The logic behind recent changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is sound. Pre-teens should not be pressured to compete against each other for a precious school admission, at the expense of a well-rounded education and balanced childhood experiences. Certainly, it's better for them to "focus on their own learning outcomes", as the Education Ministry put it, rather than on scores adjusted to show how they performed against others. After all, removing stress in education and an obsession with grades was widely signalled by citizens during sessions of Our Singapore Conversation.
Yet, the revamp will continue to generate debate over whether it eases or elevates stress levels. Such angst over exams will persist as long as parents continue to hanker after popular schools, equate grades with elite doorways, and believe gilt-edged degrees will set their children up for life. Wanting the best for their children, as is only natural, parents would do all they can to beat the system. Hence, reforms to an exam system alone might not overturn the be-all-and-end-all reality it represents to many. That would call for a much larger effort involving all stakeholders - parents, educators and employers.
Every school will have to be demonstrably a good school to reduce the anxiety to get into so-called branded schools. That can happen when human resource and other investment in neighbourhood schools help them to develop outstanding niche programmes. Every talent in a child must be valued and nurtured for its worth to be evident to even the most cynical doubters - often parents themselves, especially those fixated on a narrow idea of success. And access to every job and higher posting should be determined by a wider set of criteria, rather than a predominant focus on scores and paper qualifications.
It is with this wider perspective that the latest educational changes and those in the future must be viewed. These represent steps that have to be taken progressively to help more parents recognise that primary school is indeed a time for their children "to develop their passion for learning, grow in values and character, and explore their strengths and interests", as the ministry hopes. The focus should be the unique learning track of each child and not the rat race for places in top institutions. The PSLE is useful to objectively evaluate the best pathways for the young during their teen years. But to endow it with life-changing potential is to forget that it's the ceaseless learning journey ahead of them that will make the biggest difference to their lives.
It's also important to socialise children to work well with others, instead of competing fiercely with peers or operating in narrow cliques. Broader interaction in schools will make a crucial difference to Singapore in the long run.