My son, who is in Primary 3, came home last week from the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) screening examination saying one of his classmates broke down and cried during the exam. His classmate was upset at how difficult the questions were and appeared to be under immense pressure to qualify for the GEP.
We have told our son not to worry unduly about high-stakes exams. The important thing is to put in the effort and try his best. However, it is unsettling that each year, we continue to put an entire cohort of eight- or nine-year-olds through a rigorous selection exercise just to identify a small number of outperformers. The GEP test is voluntary, but the bulk of Singaporean parents, bred in a culture of academic aristocracy, will want their children to get into the GEP, where class sizes are smaller.
Amid the pandemic, at a time when we are realising the mental wellness challenges facing our youth, we should consider doing away with streaming at such a tender age.
Some children blossom later in life. The authorities should also study and make public the profile of GEP students. How many are from affluent families, who can afford hours of tuition? How many went for GEP preparatory classes? How many are from lower-income households? I suspect the results will be very telling.
Even if we are not as reformist as China in banning for-profit tuition, we should at least clamp down on GEP preparatory classes to even out the odds a bit. And just think, if we cease the GEP, we could spend the money on classes like speech and drama for all students, so that they can develop their communication skills and creativity.
Perhaps we can even spend a bit more on sports, so our children spend less time in front of screens and get fitter. Yes, parents are responsible for some of the stress on children to succeed academically, but ultimately, the signalling comes from the top.
Sunita Sue Leng