Monday 26 August 2013

Stress and the Education System

Beware pitfalls of direct admissions
Expanding scheme is a good idea but assess character differently, address diversity issue
By Sandra Davie, The Sunday Times, 25 Aug 2013

The complaints have already started coming in over the education tweaks announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last Sunday.

Parents have had much to say about the changes to the Primary 1 registration scheme and the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system, but some of the strongest reactions have been to the expansion of the Direct School Admission scheme.

Mr Lee announced last Sunday in his National Day Rally speech that top secondary schools will take in more students from different backgrounds through the scheme, which allows Primary 6 pupils to secure a place even before sitting the PSLE.

They get in for exceptional ability in some academic subjects, or for their sports or artistic skills, among others. Now the scheme is being broadened to include pupils with "special qualities" such as resilience, character and leadership.

Mr Lee said top schools will seek out such children and primary schools will also nominate candidates.

Parents have raised many questions about this move and rightly so. As reader Lim Shu Ning pointed out in a letter to The Straits Times Forum Page last week, it is a move that is fraught with pitfalls.

She asked: How do we measure traits such as resilience and good character in children as young as 12? Do we rely on testimonials from teachers? Interviews? Then we have to be careful not to reward a child's gift of the gab in describing his good character.

Some are already speculating that schools will use the Edusave Character Awards introduced by the Education Ministry last year for students who demonstrate exemplary values and civic responsibility through their behaviour and actions.

Each year, up to 10,000 students are expected to win the award, which comes with a cash sum of between $200 and $500. Teachers nominate students, who are then subjected to a rigorous selection process.

I am all for signalling that good character is valued as highly as academic achievement but I wrote a commentary opposing the move to give money with the award.

The ministry said that similar to the other Edusave awards, the cash award is meant to serve as an encouragement, not to reduce character and values to a dollar figure.

I felt then, and still believe, that giving money with such an award may inadvertently end up raising children who expect cash for good behaviour. It can send all the wrong signals.

Now that this award may help a child get into Raffles Institution (RI) or Raffles Girls' School, it has become an even more valuable prize.

We know that there are many who have no qualms about doing some good work to embellish their resumes.

A few years ago, hospices and homes for the aged reported that during the December to March university application period, they see a rush of 18- to 20-year-olds applying to be volunteers.

The homes were glad to have the extra help and their elderly residents were cheered by having youngsters in their midst.

But once the administrators write the students a testimonial to attach with their university application, many of them are never seen again.

So although the change to widen the intake of students through the direct admission scheme may be well-intentioned, we have to ask if there is a danger of pushing children to do good for personal gain.

As motivational-psychology experts like Professor Richard Ryan from New York's Rochester University tell us, we cannot build good values and strong character in children by rooting them in short-term and extrinsic motivation. We can do so only by sustained, ingrained and habitual intrinsic motivation.

But having said this, I do support expanding the Direct School Admission scheme because there is an urgent need to slow down the social stratification occurring in our top schools.

But there may be a simpler way to achieve this: return to the core objective of the scheme, to recognise a diverse range of talents in non-academic areas.

The way it has been implemented by top schools, it appears to have become yet another route that advantages the academically bright students.

The top schools will not release their detailed figures but parents who tried to get their children into RI last year say more than 60 per cent of the 250 places given out through direct admission went to pupils in the Gifted Education Programme or those who excelled in various subjects.

Parents are right to ask why children in the gifted programme should compete for places through this scheme when by all accounts, they would do well enough in the PSLE to get into the secondary schools of their choice?

If these parents are right, something is wrong with the way the direct admission scheme has worked.

The latest figures available from the Education Ministry show that in 2011, more than 2,600 pupils, or 6 per cent of all those in Primary 6, secured places through the scheme. It did not say how many got into schools with the Integrated Programme but it revealed that 40 per cent of those admitted via the scheme would not have got in on their PSLE scores.

Flip that figure around and it means 60 per cent would have got into these schools based on their PSLE results.

The ministry also said schools taking part in the scheme are allowed to admit students on the basis of their academic and non-academic strengths.

I am not saying that top schools should not aim to attract the best and brightest. Whenever I meet foreign education journalists, I am proud to tell them that Singapore has the most successful high school in the world, "The Ivy League Machine" as the Wall Street Journal described RI because it sent more students to the elite Ivy League schools in the United States than most leading high schools in the US.

But the schools should really look into giving more places to those with non-academic achievements, such as in sports and the arts.

And another solution to improve diversity in top schools: move some of the top primary schools out of the Bukit Timah-Holland belt.

There are now eight primary schools - Nanyang, Raffles Girls' Primary, Henry Park, the two Anglo-Chinese primary schools, Singapore Chinese Girls' School, St Joseph's Junior and Methodist Girls' - all clustered in prime property areas with little public housing.

The Primary 1 registration scheme rightly gives priority to those living near a school, but when so many good schools are in wealthier areas, better-off children have an advantage.

This problem would be solved if some of these schools moved to neighbourhoods with a wider mix of housing types.

There is an urgent need to fix the social stratification happening in schools as it can widen social inequalities.

As sociologists have warned, students in these top schools form exclusive circles and hoard opportunities. They can grow up unable to empathise with those who are different or less fortunate.

The new moves unveiled last Sunday are meant to give more children access to top schools, and let those schools become more diverse for the good of their students.

The doubts raised by parents say the ministry and schools have to make sure that in implementing the change, they will not give rise to a new round of complaints of unfairness and unnecessary stress.

If not, a day might well arrive when we will hear people wishing for the return of the PSLE T-score, and a straightforward way of deciding who goes where.

DSA + PSLE = more stress, less transparency
By Clarissa Oon, The Sunday Times, 25 Aug 2013

Last Sunday evening, my husband and I cleared the dinner plates, put the baby to bed and handed his older sister our iPad to hush her demands that we switch TV channels to Dora The Explorer.

We spent the next two hours watching Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outline, among other things, changes to education that will kick in by the time our children start formal schooling. So far, I have heard enough horror stories about unending homework and exam questions that cannot be completed - much less aced - without drilling and tuition to know that school is several times the pressure cooker it was in my day.

With globalisation and technology reducing old industries and ways of learning to rubble and spawning new knowledge and jobs, the crux of the PM's speech for me was his promise that the education system would also evolve and give every child a fair shot at realising his potential.

The change to Primary 1 registration, though slight, at least mitigates the current unhealthy emphasis on family connections. Every primary school must now set aside at least 40 places - 10 per cent to 15 per cent of its intake - for children whose parents have no connections with the school.

Half of those places will be reserved for children whose parents have not volunteered and do not have church or clan connections. This is the group that truly deserves the leg up, since it includes lower-income parents who have neither the time nor resources to cultivate links with top schools.

The changes to secondary school admission are more contentious. The Direct School Admissions (DSA) scheme which lets pupils secure secondary school places ahead of their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results - based on their track record in sports, the arts or academics - will be expanded to take into account character and leadership qualities.

I had to do some research on this nine-year-old scheme, which was but a twinkle in some policymaker's eye back when I was in a starched pinafore. What I found out was that it offers Primary 6 pupils another route into a choice school.

This route involves going for selection tests, camps or auditions and interviews set by the schools themselves, which are free to recruit the students they want.

For the coveted Integrated Programme (IP) schools included in this scheme, up to 100 per cent of their intake can be "directly admitted" in this way, though last year, up to only half their intake came from the DSA.

The big question is: What does expanding the DSA mean for the PSLE? Why have two assessment tracks in the high-stakes Primary 6 year?

If my daughter or son go through all these interviews, tests and auditions and get confirmed offers from the school of their choice, well and good, they can relax when it comes to the PSLE. But if they are put on a wait-list, or get rejected and have to fall back on their PSLE results, they end up with two separate sources of stress.

From my understanding, there are already scores of affluent, kiasu parents out there who begin plumping up their children's resumes from pre-school and get professional coaches to prepare them for interviews, all to maximise their chances in the DSA.

I am no fan of the PSLE, which is at least half a century old. If it is losing its relevance as a one-time exam in four academic subjects that 12-year-olds spend the entire year gearing up for, why not revamp it substantively beyond the grading tweaks announced at the rally?

In place of both the DSA and PSLE, secondary school admissions should be based on one standardised holistic assessment comprising timed exams, project work and performance in an art form or sport of the pupil's choice, with different weightings attached to each.

The Education Ministry should conduct this assessment, not the schools, with the exception of specialised independent schools like the School of the Arts, the Singapore Sports School, the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science and the School of Science and Technology.

In my view, only these specialised high schools should be running direct admission programmes with customised tests and auditions, because of the nature of their curriculum. There is no reason why IP and other regular schools should be given discretion to recruit students on their own - they are education institutions, not multinational corporations.

When it comes to revamping the education system, ironically, the success of it in international rankings could well be its Achilles heel. Policymakers looking at data like Singapore students' top five ranking in reading, mathematics and science literacy in the last Programme For International Student Assessment may probably conclude, if it ain't broke, why fix it?

But education is about serving tomorrow's - not today's - needs. If we want creative thinkers and innovators, not just followers, then too much stress at a young age actually has a detrimental effect. Innovation and management experts all stress the need for "white space", time to lie fallow and recharge.

It is more white space in the schools, not less, that will generate ideas and build character and leadership. Twelve-year-olds need time to reflect on values and priorities. In that light, our alphabet soup of assessments could do with one less set of abbreviations.

No signs of end to exam stress
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 25 Aug 2013

I had just settled down at my cool, quiet office desk to write this column on Thursday evening, when my younger daughter called.

"Come home NOW," Maya wailed, loud enough for my colleague to hear. In frantic tones, she said she had a "long and hard" maths worksheet to do.

I knew that already, thanks to a WhatsApp group for parents in her Primary 1 class. One of the mothers had sent this message: "Hi all. Pls be reminded to do the math worksheet that they have brought back today and submit by tomorrow." Another mum had reminded us earlier about the semestral English comprehension test - also on Friday.

Oh joy, I thought, praying my husband would be free to take on the tutoring load. Thankfully, he was, if only for half an hour. He explained the bits Maya could not understand, started her on her sums and headed back to his computer to finish some office work.

Maya finished the paper on her own. We did not check her answers, to spare her and ourselves the added stress on a school night, when she had been up since the crack of dawn.

That was the second "homework emergency" in two weeks.

For two days the previous week, she had to stay home to do "e-learning". There were some bugs in the system and other mothers took leave from work to help their girls with their e-work. Being overseas on work at the time, I could not help until I got home, so Maya completed her work two days behind schedule - last Sunday.

As I listened to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech later that evening, there were many policy shifts - like those on universal MediShield coverage, more diversity in schools and aid for our pioneer generation - that renewed my faith in the future of this country.

But, ironically, the one announcement that affects my daily life the most left me yearning for more: the much-awaited changes to the pressure-cooker Primary School Leaving Examination system, that subjects children to homework stress right from pre-school.

Doing away with PSLE T-scores, Mr Lee said, would "reduce the excessive competition to chase that last point".

When asked if the PSLE changes would indeed make a difference, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said last Wednesday: "If parents' mindsets don't change, whatever changes we make will not have any impact."

As a mother with a mindset seldom in sync with the kiasu majority, I would be thrilled if more parents began to stress less about their children's homework or exam scores. I hold the rather old-fashioned, quixotic belief that children should enjoy their childhood, rather than be slaves to a rigorous after-school routine of co-curricular activities, homework and extra classes.

In my ideal world, learning should be restricted to school, as it is in Finland, which has achieved stellar international test scores to rival Singapore's, without exams, tuition, homework or a culture of stay-at-home mums working hard to propel their kids to academic excellence.

So will the new PSLE changes really help pave the way for a less competitive system? Sadly, I think not.

With an education system that still sorts children according to their abilities, parents will continue to stress, compete and hanker for their children to get a spot in the coveted Integrated Programme or Express stream.

And I don't blame them at all. For, even as I cling to the faith that Singapore's education system offers many pathways to success, I sometimes worry about going against the grain and not pushing my girls enough. My older girl, in Secondary 3, has no tuition.

What if, because of my insistence on taking the road less travelled, they never achieve their full potential? Would I be able to live with that? More importantly, would they?

I have no answers right now. Only time will tell.

Be more open in school, but not at the expense of rigour
By Liew Hanqing, The Sunday Times, 25 Aug 2013

The owner of a provision shop at Beauty World Plaza once told me that sales of rattan canes spike on Saturdays - the day parents take children for lessons at enrichment centres there.

As the mother of two young children, I cannot imagine a more unappealing way to spend my Saturday than buying canes while waiting for children forced to sit in a classroom.

What time would the kids have left for playground romps, leisurely brunches and pool time - in short, a childhood? And the canes? Let's not even go there.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's announcement last Sunday that the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-score would be done away with in favour of wider grade bands was therefore a welcome one. It will not change the grade-chasing mindset of parents overnight, but it is a step in the right direction.

Ideally, the stress levels of schoolchildren will be reduced, while they will have some latitude to explore and enjoy subjects they learn in school.

Openness, exploration and enjoyment are all positives in the education context, but let us not forget the value of academic rigour while we fine-tune the system.

For a more extreme example, look at the "maths wars" - a raging debate over the dominant method of mathematics instruction in American schools, which was overhauled to make the subject accessible to students across a wider spectrum of ability.

This "reform maths" emphasises numerical reasoning rather than the standard algorithms for mathematical operations. So children are asked, for example, to explore ways of adding numbers rather than taught the standard addition algorithm from the start.

Proponents of reform maths argue that standard algorithms are far too abstract and daunting for some. Opponents say the new method is simply whittling down maths standards, producing students who are not equipped with the requisite numerical skills for higher education. This is all in the name of making maths more inclusive, but at what cost?

Critics of Singapore's education system have long described it as punishing and emphasising rote learning, while failing to encourage novel thinking, particularly in subjects like maths and science.

There is a furore almost every year over needlessly difficult PSLE maths questions, and parents question the seemingly never-ending homework assignments. These are valid concerns, but while the Education Ministry strives to address them by tweaking the system, it must acknowledge that academic rigour is just as valuable as openness and creativity, and must be preserved.

It is this rigour that has stood Singaporean students in good stead when pursuing higher education, whether locally or overseas. Singaporean students in top universities worldwide regularly graduate at the top of their cohorts, while others breeze through - or even skip - foundation-level courses, giving them the opportunity to pursue other subjects.

Academic rigour also trains the mind and imbues discipline, and the ability to handle stress - attributes that all come in handy in the working world.

This is even more important in an age where helicopter parents are all too likely to raise a new generation of mollycoddled children who lack determination and resilience - two things you can't teach with a cane.

Grade system means 'one subject can't save another'
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 24 Aug 2013

WHILE many parents welcome the removal of the T-score for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), some now fear that pupils who are weaker in certain subjects may lose out under a new grades-based scoring system to be introduced.

Currently, secondary schools admit pupils based on their T-score, which is aggregated from all four subjects.

The main criticism of the T-score is that it sorts children too finely as it is based on how well a child does relative to his peers.

At the same time, however, under the T-score system, it is possible for a pupil to "make up" for a weak subject by doing very well in the other three. This means he can still get a good T-score with three very high A*s and one B.

This strategy would not work if letter grades were used instead, as they are in the O- and A- level examinations, said some parents.

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

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 then be converted into points for admission to secondary schools.

The Ministry of Education has yet to give details on how many points each grade will get, and whether an A*, for instance, will get proportionately more points than an A, or extra points.

The uncertainty has caused anxiety among some parents who said their children excel in other subjects, but may not do well in their mother tongue like Chinese.

Putting it bluntly, marketing manager Valerie Teo, 39, said: "You can't use one subject to save another."

She has two girls in Primary 2 and 4, both of whom are weaker in Chinese.

Some also pointed out that unlike the O levels where students can pick their best subjects when applying to junior colleges or polytechnics, the PSLE has only four compulsory subjects.

Kindergarten principal Jake Goh, who took part in the Our Singapore Conversation exercise on education, suggests one way to widen the options would be to let children count other subjects, such as music and art.

Housewife Germaine Chan, 39, whose daughter will be in Primary 1 next year, agreed that it would not be "very fair" for PSLE pupils to be graded like O-level students.

"But you can't please everybody. Some prefer a system using broader grades because it is less stressful, while those with smarter kids prefer the "finer" system - like the T-score - because it gives them an edge," she said.

When contacted, the Education Ministry said it would work with the relevant stakeholders on the changes. More information will be released in due course.

Still, some parents are glad there is a shift towards less precise scores. A parent who wanted to be known only as Mrs Ng said that using grade bands means "there's less stress to get every mark".

She added: "At the A levels, you also only have four or five subjects, and the banding system works."

Former Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School principal Lee Siew Choo said: "It is premature to worry now. I'm sure the ministry will tweak the system and examine all the downsides of any grading system."

PSLE through the years


PSLE is introduced. Pupils are only told if they have passed or failed the exam.


T-scores are introduced, but not revealed to pupils.


New pass criteria for the exam are implemented, and letter grades A, B, C and D are used. Pupils have to pass at least three out of the four subjects they take - English, Mother Tongue, Mathematics and Science. It is compulsory to pass English.


Grade A* is introduced.


T-scores are issued to candidates.


Direct school admission at the secondary level is introduced. The scheme is an alternative way for pupils to secure places in secondary schools by way of their talent in sports and artistic skills before their PSLE results are released.


The Education Ministry decides to stop announcing the top PSLE scorer, in a move to reduce excessive competition and stress.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announces in his National Day Rally speech that the T-score system will be replaced with wider grade bands like in O and A levels.

Working out the T-score
- Short for "transformed score", the PSLE T-score is the sum of the T-scores in all four subjects.
- It is an adjusted score that shows how well a pupil does relative to his peers.
- Because of the way it is calculated, it is possible for a pupil to "make up" for a weak subject by doing very well in the other three.
- It is calculated using the following formula: T-Score = 50 + (10 x (raw score - mean)/standard deviation).
- Raw score shows how good a pupil is in the subject.
- Mean refers to the average mark scored by the cohort.
- Standard deviation measures the "spread" of marks among the cohort. If the mean is 55, and standard deviation is 10, it would mean that the cohort scored 10 marks around the average, from 45 to 65.
- For example: If a pupil scores 80 in a subject, the average mark scored by his cohort is 60 and the standard deviation is 14, this is how it would be calculated: 50 + (10 x (80-60)/14) = 64.29

What's in a (school) name?

AT THE National Day Rally earlier this month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated the Education Ministry's goal to provide holistic education and create opportunities for all by making every school a good school.

Across the island, our schools are showing improvement with their pupils achieving better grades, and boasting achievements in co-curricular activities and advancement through niche programmes.

Alongside this growth, it is timely to question the use of the term "neighbourhood school".

Recently, I asked three junior college students which secondary schools they came from. The two that came from "top" schools proudly named their alma maters. The third replied: "Neighbourhood school."

When I asked her which one, she said: "You would not know."

Why does the term "neighbourhood school" exist, and why do their students shy away from revealing the name of their schools?

Many "neighbourhood" schools are, in fact, becoming "popular" schools.

Several top schools that were once in the city area are now located in neighbourhoods like Bishan and Ang Mo Kio. Students from these schools will say they are from Raffles Institution or Catholic High; I don't think they would say they are from a "neighbourhood" school.

Can we move forward now and encourage every student to proclaim his school's name with pride?

Leslie Raj
ST Forum, 27 Aug 2013

Ill effects of excessive competition

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech has sparked a lively debate on the Primary School Leaving Examination.

I was relieved when my two children qualified for top secondary schools after the exam. Little did I know what lay in store for them.

My first child's school required first-year students to own an expensive laptop.

The parents were not consulted about this, and the underlying issues of discipline in computer usage and respect for parents and teachers were not examined.

Now some parents are experiencing highly tense relationships with their children over laptop usage, and teachers are having problems with students using the devices for entertainment and social networking during classroom hours.

My second child's school started an exchange programme where every student was strongly encouraged to attend lessons in an overseas classroom to enhance learning.

My child went to Britain for 10 days this year - with the trip costing us $4,000. Yet, my child never entered any classroom while there, nor was there a post-mortem on the visit's usefulness.

In top schools, achievement is often sneered at, and not celebrated, because of intense competition between the students.

Top students in my children's classes were subjected to sarcasm and accusations of false modesty.

Also, my first child's school came up with a point system for classroom cleaning. When a class had to swop its clean classroom with a not-so-clean one on a higher floor because of an injured student who could not climb the stairs, there were complaints and no compassion was shown.

In striving for excellence, have we sacrificed our children's humanity and their ability to genuinely empathise with and respect others?

How about we focus on making every student a good student? Excessive competition produces unkind, mean-spirited and self-centred behaviour. Let's get back to basics.

See Thor Wai Fung (Madam)
ST Forum, 27 Aug 2013

Not 'branded' school, but great fit for daughter

EARLY last year, my husband and I were agonising over which primary school to enrol our daughter in.

The expected choice was my alma mater, a school with more than 100 years of history and yes, one of those where parents ballot fiercely for places every year. Also, it was more than an hour's journey from my home.

The other less taxing choice was Horizon Primary, a relatively new school - it had not even seen its first batch of Primary School Leaving Examination pupils - that was a 10-minute walk from my home.

Our daughter fell in love with this school when we went for its open house.

My husband and I were reassured by the fact that the principal and vice-principal had several years of experience in heading schools. I also harboured hopes that our daughter could have a higher chance of excelling in this relatively new school. So we enrolled her in it.

Since then, she has received an award that recognises pupils who practise the "seven habits of highly effective people" and earned a place in the school's "Hall of Fame". She was also given a chance to be a group leader.

All these have bolstered her confidence, which is important as she is timid by nature.

The way I see it, my daughter is acquiring skills that she will need in life, especially when she enters the working world.

She has also realised that there are others who are not well-off, having seen some pupils buying food from the canteen with assistance vouchers given out by the school. I doubt she would have known this if we had sent her to my alma mater, where many pupils are likely to come from more well-off families.

Her school may be a new neighbourhood school but it is staffed by dedicated teachers.

It may not be a school boasting past stellar results or a long history, but it is certainly one that best fits my daughter.

This is something parents should consider when choosing a school for their children.

Irene Louis (Ms)
ST Forum, 27 Aug 2013


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