A record number of Primary 6 pupils tried securing a Secondary 1 place in schools of their choice using the Direct School Admission (DSA) route last year, even as the Government is relooking the scheme.
The scheme, which grants pupils places in schools before they sit the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), came under criticism for moving away from its original purpose of recognising their achievements in areas beyond book smarts, including sports and the arts.
Over the years, parents have come to see it as a way for their children to enter the premier schools that offer the Integrated Programme (IP). These schools have been using it to get not just top sports or arts talent, but also top academic talent.
The DSA scheme, introduced in 2004, is being reviewed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and changes are expected to be announced this year.
In response to queries from The Straits Times, the MOE said there were 16,000 applications for places through the DSA last year - 1,000 more than in the year before.
In the end, 2,800 pupils were successful in getting a place through the DSA in 118 secondary schools, including the 17 IP schools that offer a six-year programme bypassing the O levels. The year before, 2,700 pupils secured places in 126 schools through the DSA.
Independent schools usually offer 20 per cent of their places, and autonomous schools offer 10 per cent, under the DSA. Those with MOE-approved niche programmes, such as football, can reserve 5 per cent of their intake for the scheme.
The MOE, however, did not give a breakdown of the number of pupils admitted via the programme for academic talent, and for sports or arts talent. It also did not give a breakdown of the percentage of pupils who enrolled in IP schools this year. However, the estimate is that at least half of the 2,800 pupils were headed to schools offering the IP.
Previously, the MOE said IP schools take in only half of their students via the DSA scheme, although specialised independent schools like the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science and those offering the IP can take in up to 100 per cent of their students via the DSA.
The desire of parents to help their children win places in top schools is among the reasons why the scheme has come under the spotlight in recent years.
Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said in Parliament last year that it is an "open secret" that the DSA benefits children who have more resources from a young age. She was referring to parents who engage coaches and send their children to special classes to prepare them for the DSA.
Several parents have said that in the most competitive schools, like Raffles Institution, at least half of those admitted via the DSA are "academically talented", including those from the Gifted Education Programme.
In announcing the DSA review last year, the MOE said it aims to realign the scheme with its original intent of recognising achievements and talents in specific areas, instead of general academic ability, which can be demonstrated through the PSLE.
One student who fits the bill is Ho Rui En. The Secondary 1 student had basketball to thank for securing her a place in Anglican High School. She said: "My PSLE score was a few points short of the entry score for Anglican High, so I am very thankful for the DSA scheme. It enabled me to get into my dream school and pursue basketball further."