from a pool of 1,200 applicants. The scholarships, which cover tuition fees, are jointly funded by the Government and the companies.

More companies came on board this year - a total of 39, up from 28 last year. New ones include water treatment firm Hyflux and the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre.

The search for scholars was also broadened this year to include second- and third-year Singaporean students in local and overseas universities, who were given mid-term scholarships. Six such awards were given this year.

One such scholar is Mr Cheong Qin Zheng, 24, who will commence his fourth year at Imperial College London in September.

Said the aeronautical engineering student, who will work for SIA Engineering Company after graduation: "My initial plan was to tap the opportunities over there and return to Singapore in the long term... But my parents are not getting any younger and I don't want to be apart from them for such a long time.

"And SIA Engineering Company is one of the biggest players here in aircraft maintenance and overhaul."


We must focus on how we can educate our children better for the future, and not just look at what we have in the past and seek to continue with the things we are familiar with.

- Education Minister Heng Swee Keat

New PSLE scoring system won't change parents' mindset

THE move to revise the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system is timely and a step in the right direction ("PSLE T-score to go in a few years' time"; Monday). But it will not change the mindset of parents.

Singaporeans like to compare and compete. This is the way we are brought up. Our society demands it.

Those who excel academically have the pick of the best jobs. It is inevitable that job selection criteria are based mainly on the only objective benchmark - paper qualifications.

As long as society uses academic qualifications as a major yardstick in assessing a person, parents will continue to push their children to study harder and get excellent scores. After all, who doesn't want his child to do better in life?

The grade scoring system is definitely better than the points system; the latter is just too cruel for 12-year-old children.

What we need now is to focus on a child's talents and skills, and less on academic results.

Academic prowess is not the only way to succeed in Singapore. We need people with different talents at all levels of society.

Sonny Yuen
ST Forum, 21 Aug 2013

Principals welcome move for Normal stream students
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2013

ALLOWING Normal stream students to take subjects that they are good in at the Express level right from the get-go will help them do better for their O levels, said principals yesterday.

They were reacting to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's announcement in Sunday's National Day Rally, that Normal stream students who do well in certain subjects for their Primary School Leaving Examination will be able to study them at Express level from Secondary 1.

Currently, they are allowed to take Express subjects only at Sec 3, following an assessment by teachers the year before.

PM Lee said the new move will give students the flexibility to learn each subject at their own pace. "You can build on your strengths, and build up your confidence, your pride, and then you can go further and fulfil your potential," he said.

Principals agreed.

"If we identify the correct students at Sec 1, it will help them to cope better," said Ang Mo Kio Secondary principal Abdul Mannan.

With the same grounding as Express students from the start, Normal stream students will be better equipped when taking the O-level exams for these subjects in Sec 4. Getting a good enough grade will then free up more time for their weaker subjects in Sec 5, said Mr Lim Yu Kee, principal of Bedok Green Secondary.

Critically, the change will also boost students' morale.

"No matter what you say, many students are affected by labelling," said Mr Abdul. "By allowing Normal stream students to take subjects at O levels, we are letting them know that if you're good in a subject, it doesn't matter what stream you are in. We will let you do it."

Currently, about 20 out of 80 Normal (Academic) students at Ang Mo Kio Secondary are studying mathematics and mother tongue at the Express level.

"Our Normal (Academic) students usually get B3 or better for their O-level subjects, and if they want to improve the grade, they can redo the exam when in Sec 5," said Mr Abdul.

An Education Ministry spokesman said that on average, about 4,000, or one-third of each Sec 4 Normal (Academic) cohort, take O-level subjects. About 40 per cent of each Sec 1 cohort enter the Normal stream. Those in the Normal (Academic) course usually finish the O-level exams in Sec 5, while the Normal (Technical) course prepares them for the Institute of Technical Education.

Bedok Green Sec 3 student Gary Lou, 15, was offered the chance to study mathematics at the Express stream this year.

The Normal (Academic) student said he did not feel challenged by maths lessons in the past. Now, the questions are harder but more stimulating, he said.

MP Baey Yam Keng, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, called the move significant.

He said: "It lets students learn individual subjects at a pace more appropriate to them. Or else when they are forced to learn subjects at a slower pace even though they have a strength in them, they will feel bored."


No matter what you say, many students are affected by labelling. By allowing Normal stream students to take subjects at O levels, we are letting them know that if you’re good in a subject, it doesn’t matter what stream you are in. We will let you do it.

– Ang Mo Kio Secondary principal Abdul Mannan


It lets students learn individual subjects at a pace more appropriate to them. Or else when they are forced to learn subjects at a slower pace even though they have a strength in them, they will feel bored.

– MP Baey Yam Keng, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education

Putting students in bands will help with holistic development: NIE Director
By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 20 Aug 2013

While he acknowledged that changing the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system will not remove all the stress for parents and their children, National Institute of Education (NIE) Director Lee Sing Kong said the move to put students in bands — instead of giving them aggregate scores — will accord the space to develop students more holistically while retaining academic standards.

He said that abolishing the PSLE — which some have called for — is not a viable option for now as there is no alternative “objective testing tool”. Other formats such as the performance-based assessment used in American schools — for example, by observing a student’s communication skills — require extensive training for assessors and there is also subjectivity involved which might arouse doubts from the public, he added.

Among the other changes to the education system announced during Sunday’s National Day Rally was greater flexibility to allow Secondary 1 students to take subjects across streams. Prof Lee said this will create a more homogeneous classroom setting for teachers to adopt a suitable pedagogy for learners of similar aptitude.

Currently, upper secondary students can take subjects across streams if they are assessed to be suitable. A Ministry of Education spokesperson said that between 2008 and last year, an average of about 4,000 Secondary 4 Normal (Academic) students each year — or one-third of each cohort — took O-Level subjects. Over the same period, an average of 150 Secondary 4 Normal (Technical) students — or 2.5 per cent of each cohort — took N(A)-Level subjects each year.

PSLE change will create other headaches

WHILE the move to replace Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) aggregate T-scores with grade bands is well-intentioned, it will create other problems ("PSLE T-score to go in a few years' time"; Monday).

First, the grades will have to be converted into points through which secondary school admission will be decided. So stress in the system will remain.

Second, under the current system, pupils do not get penalised too much if they miss out on a grade by a few points.

For example, a pupil scoring 74 per cent in a subject will get a B grade, while one scoring 76 per cent will get an A. A small difference in marks between an A grade and a B grade may not have much impact on the T-score.

To illustrate this, my son had four A* in his PSLE exam but his schoolmate with three A* and one A had a higher T-score.

But under the new system, there will be a huge difference between someone who gets an A and another who gets a B. There will be mad scramble to get all A* so that the pupils can enter top secondary schools.

Third, it was mentioned that top secondary schools will take in more students from different backgrounds through the Direct School Admissions scheme, and that qualities like character, leadership and resilience would be considered.

Introducing subjective measurements of these traits in 12-year-old children will create all sorts of problems.

While our current education system has served us well in the past, it clearly needs to be transformed.

Hence, I urge the Government to conduct more thorough and wide-ranging consultations, come up with a master blueprint of our desired education system with bold changes, and then implement them progressively.

Nilesh Sahita
ST Forum, 21 Aug 2013

No way to assess character objectively

DURING his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned that qualities such as character and drive may soon be considered under the Direct School Admissions scheme ("Flexibility in secondary schools"; Monday).

How does one measure character objectively?

Are we to depend on testimonials? Then we would be determining the students' ability to convince others that they have good character, regardless of their actual character.

Are we to interview the students? Then we would be testing their interview skills.

Or are we to look for anecdotal evidence? Then we would be crediting serendipity.

Despite our apparent need for everything to be measurable, humans are too complicated to gauge.

More importantly, do we really want to turn character into a commodity?

How do we define good character?

Is making a list of desirable character traits not equivalent to coming up with an authoritative criterion for what makes a "good" person?

By giving a person special privileges for demonstrating a certain trait, are we not saying that he is a better person than his peers for it? Who are we to do that?

Regardless of which way one leans in the nature-versus-nurture debate, this is not an appealing proposition.

We are either crediting children for being fortunate enough to have been born with certain characteristics, or crediting them for successfully adopting a certain prescribed moral code.

Lim Shu Ning (Ms)
ST Forum, 21 Aug 2013

Evaluation of character traits problematic

I READ Ms Lim Shu Ning's letter ("No way to assess character objectively", last Wednesday) with interest.

The Direct School Admission scheme may be broadened to consider qualities like character and leadership.

While pupils should be educated in moral values and character (as covered in subjects like moral education and social studies), to include them as a means of consideration to gain entry to top secondary schools might create problems.

The evaluation of subjective character traits in 12-year-olds is itself problematic. Are there tangible ways to measure which children possess better moral character than the others?

How does one measure a broad, multi-faceted subject like character? As human beings, children are individuals, different and special in their own ways. Who, among us, should judge which traits are more desirable than others? To distinguish among pupils, teachers may look out for more perceptible qualities, such as being outspoken. This may penalise good but quieter pupils whose virtues like possessing inner strength might not be easily noticed.

A system drives a person's behaviour. If the system emphasises traits like leadership, everyone will vie for leadership positions.

Yet, while we need leaders in society, we also need good team players to get things done. Being a team member does not necessarily mean possessing less desirable traits than the leader.

It is suggested that a pupil's character evaluation might be dependent on teachers' referrals.

All teachers and principals want their pupils to enter top schools as this will influence their school's reputation.

Among a multitude of good testimonials, how should one decide whose testimonials are more reliable, particularly on subjective character traits? Would one be inclined to think testimonials of pupils from popular primary schools are more valuable?

Teachers now work under greater pressure and longer hours.

The role of writing testimonials that directly influence a pupil's chance of entering a good school can be critical and demanding.

With more well-educated and outspoken parents today, would teachers not inadvertently feel the pressure to write favourable testimonials for their pupils?

In situations where parents are active volunteers in school or are rich and influential, would it incur an unstated obligation or pressure to some extent?

If a pupil's character is indeed dependent on a teacher's testimonial, would some parents find avenues to volunteer their service in the hope of winning some favour for their children?

Teo Hwee Leng (Ms)
ST Forum, 26 Aug 2013

Include character, PE as PSLE components

I AGREE with Mr Nilesh Sahita ("PSLE change will create other headaches"; Wednesday) that the move to replace Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) aggregate T-scores with grade bands will substitute one category of stress for another.

Take my daughter, for example. She is inclined towards science and mathematics, but her nemesis is Chinese.

I encouraged her in her interest and ability in science and maths, knowing that if she scored very well in those two subjects, it would compensate for her less-than-sterling results in Chinese, the learning of which causes much angst and not a few tears.

She scored two A* (for science and maths) and two As in the PSLE. Her T-score put her in the top 10 per cent of her cohort, paving the way for her entry into the Integrated Programme.

But with the new system, pupils (and their parents) will have to ensure that they are good in all four subjects.

That character traits such as resilience and drive can be considered under the Direct School Admissions scheme shows the Ministry of Education (MOE) is on the right track.

Recent research highlighted in books such as How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity And The Hidden Power Of Character by Paul Tough emphasises those traits.

Dr Angela L. Duckworth and Dr Martin E.P. Seligman described their research results in the paper, "Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ In Predicting Academic Performance Of Adolescents".

If MOE is serious about holistic development, why limit these considerations to a handful of pupils? Why not have a component comprising such traits, perhaps with less weightage, reflected in the PSLE?

For that matter, MOE should also consider physical education as part of the component to emphasise the importance of physical fitness.

I know of a pupil who was posted to the Normal (Technical) stream, but did very well and was transferred to Normal (Academic) after Secondary 2, where he remained - in Sec 2 - for another year.

I was not surprised by the transfer as he is very motivated. He was on the school's student council and basketball team.

If his traits had been identified and included in the PSLE, he could perhaps have made it to the Normal (Academic) stream from the outset.

Maria Loh Mun Foong (Ms)
ST Forum, 23 Aug 2013

Not easy to quantify 'good character'

ALTHOUGH there are good intentions behind the plan to tweak the Primary School Leaving Examination ("Include character, PE as PSLE components" by Ms Maria Loh Mun Foong; last Friday), it does not take into account a host of other concerns.

Character traits are subjective and it would be essential to implement proper assessment criteria across primary schools.

This begs the question: How do we "grade" good character traits? Will it be reductive or simplistic to quantify "good character"?

What about pupils who show kindness beyond the classroom? Will children be encouraged to consciously act in a certain way in front of the teachers "grading" them?

Today, we already see students who immerse themselves in Community Involvement Programme activities just for the sake of gaining an edge.

It is inevitable that some will always try to "game" the system, and this distorts the original intention of emphasising the importance of good character.

The PSLE is ultimately an exam to test academic competence; we have the National Physical Fitness Award and co-curricular activities to gauge non-academic qualities.

Teng Sijie, 18, pre-university student
ST Youth Forum, 28 Aug 2013

Scoring changes won't lessen stress

I HAVE three children, whose Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scores ranged from 230 to 281.

When our eldest child scored 281, my wife and I did not stress ourselves to ensure that the younger two would emulate their older brother.

This is because we realise that children are not born the same. And if all parents were to adopt this mindset, the stress level would be greatly moderated.

It is futile to force the issue - if a child is not academically inclined, no amount of pushing would change the status.

I find it incredible that parents take leave from work to coach and/or provide moral support to their children during the PSLE.

Most schools start preparing pupils for the PSLE from as early as Primary 5. So if the pupils are not up to it by the time the PSLE approaches, they simply are not. No amount of parental help at this point will make a difference.

Basically, the stress is created by parents.

In many cases, they are more anxious than their children. It is as if they are the ones sitting the examinations. Ironically, good pupils will do well despite the stress, and poor pupils will fare badly despite the lack of it.

Hence, no amount of tweaking the PSLE scoring system will lessen the stress. As long as there is a score and if it cannot be dispensed with, the stress will remain.

In fact, the introduction of subjective assessment elements will heighten the stress. The only way to lessen it is not to divulge the scores, as was the case during my time. We were none the worse off for it.

In any case, what is wrong with stress? It serves to raise a people who are hardy, resilient and have perseverance. Stress can bring out the best in individuals if properly managed.

Lawrence Loh Kiah Muan
ST Forum, 23 Aug 2013

Little advantage to changing scoring system

AS LONG as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results are determinants to gain admission to secondary schools, there will be stress, regardless of whether a T-score aggregate system or grades banding is used (“PSLE T-score to go in a few years’ time; last Monday). 

Since PSLE is, so far, the best way to gauge that our younger generation has indeed learnt what they are supposed to know in primary school, PSLE must stay.

However, parents should acknowledge that if a child is not academically inclined, then whether it is a T-score aggregate system or grades banding, the child will still not be able to obtain better results due to a change in the scoring system.

Many parents complain about PSLE stress because they want to gain entry into “branded” schools with not-so-good results. Parents should not assume that changing from a T-score system to grades banding would place their child at a greater advantage during secondary school admission.

If the goal of changing the scoring system is to reduce stress, the impact is minimal whether it is a T-score system or grades banding. Examinations will surely induce stress even in adults, not to mention 12-year-olds.

In fact, grades banding will create more problems because there would be an increase in the number of pupils getting the same grades. This would mean differentiation is more difficult.

The only way for less academically inclined pupils to be admitted to “branded” schools is through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme. Thus, increasing places for DSA is more effective.

Constance Chan (Ms)
ST Forum, 26 Aug 2013

T-score system spurs excellence

I REFER to the report about the effects of the change in the Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system ("Grade system means 'one subject can't save another'"; last Saturday).

While there are benefits and detriments to both the current T-score and the proposed letter-grade systems, the T-score one encourages excellence.

Under the T-score system, pupils can "make up" for a weak subject by doing very well in other subjects, but this would not work with letter grades. Proponents of the letter-grade system argue that it ensures pupils spend more time on their weaker subjects, especially if their better subjects are of a sufficient level to get the highest letter grade.

This places unnecessary stress on pupils, if they are constantly made to work on weaker subjects that they may be less interested in; they may even eventually lose interest completely. Why not let children spend more time on subjects they enjoy?

A letter-grade system also fails to reward pupils for being exceptional at certain subjects. Instead, it rewards pupils for being "just good enough" at all the subjects. This is likely to encourage pupils to study "just enough" to get an A and not put in extra effort to go beyond the absolutely necessary. It discourages excellence because performing excellently in a single subject does not count towards the final score.

Many say that the T-score system sorts pupils too finely. This would not be an issue if parents did not make such a big deal out of the exact scores their children received.

A child's self-worth should not be based on a number, and I appeal to parents to reflect this in their actions.

Seah Yu Fen Samantha (Miss)
ST Forum, 26 Aug 2013

PSLE T-score not the true source of pressure
From Marcus Hoh, Voices TODAY, 21 Aug 2013

The removal of the Primary School Leaving Examination aggregate score (or T-score) and restructuring of the PSLE system according to the O- and A-Levels, announced at the National Day Rally, fall short of my expectations.

The intention is good; I applaud the efforts to respond to parents’ varied concerns. It remains to be seen, though, how effectively these measures will solve a key predicament of our pupils: The immense pressure to secure a place in a good secondary school.

Whether or not aggregate scores are present on PSLE result slips seems inconsequential. So long as secondary schools’ main criteria for selecting pupils is academic-based, there will be pressure to excel academically.

As one who sat through the A-Levels, I can say that the consideration of the manner in which my results were going to be reflected on my certificate had negligible bearing on how hard I pushed myself.

After all, the main requirement for entry into the university faculty of my choice is, and has always been, academic excellence.

The removal of aggregate scores will prevent secondary schools from nitpicking over tiny margins separating pupils with similar scores.

How much will it alleviate the stress placed on our pupils, though, if little is done to restructure the results-oriented barriers to entry into secondary education, the true perpetrators of the problem?

Furthermore, with no aggregate scores, primary school pupils would be compelled more than ever to pursue other means of distinguishing themselves from the rest.

While some see this as an opportunity for our pupils to develop holistically, this compulsion to accumulate more non-academic achievements for their portfolio would erase whatever marginal improvement the new measures would bring.

Where pupils previously chased an additional point or two, they would be pursuing excellence in multiple fields to be ahead of the pack.

It would be an exercise in futility if academic competition remains as tough and yields as much pressure as before while competition shifts to other arenas. More importantly, our pupils would be bearing the brunt of any increased strain from juggling their pursuits of excellence.

Parents welcome less stress for kids, but worry about transparency
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 20 Aug 2013

PARENTS were all for the long-awaited change in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system, saying it would go some way to reduce stress, but wanted to know more about how it would work.

With the scrapping of the T-score, they asked what criteria schools would use in selecting pupils with comparable results, and whether this would lead to a less transparent system.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced on Sunday that in a few years' time, the T-score will be replaced with wider grade bands.

Currently, pupils are given letter grades for the four subjects they take. But when they apply to secondary schools, they use an aggregate of their numerical scores for each subject, called a T-score.

The problem with the T-score, which has been used since 1980, is that it sorts children too finely as it is based on how well a child does relative to his peers, said parents. For example, the one-point gap between a T-score of 230 and 231 could result in a significant difference as to which school a pupil is posted. That has led to an obsession over precise scores.

Under the new system, pupils will get a grade band, similar to how students get A1 to F9 for the O levels. These grades will be converted into points for admission to secondary schools. For instance, an A* could mean one point, like in the O-level system.

When contacted yesterday, the Education Ministry said it will be releasing further details of the new scoring system in due course.

MP Lim Biow Chuan, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Education, said the upcoming change may allow schools to admit students based on other criteria besides grades, such as their co-curricular activity records, testimonials and interviews.

MP Denise Phua, who also sits on the GPC, agreed, pointing out that "even Ivy League institutions do not use such narrow admission criteria".

Parents welcomed the new grading system, saying it would help relieve pressure. Housewife Janet Yong, 40, who has two sons in P1 and P4, said: "It's a good thing to move away from detailed grading, because now we compare marks, like 98 versus 99."

Some expressed fears though, that it could lead to a less transparent system. Without the T-scores, schools may have to choose from a larger pool of pupils and use more subjective admission criteria. For instance, if a school has 400 vacancies, but 450 pupils with four As apply to it, it has to decide who to accept.

Said Ms Cheryl Liew-Chng, 45, who heads a consultancy firm: "I prefer the precise T-scores, as it gives a clear picture and doesn't allow for speculation." She has three sons aged six, 10 and 15.

But Madam Yong felt that living with some "flexibility" is required, in order to move away from a system that focuses too much on results. "There will be some uncertainty but, as parents, we have to trust that the ministry will still allocate based on meritocracy. But we need to be told what else is being measured," she said.

Schools approached said the change was for the better. A spokesman for Raffles Girls' School said it would "allow for more holistic development of students". A Hwa Chong Institution spokesman said it would "foster greater student diversity".

Parents' attitudes, however, must also change, noted former Raffles Girls' School principal Carmee Lim. "Parents must realise that not every child needs to go to a top school, and they must focus on real learning. Children have other talents besides doing well in exams."

Reserving 40 places in P1 exercise 'a right step'
But it is not enough as alumni still get most places, say some parents
By Pearl Lee And Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 20 Aug 2013

THE new rule setting aside 40 places in the later phases of Primary 1 registration is a step in the right direction, parents said yesterday. But some complained it did not go far enough with alumni members still getting the lion's share of places at popular schools.

Others suggested that all 40 places should be allocated to children with no connections, instead of 20 being given to those who, among other conditions, have clan and church links. That will give those living near schools a better chance of gaining entry.

During the National Day Rally on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced changes to the Primary 1 registration.

Yesterday, the Education Ministry revealed that 40 places will be set aside for Phase 2B and 2C right from the start, and divided equally between the two. This guarantees there will still be vacancies in these later phases. Earlier stages give priority to children whose parents are alumni, for instance.

Housewife Stella Teo, 35, who intends to enrol her son in the popular Tao Nan School next year, said this "enables all Singaporean children to stand a chance of entering their dream school". She added: "Without this, it would be almost impossible to enrol him in the school under Phase 2C as we do not have any affiliation."

During this year's registration, Tao Nan, with 360 vacancies, had 49 applications for 40 places in Phase 2C. This phase is for children with no connections to the school, or who failed to get a place in the earlier phases.

Phase 2B is for children whose parents are school volunteers or active community leaders, or who are endorsed by the church or clan directly tied to the school. In this earlier phase, Tao Nan conducted a ballot for 41 places, having received 66 applications.

In Phases 2A1 and 2A2 - for children of alumni and those who studied there respectively - the school admitted 92 kids.

But Ms Teo added: "For more popular schools, 20 seats make little difference. I'd prefer for all 40 seats to go to Phase 2C, to give mothers who cannot afford the time to be parent volunteers a higher chance."

Banker Kathleen Khor, 37, who has two sons, shared Ms Teo's sentiment. She said 40 places over two phases means "chances are only increased marginally".

Parents also fear that the change will see alumni members doubling up as parent volunteers to increase their chances of securing a spot at a coveted school.

A mother of two, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Cheng, said: "The 40 places will come from the earlier phases, and that may mean balloting for alumni.

"Will this mean that more parents will volunteer or be active in the community?" asked the 35-year-old housewife.

When asked if the new ruling will encourage alumni parents to sign up as parent volunteers, Henry Park Primary's principal Chia Soo Keng said: "It is possible."

But the school has always kept its number of volunteers small, at about 10 a year, he added. Henry Park had just eight spots for 25 children in Phase 2C this year. In 2B, nine applied for five spots. In 2A1 and 2A2, 124 out of 300 places at the school were filled.

Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education Lim Biow Chuan said: "I'd have liked to see more places reserved (for 2B and 2C), maybe at least 60. But there is no right figure, it is an issue of balance."

He said he is aware of people who take advantage of the current policy, which gives absolute priority to alumni in Phase 2A1.

"There are people who have not done anything for the school, yet they sign up (as alumni) just one year before registration. They still enjoy the same benefits as other alumni who have made a difference to the school," said Mr Lim.

Acknowledging that the issue is tricky, he added: "Maybe the alumni should draw up its own criteria to decide who gets to benefit from the priority."

P1: New rule, new worries for some parents
By Pearl Lee And Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 23 Aug 2013

THE new rule requiring every school to reserve 40 seats for the later phases of Primary 1 registration has set some parents on edge.

Those whose children qualify for earlier phases worry that they are more likely to face a ballot due to fewer spots, while those who hope to volunteer at schools to qualify for Phase 2B fear that parents from earlier phases might seek to double their chances by joining the volunteer queue. And this could make it harder to sign up as a volunteer.

The new rule, announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at last Sunday's National Day Rally, requires schools to set aside 40 spots for Phases 2B and 2C to encourage a more diversified student body in top schools.

Principals whom The Straits Times spoke to welcomed the change.

Fairfield Methodist Primary's Chaillan Mui Tuan said it would provide a balance between "a healthy number of alumni members' children" and "new entrants to the Fairfield community". Principal of Ai Tong School, Mr Tan Yap Kin, called it "the way to go".

The move will largely affect highly coveted schools that are left with fewer than 20 places for Phases 2B and 2C, such as Henry Park Primary.

In this year's exercise, 163 out of Henry Park's 300 spots went to Phase 1, which is for children who have siblings studying there. Another 61 spots were claimed in Phase 2A1, which is for registered alumni members.

Phase 2A2, which is for children whose parents were former students but not part of the alumni, took up 63 places. That left just 13 spots for phases 2B and 2C - 4 per cent of total places.

The former is for children whose parents volunteered or who have affiliation with a relevant clan or church, while the latter is for those with no links to the school, as well as those who failed to get a place in earlier phases.

With places now being kept aside for later phases, parents expect a tighter squeeze in Phase 2A2. That could encourage parents who are former students to consider also qualifying for 2B by signing up as volunteers.

Already, most popular schools admit only a small number of parent volunteers every year. Some schools also conduct interviews.

Mother of three Gwee Tong Hong, 37, who had volunteered at Raffles' Girls Primary School, is worried not only about the increased competition, but also over how volunteers are chosen. "Maybe schools will give priority to an old girl or old boy," she said.

Parents also fear that many will rush to join the alumni to qualify for 2A1, which could see a ballot in that phase. Already, several parents whose children will apply for Primary 1 next year are bemoaning not signing up as alumni.

To be eligible for 2A1, parents must join the alumni at least a year before the Primary 1 registration exercise begins. That means the cut-off date for next year was June 30, six weeks before PM Lee's announcement.

Said manager Jinny Ng, 31, who plans to try for a school in Bukit Timah next year: "Now I regret... it's too late for me to do anything."

A committee member of a popular primary school's alumni association said she has already received appeal letters from parents hoping for a deadline extension.

"But the association can't bend the rules for them," she said.

Keep top schools open to all
Editorial, The Straits Times, 23 Aug 2013

THE changes to Singapore's education system, announced in the Prime Minister's National Day Rally speech on Sunday, are a first move towards a paradigm that combines high standards and diverse learning environments. Left untended, the lack of broad interaction in schools will over time be multiplied across society and lead to deep social divisions that society needs to be ever mindful of.

Seen in this light, moves to improve student diversity are as important as those aimed at checking the hyper-competitiveness in the system. This is why it is felt that the new rule on Primary 1 registration does not go far enough.

The rule obliges schools to reserve places from next year for those with no prior connections to them - to redress the existing imbalance somewhat between the children of alumni and those without links. This has to be addressed to prevent top schools from becoming enclaves of class privilege and exclusivity, and turning out another generation of Singaporeans who in turn will try to perpetuate their privileges. However, will the relatively few places set aside for "unconnected" children make a real dent in a primary education system in which entry to choice schools favours the children of alumni so heavily?

Add to this the proximity rule which gives priority to children from families who can afford to live close to some of the top schools and the less well-off might feel doubly denied. The goal of preserving the history, traditions and identities of schools through alumni connections is a worthy one. However, this must be weighed against the compelling need to enhance social mobility.

Similarly, the objective of broadening the criteria considered under the Direct School Admissions scheme deserves support. The inclusion of qualities such as character and drive would give popular schools the flexibility to tap a wider pool of applicants; offer children who have scored less than excellently access to these premier institutions; and nurture a climate of social inclusivity and mobility in the education system.

The issue would be how schools would assess intangible attributes such as character and factor them into the admissions system. Clear-cut cases of students who, say, rise above the odds might be outnumbered by borderline instances that could be incessantly questioned by parents. Worse, given the attitude of some parents towards getting ahead, will Singapore witness a day when character-building "enrichment" classes become the norm?

Parents and educators must not lose sight of education's broader aims. If everyone is single-mindedly focused on giving his child an edge, efforts to move the system towards providing a more rounded education will never take off.

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