Two entrenched education policies that caused much soul-searching have finally been given a thorough reassessment. The way children are graded in the Primary School Leaving Examination and how they are assigned to secondary schools will change to reflect current thinking. Over the years, the policies became rigid and were carried to extremes. While the pursuit of excellence is to be lauded, an excessive focus on academic grades proved counter-productive. As examination scores, down to decimal points, could make all the difference in admissions to the most sought-after schools, a vicious circle emerged of harried parents and stressed children feeling pressured to focus almost solely on chasing grades. School choices became a matter of brand names, rather than matching the aptitude of children with schools reflecting distinctive virtues and offering niche pathways.
The system, to be fair, was tidy and transparent. Few could complain about bias or favouritism, since T-scores are pinpoint precise. The focus on academic merit also meant that bright children from poorer households had an equal shot at the best schools if they did well in their examinations, even if they lacked the resources to attend after- school enrichment programmes to hone their non-academic skills. The T-score, in a way, served as a leveller.
Yet, as many have lamented, the system also brought out the worst in Singaporeans. Parents made tuition a national obsession and some tried to game the system by moving near branded schools. Students began choosing subjects which were easier to score in, shunning supposedly difficult-to-ace ones like literature or geography. School ties were enshrined and priority was given to the children of alumni and to the siblings of enrolled students. Thus, better schools risked becoming closed, self-perpetuating circles. As the system ranked students' performance in relation to their peers, children learnt to compete unhealthily at an early age, egged on by parents. And they began to congregate in groups that were not sufficiently diverse or inclusive.
The policy changes, including the use of bands of grades, as well as some non-academic criteria for school admissions, and allowing schools to develop special niches, will go a long way to changing the way parents and principals, teachers and students value their time in school. The aim must be to nurture well-rounded individuals, with the confidence and curiosity of mind to keep learning, as well as the resilience to cope with challenges and change in an uncertain world. Parents must grasp how important it is for children to be comfortable with a diversity of interests and pursuits, as well as friends, if they are to fare well in life after school. Education reform will only yield results if parents get on the same page.