News analysis

DSA tweaks: Back to core objective - a chance for other talents to shine

Finally, the Education Ministry is taking steps to stop parents from using the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme as a "backdoor" for their children to gain entry to top secondary schools.

From this year, schools have been ordered to start moving away from using general academic ability tests to assess DSA applicants.

They were told by Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng to go back to the DSA's original purpose, which is to admit students based on specific academic strengths, or talents in non-academic areas such as the arts and sports.

Many cheered Mr Ng's announcement in Parliament yesterday as the complaints of "abuse" have been getting louder since the scheme was introduced in 2004 to broaden school admission criteria beyond the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scores.

The hope was that the scheme would allow top schools to draw students with talents that go beyond book smarts, such as sportsmen and artists. They would, in turn, inject greater diversity into the student bodies in the top secondary schools.

But within a few years of its introduction, both schools and parents started gaming the system.

Over the years, the scheme has become a channel to secure places in Integrated Programme (IP) schools, much sought after as their students get to bypass the O levels and sit the A-level or International Baccalaureate diploma examinations after six years.

There have also been loud complaints that top schools use it to reserve not just sports or arts talent, but also the top academic talent.

MOE said yesterday that of the 2,800 students who secured a place through DSA, about half were admitted to the IP schools.

It also said that about 30 per cent were admitted based on their general academic abilities.

But from the accounts of several parents, it appears that in the most competitive schools, such as Raffles Institution, at least half the students admitted through the DSA are "academically talented", including those from the Gifted Education Programme.

Parents complained that many of these students would have entered the schools of their choice anyway, based on their PSLE scores.

They make a valid point.

Clearly, the DSA scheme has become another way for pupils who are exam-smart and academically bright to secure places in the premier schools early, ahead of the PSLE.

This goes against the core objective of the DSA scheme, which is to give those with other talents a chance to shine.

MOE has said that Specialised Independent Schools and IP schools will continue to have "full discretion in admission" but added that they, too, will be asked to move away from selecting students based on general academic ability.

Giving schools the directive, however, is just the first step. The ministry needs to also ensure that the changes are followed through.

One way is to prohibit schools from classifying and admitting students with overall academic ability, and who are likely to do well in the PSLE, as having "specific academic talents".

If not, we will soon go back to square one - with parents and schools gaming the system once again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'Back to core objective - a chance for other talents to shine'. Print Edition | Subscribe