With the introduction of alternative routes to post-secondary education for students in the Normal (Academic) stream, more of them are taking up these options instead of going to Secondary 5.
Data from the Ministry of Education (MOE) showed that before 2012, about 70 per cent of the Sec 4 N(A) cohort went on to Sec 5. Sec 5 students take the O-level exams at the end of the one-year programme.
This year, 74.9 per cent of students in the Sec 4 N(A) batch made the cut for Sec 5. But not all of them will pick this course, going by recent trends.
Since the year-long Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP) and the two-year Direct-Entry-Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP) began in 2012, the proportion of students moving on to Sec 5 has fallen to 50 per cent.
Students in the two programmes - which are meant for the better performers - told The Straits Times that they had chosen these routes as these give them a better chance of getting into a polytechnic diploma course.
In fact, almost all students who completed the PFP and about 60 per cent of those who finished the DPP made it into the polytechnics.
Top N(A) students, who receive a score of not more than 11 points, with at least a grade three for both English and mathematics in their N levels, are eligible for the PFP.
SAFETY NETS IN PLACE
We monitor borderline cases in three ways: remedial sessions, counselling them and working with their parents, and giving them personal tuition.''
MR PATRICK PHANG, Singapore Poly's vice-chair for the PFP course
They go on to the polytechnics to do a one-year preparatory course that covers English, mathematics, and domain-specific modules such as life sciences or physics.
If they pass all their modules, they will move on to the first year of their chosen diploma course.
Each year, about 1,200 places are offered.
The PFP, which takes in students in April, took in its third batch of about 1,000 students this year, a number similar to its second batch. It had 837 students for its pioneer batch.
Lee Jing Hua, 17, who is in the PFP in Singapore Polytechnic (SP), sees the programme as a stepping stone. The former Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Secondary School student, who dreams of flying a plane one day, hopes to enter the aerospace electronics diploma course next year.
He said: "Here, we do a lot of group work and projects. There are more hands-on activities and small-group discussions. I'm doing well so far - I'm getting As and Bs.
More hands-on learning and project work
"If I were in Secondary 5, I would feel a lot more stressed because of the O levels. No matter what, the pressure of the exams is there."
Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Sheila Nabila Anwar, 18, who completed the PFP earlier this year and is now in the first year of the hotel and leisure facilities management diploma course, put it simply: "Why do you want to go through the hard life of Secondary 5 if you qualify for the PFP, which also allows you to enter a polytechnic?"
Mr Patrick Phang, SP's course vice-chair for the PFP, said the programme's curriculum is similar to that of the O levels, but delivered with a more hands-on and interactive approach. Students are also placed in smaller classes. "As a result, there's more contact time between student and lecturer. Students do more projects here too," he said.
He uses simple experiments to explain science concepts to the students and gets them to complete pop quizzes through educational technology tools such as Kahoot!
With Kahoot!, students use their smartphones to answer multiple-choice questions flashed onscreen, and the time that they take to do so is logged, which creates friendly competition.
Each polytechnic has safety nets to catch those at risk of failing.
For instance, Republic Polytechnic organises weekly tutoring sessions for those who have problems coping with their modules.
SP's Mr Phang said: "We monitor borderline cases in three ways: remedial sessions, counselling them and working with their parents, and giving them personal tuition."
While some students left the PFP halfway - the number is not available - the five polytechnics report an almost 100 per cent pass rate for those who stayed on.
Across the five polytechnics, 99.5 per cent of the 837 students in the pioneer PFP batch made it to their diploma course. Only one student in the second batch failed, while the rest are all in the first year of their diploma programme.
Students who fail the PFP are not allowed to repeat. They may apply for the Higher Nitec programmes in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), approach their secondary schools for readmission in the following year or take the O-level exams as a private candidate.
Like the PFP, the DPP guarantees students a place in a polytechnic if they meet the qualifying grade.
N(A) students are eligible for the DPP if they score not more than 19 points, with at least grade four for English and mathematics, in the N-level exams.
Under the scheme, students spend two years in a Higher Nitec course in ITE and are guaranteed a spot in a polytechnic if they meet the minimum grade point average, which is between 2.5 and 3.0.
Those who fare very well in the Higher Nitec courses in ITE that are related to engineering or info-communications technology may be allowed to go straight to the second year of the polytechnic course.
This year, about 1,000 students entered the DPP, which starts each January. The size of this intake is about the same as that in each of the previous two years.
The students attend a 10-week preparatory course that covers oral and communication skills and topics such as maths and business.
They then go on to the Higher Nitec courses, which begin in April.
A spokesman for MOE said "almost all" in the DPP completed the programme and obtained a Higher Nitec certificate, without providing a figure.
The spokesman added: "Around three out of five DPP students progressed to polytechnic."
SP student Andrew Tan, 19, entered the DPP after completing his N-level exams at Clementi Town Secondary School. He had scored 19 points for the exams - the minimum grade to make it for the DPP.
He said: "A few of my friends told me that the jump from the N-level syllabus to the O-level syllabus is quite big. I was worried that if I go on to Sec 5, I would not do so well for my O-level exams."
He was also keen to try out a new learning style that involves more practical work. He said: "I've always found reading textbooks very dry. I learn better through doing."
Andrew progressed to a Higher Nitec course in electrical engineering at the ITE East college in Simei, and completed it with a perfect grade point average of 4.0.
This allowed the second-year student to skip the first year of his diploma course in computer engineering.
At the secondary schools, principals and teachers encourage those who have qualified for the PFP and the DPP to apply for them.
At Greendale Secondary School in Punggol, where almost 10 per cent of its N(A) cohort qualified for the PFP, and 60 per cent for the DPP, principal Amy Ng said: "I always encourage my students to apply for them, especially if they already aim to go to a polytechnic.
"If you don't apply for them, you're closing yourself off to these options."
At Pasir Ris Secondary School, 76 of its 80 N(A) students made the cut for the DPP.
Principal Hilda Thong said that she advises her students to think about their preferred learning styles and what the various routes offer.
"Some students like the academic approach, while others may prefer the hands-on learning style," she said.