The decision to abolish streaming in secondary schools and replace it with a banding system in the next five years, announced in Parliament this week, marks a decisive break with academic orthodoxy in Singapore. By allowing students to study combinations of subjects at different levels of difficulty, secondary education will free them of the academic and social categorisation long associated with negative aspects in the push for educational achievements. The move follows the transition that occurred from the mid-2000s, when the Ministry of Education phased out streaming in primary school over four years. Clearly, the initiative could not have stopped there. Secondary schools would have to come next. This week, the changes, long-anticipated and hoped for, arrived.
The country has come a long way since it introduced streaming in schools four decades ago. Then, the bane of the education system was the high drop-out rate. Streaming has produced spectacular results. It has cut school attrition rates from about one-third of every cohort to less than 1 per cent now by customising education to reflect the actual learning rates of students. Unfortunately, streaming had unintended consequences too. Although it is not responsible for social stratification, it nevertheless gave rise to a system in which weaker students assigned to less rigorous streams felt a sense of inferiority that affected their intellectual development and social identity. Some argued that the personal costs of streaming outweighed its collective advantages and harmed a child's overall development.