Budget backgrounder: Direct School Admission

A primary school pupil trains with a coach, part of a growing trend as parents push their children to excel in sports so that they can enrol in a school through the Direct School Admission (DSA) programme. -- TNP FILE PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
A primary school pupil trains with a coach, part of a growing trend as parents push their children to excel in sports so that they can enrol in a school through the Direct School Admission (DSA) programme. -- TNP FILE PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

All secondary schools which take in students through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme will have to emphasise the importance of personal qualities when selecting candidates under a review of the scheme. These qualities include character, resilience and leadership.

Calling it "a small but important change", Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said during Friday's debate on the ministry's budget that this will allow schools to take in students with a broader range of abilities.

We look at five things about the DSA scheme:

1. What is DSA?

The DSA scheme was introduced in 2004 to give schools more flexibility in admitting students and to recognise talent outside the classroom. It allows those skilled in academics, the arts or sports to secure a place in the secondary school even before taking the Primary School Leaving Examination.

There are now 121 schools taking part in the DSA exercise, including Anderson Secondary, Raffles Institution and specialised schools such as School of the Arts.

2. How many students qualify for DSA each year?

About 2,800 students each year enter secondary schools under the DSA scheme. In 2011, for instance, more than 2,600 pupils, or 6 per cent of all those in Primary 6, secured places through the scheme.

Of those admitted under DSA each year, about 15 per cent get in based on their strengths, abilities and achievements in arts, and another 35 per cent in sports.

Around 15 per cent are from the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), but they are selected for their strengths and achievements in academic or non-academic domains, such as sports and arts, rather than simply because they are in the GEP, Mr Heng said in a written reply to a parliamentary question last year.

3. Which schools have the most number of DSA students?

The 10 schools that took in the most number of students through the DSA scheme last year are those that develop specific talents.

They are NUS High School for Mathematics and Science, School of Science and Technology, School of the Arts and schools that offer the Integrated Programme (IP), which allows students to go on to junior college without taking the O-level examination.

About two-thirds of these students got in through DSA because they excelled in academic subjects by doing well in competitions such as the maths and science Olympiads.

Another 17 per cent secured places because of their sporting talent. Among them, about 10 per cent had PSLE scores that were at least 30 points below the schools' cut-off level.

4. Why the need to review DSA?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally speech last year, announced that top secondary schools will expand their DSA programmes to take in more students from different backgrounds, and those with special qualities such as resilience, drive, character and leadership.

Some parents feel that the scheme gives a clear advantage to academically bright children, with many GEP pupils securing places in IP schools through DSA.

5. How will schools measure personal qualities like character?

Primary schools can identify some pupils with exceptional personal qualities, such as those who thrive despite adversity, Mr Heng said on Friday.

The primary schools will look out for suitable programmes in secondary schools based on the strengths of the child. Secondary schools taking these students will also consider them holistically during the DSA selection process.

Acknowledging that personal qualities are difficult to quantify, Mr Heng said these qualitative aspects are best observed through daily interactions in school over a period of time.

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