Tuesday 19 April 2016

PSLE revamp: Going beyond grades

Evolving the Singapore education system
The PSLE revamp is part of a larger shift away from academics towards broadening opportunities for students to discover their interests and talents, and develop life skills, a sense of curiosity and a love for learning. Experts say that while this is a necessary change, it will take time for the country to embrace it and move away from its preoccupation with marks.
By Amelia Teng and Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 17 Apr 2016

Pupils in Primary 1 this year will be the first cohort to take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and receive a new set of results.

In 2021, the national examination will do away with the aggregate score - often criticised for being the cause of excessive stress among pupils and parents. With the change, children will no longer be graded relative to one another.

In its place will be wider scoring bands such as A, B, C and D - similar to the scoring system used in the O- and A-level examinations.

But this is only the most obvious change to what has been a steady overhaul of a pressure-cooker system which has had a strong focus on marks instead of a child's holistic development.

Already, in the early stages of primary education, exams have become a thing of the past. Pupils are increasingly being encouraged to express themselves. Applied learning is in, along with the development of character and life skills.

At Primary Four or Five, pupils take part in a three-day cohort camp and learn to prepare simple meals, adapt to the outdoors, and build resilience and camaraderie.

In the coming years, primary school leavers will have more choice to go to secondary schools offering niche programmes in robotics, environmental issues, the arts and music, for instance, where they can develop their interests beyond the three "R"s - reading, writing and arithmetic.

As Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng explained in Parliament earlier this month when he announced the changes: "Let's help our children make good use of their time to branch out to explore other interests and passions and to pursue what they want to do in life.

"Let's help them make good choices about their educational and career pathways based on their aptitudes and aspirations.

"Let's help them to be ready for the future."


Singapore's education system has gained a reputation for being highly competitive and overly focused on grades and book smarts.

But this is changing, very deliberately, at every level - from primary schools to tertiary institutions.

Results for national exams, such as the PSLE and A levels, are released without the top scorers being highlighted any more.

Naming the PSLE's top scorer ended in 2012. The following year, the Education Ministry (MOE) stopped revealing the highest and lowest scores in the cohort.

While schools do still recognise their best performers - as a group instead of individually - they also celebrate the achievements of those who show improvement, overcome challenges such as a disability or illness, or excel in areas such as volunteer work and sports.

More schools now also include programmes to nurture interests beyond books, such as drama and dance. Manjusri Secondary School principal Low Chun Meng said: "With a better match of the child's interest to the school's programmes, the school will be able to develop the child better."

Schemes to admit students based on their non-academic talents have been introduced. The Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme, which started in 2004, allows secondary schools to admit students based on not just grades but their sporting and artistic merits.

This shift is also happening at higher centres of learning. At National University of Singapore (NUS), for instance, freshmen are able to omit grades of some modules in their first semester.

All five polytechnics and three of the local universities - Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and NUS - will be expanding their aptitude-based admissions, allowing students who do not quite make the grade academically but show passion and interest to get into the course of their choice.

Educators said the shift in emphasis is to help arm students with life skills. Old-school rote learning and memorising have given way to applying textbook knowledge to real-world scenarios and more current content. Language lessons and assessment now place more weight on communication skills to help students converse in English and mother tongues more confidently.

MOE is also placing a stronger emphasis on outdoor education. Under a physical education syllabus introduced in 2014, 10 to 20 per cent of curriculum time in primary and secondary schools is set aside for outdoor education.

As part of a new National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan, all students from 2020 will also take part in three cohort camps during their school years, including a five-day Outward Bound Singapore camp for Secondary Three students.


But there is a big caveat as to whether such moves will allow students and pupils to "not just study the flowers, but also stop to smell the flowers, and wonder at their beauty", as Minister Ng put it.

Will parents also change their mindsets?

Scoring well in the PSLE is a national obsession, to ensure entry into a good secondary school.

Some parents have taken extreme measures, from moving homes to enter primary schools which supposedly produce top PSLE performers regularly, to sending children for Gifted Education Programme training and enrichment classes from a young age to help build DSA portfolios.

When MOE stopped releasing the list of top PSLE scorers, parents on websites such as Kiasuparents put together their own.

The shadow education industry, or tuition, is worth more than a billion dollars annually here, almost double the $650 million spent in 2004. Some parents spend several thousands of dollars on tuition for their children each month, on top of religiously buying past-year examination papers of various schools, especially the top ones.

Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said: "(Broader grade bands) will not take away the pressure completely as the underlying mindset - that academic achievement is all that matters, that students with higher grades have a higher chance to enter schools of their choice - will take a long time to change."

Some parents, like housewife Lydia Tan who has a six-year-old son, pointed out that their generation was brought up with the idea that grades determine future success. The 38-year-old said: "Our parents and teachers would tell us to study hard, work our way into a university, and we would then get good jobs."

Added National Institute of Education don Jason Tan: "Many parents still think the choice of school does matter. So for those vying for the top schools, it's still about fighting for scarce places."


Changes to the education system go beyond trying to reduce stress on children. They are a response to the needs of a rapidly changing world.

A report last year by the World Economic Forum titled New Vision of Education said that to thrive in today's innovation-driven economy, employees need a different mix of skills than in the past.

"In addition to foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, they need competencies like collaboration, creativity and problem-solving, and character qualities like persistence, curiosity and initiative," the report said.

"In countries around the world, economies run on creativity, innovation and collaboration. Skilled jobs are more and more centred on solving unstructured problems and effectively analysing information."

As Mr Ng put it in his speech to Parliament during the debate on his ministry's budget: "We want to cultivate a generation of young people who grow up with a sense of curiosity and a love for learning... asking both the 'whys' and the 'why nots'."

This ties in with the broader SkillsFuture initiative, which advocates mastery of skills over just collecting qualifications. Part of this involves getting students to explore their interests and passions from a young age. Said Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung: "It starts with schools, laying the foundation for our young.

"Then Higher Education - ITE, polytechnics, universities - takes over to help our young discover their interests and aspirations, impart knowledge in them, hone their skills and prepare them for the real world. From there, a lifelong learning system takes over, where they embark on a continuous journey of learning, updating or even finding a new path.

"Along the way, they will persevere, improve and achieve mastery in their chosen fields, and maybe teach the next generation."

It is education not for the sake of grades, but for the joy of learning - a point that Singapore educators advocate.

Said Madam Sharma Poonam Kumari, principal of Changkat Changi Secondary School: "Education is moving beyond the transactional approach of sitting and clearing exams, to imbuing that love for learning. The future we are preparing children for is going to be very complex, and textbook knowledge will not always get them through."

Qifa Primary School principal May Wong added that when students eventually apply for jobs, employers "are not going to look for the person with the highest aggregate score". Instead, they value skills like teamwork and creativity, and traits such as resilience and empathy, she said.

Ms Phua believes there is room to go even further, suggesting that the PSLE could be done away with entirely. She said: "There may be a need to think out-of-the-box and try bolder models such as a 10-year or 12-year through-train model without the need for a high-stakes PSLE whilst retaining academic rigour, amongst other goals."

Still, she firmly believes MOE is going in the right direction with the latest changes, although she cautioned: "The devil of course is in the detail."

Exploring ways to learn outside the classroom
By Amelia Teng and Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 17 Apr 2016

Look beyond academic scores when choosing which secondary school to go to.

That was the call from Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng earlier this month, as he promised that by the time the aggregate score is scrapped from the PSLE, pupils will have secondary schools offering a diverse range of niche programmes to pick from.

This will give students a chance to develop their interest, be it a particular sport or art form, or pick up something new.

But will parents bite?

Or will they still pick the best schools their children qualify for?

Nearly every one of the 120 mainstream secondary schools has one or more distinctive programmes - through the Applied Learning Programme (ALP) or the Learning for Life Programme (LLP).

The first helps students see the relevance of what they learn, for instance in science and technology, or in business and entrepreneurship. The other is to develop character and skills such as teamwork through school expeditions, sports or the arts.

Moving forward, the schools are expected to increase the quality of these programmes, and roll them out to all their students.

At Riverside Secondary School in Woodlands, the creative arts come alive.

All Riversidians, as the students are known, are taught different genres of dance, including traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian dance, during curriculum time.

Said the school's principal, Madam Shanti Devi: "Our students have talents and abilities, and there must be space and time in schools, and in life, to develop these areas."

At Jurong Secondary School (JSS), sports are given a special place.

Students are expected to pick up at least eight different sports, such as basketball and volleyball, by the time they graduate.

CHIJ St. Theresa's Convent's focus is on girls' hockey, a sport it has excelled in since the 1970s.

Students learn it during physical education lessons.

At Broadrick Secondary School, the focus is on service learning, where students find ways to help the elderly and the special needs community, such as those with disabilities and Down syndrome.

Water sports such as kayaking and dragon boat racing are the highlight at Damai Secondary School, while Admiralty Secondary School's niche is robotics.

The Education Ministry provides funding of $50,000 a year for each distinctive programme offered by a school.

This works out to about $12 million for all schools annually.

JSS principal Ruby Khoo said the programmes aim to persuade parents to think beyond grades when choosing a secondary school.

"If a child is passionate about the environment and conservation, for example, then parents should look out for schools that focus on that," she said.

"The child would then have an opportunity to grow that passion and, over time, may find it is an area to pursue in life."

But it remains to be seen if parents will be convinced.

National University of Singapore Associate Professor Paulin Straughan said: "If the intent is to draw top kids back into the neighbourhood schools, I'm not sure if it will happen."

She believes schools need to concretely show how their distinctive programmes will help students down the road.

She added: "Parents are willing to try specialised schools like NUS High School of Mathematics and Science and School of the Arts Singapore because they see a route to university."

Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said the effort to build up distinctive strengths among schools is laudable, but worries if they end up competing with one another to be noticed for their programmes.

Besides, as Madam Dana Loh, 37, who is in the marketing line and has two children aged three and seven, said: "How many children know what interests them when they are just 12?"

Some argue that the academically inclined schools also develop children holistically.

Said flight attendant Shirley Ng, 44, who has a daughter in Primary 1 and a son in Primary 4: "If you can get into a good school, they will likely also have the resources to cultivate students' interests."

While Mr Ng encouraged students to choose schools which best suit their aptitude and aspirations, he stressed the key was "to give them time and space to explore different domains and learn new things", and to enjoy the learning journey.

How the T-score is calculated
By Amelia Teng and Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 17 Apr 2016

Short for "transformed score", the Primary School Leaving Examination aggregate score is the sum of the T-scores in all four subjects - English, Maths, Science and Mother Tongue.

It is an adjusted score that shows how well a pupil does relative to his peers. 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.

So if a pupil scores 80 in a subject, the average mark scored by his cohort is 60 and the standard deviation is 14, the T-score for the subject will be:

50 + [10 x (80-60)/14] = 64.29

This way of ranking has been criticised for fuelling unnecessary competition among pupils, who have to outdo one another to get a better score.

Parents split over ways of posting pupils after PSLE
By Calvin Yang and Amelia Teng, The Sunday Times, 17 Apr 2016

The scrapping of the aggregate score from the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) was a long time coming, said most parents who are glad that children will no longer be so finely segregated based on a few marks.

They also hope that the move to wider scoring bands in 2021 will cut down on excessive competition among children and parents in the chase for that last mark.

Marketing manager Bernard Ong, 34, who has a four-year-old son, said: "Many parents are so obsessed with the single score a child gets at the PSLE and forget that he or she has other attributes too."

Still, one burning question remains: How will pupils be sorted into secondary schools?

Since they will be graded on wider bands, more are expected to qualify for top schools, which already receive more applications than they have places available.

Applicants are now filtered according to their PSLE scores.

Mrs D. Fong, 40, who works in the finance industry and has a son in Primary 1 and a daughter in Primary 2, said: "How will we know which grades we need for which schools? And if many pupils get four As, how will schools choose?"

There seems to be two possible options. One is a computerised balloting system in which applicants are subject to the luck of the draw.

The other is to give schools the discretion to pick.

This could involve looking at a child's co-curricular activity involvement, volunteer work, leadership roles, character development and other skills and talents beyond academics, such as in the music and the arts.

It may also include an interview.

Parents were split between the two. Part-time piano teacher Joyce Wong, a 41-year-old mother of three children aged five to 13, said balloting will give everyone a fair chance of getting into a school.

"If schools start to look at CCA records or other talents, it will benefit parents who can afford external enrichment classes, which are not cheap," she said.

Besides, there is the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme which started in 2004 and recognises non-academic talents.

It has led to extra competition to put together a standout portfolio of achievements beyond grades among pupils who hope to join Integrated Programme schools.

These schools let students progress to junior college without sitting the O-level exams.

Ms Denise Phua, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, points out that the DSA scheme needs to be improved further "so that it will not end up favouring those who can afford to be nurtured from young to meet its non-academic eligibility standards".

It should consider the grit and resilience shown by students in overcoming obstacles, as well as those with special needs.

"If there is fear of favouritism as a result of subjectivity, then introduce a small panel as a form of check and balance," she added.

Balloting is already familiar to parents here.

It is used during the Primary 1 registration exercise when there are more applications than vacancies in a school.

But Dr Timothy Chan, director of SIM Global Education's academic division, wonders if parents will be willing to leave a key decision such as secondary school posting to luck.

"Will they accept an outcome based on pure chance?" he asked.

Other parents, such as freelance art instructor Nora Yeo, who has two children aged 10 and 15, prefer secondary schools to be the ones to choose among applicants.

The 39-year-old admits this may lead to more stress.

She said: "Parents are always finding ways to beat the system. They may send their kids for everything to stand a better chance."

Housewife Lydia Tan, 38, who has a six-year-old son, also prefers the schools to choose. "What if my child works really hard and achieves top marks, and yet can't get into his dream school because he wasn't as lucky?" she said.

Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng has explained that his ministry will spend the next few years developing and testing the secondary school posting system.

More details will be announced in two to three months.

However, students who had taken the PSLE said the move to wider scoring bands is a good thing, especially since future batches will not have to get so worried about a few marks.

Still, Secondary 4 student Ashley Tan, 16, said it would not have changed how hard she studied.

"I wouldn't slack. There's no guarantee that I would get an A."

Key players in jobs arena must change mindset too
The chase for grades will ease only if employers change the way they recognise their employees
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 17 Apr 2016

I expected parents to cheer the announcements made by the Ministry of Education (MOE) last week, but going by the chatter on online forums and the e-mails I received, they were full of complaints instead.

The MOE made two significant moves to shift the focus of children and parents away from grades and winning a place in a top secondary school to building aptitude and finding the right school, not the top school.

Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced during the debate on his ministry's budget that the new Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system - where pupils will be given letter grades and placed in "wider bands" - will come into effect in 2021. Admissions into secondary schools will also change and MOE will help schools develop distinctive strengths, so that when the broader PSLE scoring bands take effect, pupils will be able to pick options that match their interests.

Mr Ng urged parents to change their mindset, stressing that chasing after that last point in the PSLE comes at a cost to other aspects of a child's overall development.

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung announced the expansion of the discretionary admission scheme for polytechnics and universities.

He said the aim is to help more young Singaporeans discover where their interests and aptitudes lie, and chase their dreams.

Many of the complaints that followed were from parents who feel that, with the new PSLE scoring system, the advantage their academically bright children have over their peers will be eroded.

A handful are parents whose kids are in kindergarten or Primary 1 and are already aiming for A stars and top schools like the two Raffles secondary schools and Hwa Chong, but feel that, under the new system, their children's chances of entering these schools will be less, as a wider pool of pupils will be able to meet the entry score for the top schools.

I called a few of them to hear them out.

One parent, a medical doctor who is an alumnus of Raffles Institution, said his son in Primary 1 this year already says he wants to be a doctor - just like his dad and grandfather.

The 36-year-old knows his son is likely to change his mind several times through the course of his school life, but says if indeed his son wants to become a doctor, he knows for a fact that his alma mater has produced the most doctors.

"So, why shouldn't I help him aim for top marks so that he can make it to RI? He is more likely to realise his dream."

Another parent, a father of two, picked on the fact that top government scholarships are all given out to students with top academic scores.

"If all these other talents count, then why is there no Public Service Commission (PSC) or President's scholarship for someone who wants to pursue the fine arts or film-making or wants to become an Olympic athlete?" he asked.

Yet another father said his daughter, who is in the Normal (Academic) stream, wants to go to the polytechnic and then to university and eventually become a school teacher, like her mother. But his wife, who has been a teacher for two decades, has urged her to consider another career - because she does not know of any teacher who came from the Normal (Academic) stream.

These parents raised some pertinent points.

Essentially, their complaints centred on the fact that Singapore society, including the key players who can effect a mindset change - the educators, employers and biggest employer of all, the Government - recruit, recognise and reward workers according to their level of education, the class of their honours degrees and the reputation of their universities.

Some parents wrote in about their children enrolled in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics and private schools. Their children were not top scorers in the PSLE or O levels, so they had encouraged them to look for alternative pathways, follow their interests and aim for specific careers.

A mother wrote in about her daughter who topped her diploma class at the private school, the Singapore Institute of Management. Using her diploma she applied for a degree place under the discretionary scheme at two local universities, but was not granted an interview by either of them.

Those who apply for jobs are hit by the reality of employers who make the first cut based on their grade point average and the university they come from and even their A-level and O-level results.

Even if they land the job, it is common for government agencies and even private-sector employers to have different pay scales for graduates, and to vary pay according to the person's degree class.

Parents have a point. Except for professional jobs requiring specific qualifications, like engineers, doctors and lawyers, other jobs should be open to anyone with the required skills and aptitude.

Another common practice that needs to be reviewed - paying those who gained their degrees through the private schools here less, even if they are recruited for the same position as graduates from the local universities.

Private school graduates who have the right qualifications and skills should be given a fair shot at civil service jobs - and those who make the cut should be paid the same starting salaries as those coming out of the local universities.

See if they prove their worth on the job and pay and promote them based on job scope and performance.

And the parent who raised the issue about top government and President's scholarships - he is right to complain.

Why aren't the highest government scholarships given to those who excel in the sports, arts or in fields like culinary science or information technology?

I am aware of scholarships given by agencies like the Media Development Authority and National Arts Council, but they don't carry the prestige or career promise of "the President's Scholarship".

Mr Ng, when urging parents not to over-emphasise grades, said it will take a "whole village" to change the way we raise a child.

He said MOE has taken the lead and made improvements to policies, structures and processes over time. But policy changes can go only so far. Parents and the community must make this shift.

But at the end of the day, students and parents are practical. They chase marks because they believe that this will eventually lead to a place in the university, good job prospects and a better life.

It is only when employers, including the Government, change the way they recognise and reward their employees, that parents and young people will give up the relentless chase for grades and degrees and instead aim to discover their unique talents and the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that come with hitting the sweet spot.

PSLE changes will be no silver bullet: Ng Chee Meng
In an exclusive interview with Talking Point, the Acting Education Minister calls the over-emphasis on academics “a disabler” and tackles parents’ worries about the PSLE revamp.
By Yvonne Lim, Channel NewsAsia, 21 May 2016

The idea is to promote a more holistic approach to learning, but make no mistake – the impending changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system will be no “silver bullet”, according to Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng.

A true paradigm shift away from the stressful over-emphasis on academics would require parents, teachers, even students themselves, and employers to “move together”, he said, “so that overall, we create other opportunities for kids to have fun, to learn, and hopefully reduce the keen sense of competition”.

Speaking to current affairs programme Talking Point, in his first in-depth interview since announcing the PSLE changes in Parliament last month, Mr Ng said the emphasis on academic excellence would “always be there” and this was “a good thing”.

But, “it’s the overemphasis on academics that can become a disabler,” he added.

“Personally, and with many of my colleagues, we think there is an overemphasis on (academics), and that comes at a cost,” he said.

“I still want our kids to have high goals for themselves,” he noted. “But if we channel ourselves to go for extra tuition -- when I get … 99 marks you want to push me to 100 marks – then, I think we should ask ourselves: What price are we paying for the 100 marks?

“Can we afford our child a bit more playtime so that he may well fall down, scrape his knees, but he would learn the skills to pick himself up, grow in character and tenacity and resilience? All those are what I call tacit learning, and what makes a complete person,” said Mr Ng.

Come 2021, PSLE T-scores will be replaced by wider scoring bands, similar to what is used for the O-level and A-level exams. This is meant to temper the unhealthy competition that has arisen from a scoring system that ranks students relative to how their peers perform.

The move to a banding system would let a child “know exactly what he has achieved at the end of Primary Six - not relative to somebody, but according to a professionally set standard”, said Mr Ng.

The impending changes to the education system, including the review of the Direction School Admission scheme, will be discussed in the May 26 episode of Talking Point, which airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 at 9.30pm.


One of the burning questions among parents has been about what happens to the Secondary One posting system – with the broader banding system, would schools look to other factors in deciding admissions?

Said Mr Ng: “I know there has been discussion in the public domain, whether there would be new measures of co-curricular activities, character and all the different possibilities. Well it won’t be like that.

“It would be academically based on merit, but it would be fair and transparent,” he said, reiterating his words in Parliament. More details are expected to be announced soon.

Under the refined posting system, he added: “I would like our parents and our students to exercise more deliberation in choosing their school, so that the school would be a good fit” with the child’s area of interest or passion.

Currently, secondary schools are busy developing their individual niches in applied-learning areas ranging from film-making to environmentalism to robotics.

Another burning question among parents – why wait till 2021 to implement the PSLE changes, which will affect this year’s Primary One cohort? The revamp was first mooted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2013.

Mr Ng repeated that this was to give time for schools to adjust and become “well versed” in the scoring changes.

“Most importantly, for the parents and students to understand the system completely so that anxieties would not be overwhelming, and … for secondary schools to have the chance to develop their niche,” he added.


Mr Ng was also asked about a prevalent view among parents – that the school curriculum was a key source of stress that drove some to seek tuition for their children. So is it the system that has to change before mindsets do?

The Minister acknowledged that it was a “multiplex issue” for which he had no easy answer. He noted that the Education Ministry had taken the first steps to de-emphasise school rankings, for instance, but moving forward would take collaboration among parents, students, educators and employers.

“It’s not a cause-effect outcome. It’s more of each stakeholder coming together, creating a virtuous cycle of reinforcement and moving away from old emphases,” he said.

“I need employers to not just value the diploma or the university certification; I need employers to reward workers with skills. I need our principals to understand that teachers have wide responsibilities, and some really go beyond their call of duty in helping students that is not seen,” said Mr Ng.

Some of the things that are important – such as character and initiative – are not so easily measured, he noted.

But that is why the ministry is rolling out more outdoor education programmes, to nurture ruggedness, tenacity, collaboration and leadership skills. From 2020, all students will participate in three cohort camps by the end of secondary school, including at Outward Bound Singapore.

Said Mr Ng: “Some things can be taught, but many other things need to be taught, experienced, re-learnt, learnt again, so that it becomes part of you.

“And I think the direction we are taking, with academic emphasis, outdoor education and value inculcation, is about the right balance.”


New PSLE scoring system and changes to Secondary 1 Posting from 2021
PSLE grading system set to change amid broad reforms; T-score to be removed from 2021

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