For parents with children that are 12 year old this must be a period of anxiety as the PSLE starts this week.
When I took the PLSE many years ago, students only had pass/fail results. There was no score. The better students were broadly identified as belonging to the top 8% - I was not one of them and it didn't really matter. Many of the students in the top 8% chose to go to average secondary schools so you get a mix of good and bad students in the same secondary school - you sometimes have both good and not so good students in the same class. Today we differentiate primary school right down to the fine resolution of 1 in 300 points. You pass by a tuition center these days and you will notice they put up a list of top students - score of 280 for the top student...anything below 250 and you won't get on anybody's list. Competition starts young and differentiation starts young. Using their PSLE and reference entrance score from past years students usually choose the best ranked secondary school possible with their score. In the secondary school the students will again be sorted .with the best students going to the best class and so on. By the time the student walks into his first class in secondary school - every thing is sorted out based on PLSE scores. You have the best class in the best school and the bottom class in the worst secondary school. Other than differentiation using PSLE scores, we have NUS High which picks out gifted students so they can get out of the regular system and be educated in NUS High for direct entry into NUS.
What we have done is intensify the competition between people at an early age and accentuate the difference in outcomes for these people - the NUS High gives the best training and highest quality of education to those who make it there and neighborhood schools typically get the average teachers teaching unmotivated students who discourage each other from doing well.
Our current president, Dr. Tony Tan, completel his primary school education 60 years ago chose to go to a lesser known less prestigious secondary school called St Patrick's Secondary School rather than Raffles Institution like the rest of the presidential candidates. I thought that was a selling point he could have used in his campaign because he would have mixed, mingled and made friends with children who later move on to various strata of our society. We did not have so much differentiation of children at a young age and in a typical secondary school you would find a good mix of students. Today's system is completely different.
Our education system has turned into the great sieve machine and it sorts students obsessively. Once every few years we get 12 year old children leaving the exam hall crying because the maths paper is so difficult they couldn't do many of the difficult questions[Link] - if you pick up a PSLE maths paper, I think many of you will be baffled by the some of the questions. All this to try to differentiate between students so some will get A* and others just A.
We should really roll back to the basics and ask ourselves what is the purpose of an education system? Is the main purpose just to sort students based on exam scores? What happened to the joys of learning? What happens to childhood and friendship? Is it healthy to put students through such intense competition at such a young age? What does such a system achieve at the end of the day?
Strangely, after putting our own children through such a tough education system, the govt is very happy to have foreigners from England, Australia and Phillipines take up some our best jobs. It looks like the tough education system does not give you too much of an edge when you join the workforce. Based on what was reported in WikiLeaks, the govt does not even encourage all Singaporeans to reach their full academic potential if they are able to get degrees. So what does all this energy and time spent on doing well for exams achieve for our society as a whole? For individuals it is very clear, you try to beat the others to get into better schools and later on scholarships that lead to opportunities in govt and SAF. But collectively will our society do better with such a system when it comes to differentiating oiurselves from economic competitors and giving our people a better quality of life?
Many Singaporeans being in this type of system for so long can't even imagine that there other forms of education system that work well. If I suggest we go back to the system of my time when students are just award a pass grade instead when they clear their PSLE exams, I'm sure many parents will say that system is no good because it doesn't help their children get ahead of others and secure the best secondary schools and so on. Singaporeans have come to believe competition is inevitable and intense competition is unavoidable.
To understand the alternatives, we have to look at systems that work well and are at the other end of the spectrum.
"The basic compulsory educational system in Finland is the nine-year comprehensive school (Finnish peruskoulu, Swedish grundskola, "basic school"), for which school attendance is mandatory (homeschooling is allowed, but rare). There are no "gifted" programs, and the more able children are expected to help those who are slower to catch on." - Wikipedia, Finland's Education System[Link]
The number one education system in the world is the Finnish education system - an egalitarian system in which tremendous effort to taken to provide high quality pre-school to everyone. Contrast that with Singapore's approach where pre-school is not compulsory and poor students skip pre-school while richer parents send their children for pre-school that cost $20K per annum. Our govt's idea of levelling the playing field is to give some poor students 1 month of pre-school that cost their parents $10 (read Stark contrast between pre-school.education of the rich and the poor...). Richer Singaporeans would even buy property next to a prestigious primary school known for training students to get good results so their children have better odds of getting into these schools.
"The Fins adamantly oppose any form of divisions or ranking, and 'advanced' or 'elite' divisions are major taboos. Separation into different classes is also not practiced in the system. Heidi, a 28 year-old employee at the University of Helsinki, recalls that she was good at math in primary and middle school, but the teacher never praised her work in front of anyone else, only stealthily handing her more advanced texts to read on her own." - Secrets to Finland's World Topping Education System
In Singapore's elitist system where the best resources are allocated to the best exam-scoring students who later on secure the precious prestigious overseas scholarships and later on the best jobs and opportunities in the SAF and civil service. This system elevate the importance of exams over learning, amplify the inequality in our society and emphasizes competition over co-operation.
The strength of a society is build on the arms of the strong pulling up the weak so that no one is left behind. Children at 12 should have a childhood spending time making friends, cultivating the love of learning, learning to help one another and building core values....much of these important developments fall into the background when young children believe that they are better than someone else because he scored 10 marks higher for the PSLE. All the energy we spend to sort our students then later allocating disproportionate resources to a small number identified as the elite weakens what can really make us competitive - a cohesive workforce able to work closely as a team and not individuals perpetually trying to get ahead by breaking away from others. The one reason the MOE gives for all this sorting and sieving is they want to best develop each student based on their ability. If you believe that you have to believe that neighborhood schools like Bedok Green Secondary have better teachers than ACS(I) or Raffles Institution because they have weaker students that need better teachers to guide. The Finnish approach is to put everyone in the same school and teach the material at a pace that everyone can learn and give additional attention to those who are slower. If we want a cohesive society, we have to start with the young and teach them that to work to help each rather than against each other.