We need to believe our children are more than just numbers

PSLE results day is all too familiar for parents in Singapore. The results and yearly sorting exercise of thousands of primary school children send many into states of mild panic, with careful analysis of cut-off points, school research, strategies for application and thoughts about what all these might mean for our children. 

We are still that tiny nation that's continually obsessed with grades, one that houses a booming home tuition industry, and an educational system in overdrive. 

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education announced what seems a significant shift from the current T-Score aggregate, which sieves children much too finely, to a PSLE Score system in 2021 with broader grade ranges. PSLE Scores will range from 4 to 32 - reducing the number of possible PSLE scores to 29, from more than 200 T-Score aggregates, said the ministry.

This is a move in the right direction and commendable. However, it is left to be seen how this might pan out in effectively releasing the pressure in the intense, high-stakes educational climate of Singapore.

Over the years, the T-Score has really sealed and defined our concept of education more than we realise. Many seem to have bought the idea that the score alone is a huge indication of success.

The T-Scores are also the way we, as a society, have conveniently learnt to sort, categorise and typecast the future of our children... all through a mere number. They have been given the power to cruelly differentiate - to sift the wheat from the chaff, the cream from the crop... For some, these numbers elevate. For others, they offer little solace.

It is the impetus for some to improve and excel. For others, it drives them to outdo competition and gain that definitive edge that is worth all returns in time and investment, judging from the size of the tuition industry here.

The T-Scores have caused the hearts of many parents to do curious flutter kicks and flip-flaps. In them lie glimpses of hope, pride, dread, doubt and fear. The scores seem to set forth a pre-determined course. These numbers are the aggregate of much toil, support and hard work. On their own, they have shifted family dynamics, routines and relationships in many households. 

They are also the way we, as a society, have conveniently learnt to sort, categorise and typecast the future of our children.... all through a mere number. They have been given the power to cruelly differentiate - to sift the wheat from the chaff, the cream from the crop, the scholars from the farmers.

For some, these numbers elevate. For others, they offer little solace. We have been taken captive by them more than we should.

Last month, community group 100 Voices came together to rally for a change of mindset and push forward the message that "grades aren't everything". Led by Mr Dean Yap, a stay-home father, 100 Voices is a laudable attempt to voice that there is success away from the narrow definition of grades, numbers and T-Scores.

The campaign seeks to share the stories of at least 100 individuals who can give testament to the fact that you do not necessarily need to be academically smart to excel in the real world.

These individuals, comprising both ordinary residents and well-known personalities, have personally experienced success in many different forms apart from conventional routes. The message is simply to celebrate our children's progress in multiple facets, wherever they are on the academic ladder.

How can we take a leaf or two from this ground initiative in our response towards PSLE scores? 

First, we need to understand and believe that our children are more than just numbers. These test scores certainly do not represent the entirety of who our children are and what they can become.

The road to education must be a pleasurable journey of sights, sounds and wonder. Its aim is to create a pool of cognisant, wholehearted individuals positioned to do better for society and the generations to come.

If we take education like a mad sprint to finish and as an end on its own rather than a means, we will lose many precious opportunities along the way.

Our children need time to pace learning, and discover where they fit in this rapidly changing world. They need space to explore themselves. The T-Score is just a signpost along the way on that huge journey.

Next, we need to have a broad definition of success. One that not only celebrates success where it is evident but also accords strength and value to making mistakes.

Failure is a wonderful teacher to which we give less credit than we should. Some people take the longer route, and like the proverbial tortoise and the hare, there should be no shame nor stigma attached to that.

Lastly, and most importantly, we must be careful that we do not let a number take on more power and significance than it should.

As parents, we need not take our children's grades too personally. If our children are struggling, we may reflect and question our own efficacy and philosophy in parenting or we blame their bad habits. Most times, our pride gets in the way: we encounter brutal attacks on our own self-worth while squirming to find the right ways and methods to parent.

Let's be released from this weight. Let's take the lessons and move on knowing that the true prize is not that medal or academic accolade, but the hearts and happiness of our children when they find their purpose and significance in life.

Let's have the assurance that if we walk hand in hand with our children, instead of always trying to push them ahead, they will find their way.

•The writer, a former teacher, is a mother of five who home-schools her two older children.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline 'We need to believe our children are more than just numbers'. Print Edition | Subscribe