Key players in jobs arena must change mindset too

The chase for grades will ease only if employers change the way they recognise their employees

Students from Nanyang Polytechnic's School of Information Technology helping visitors attending the polytechnic's open house to play a cyber security game that they developed.
Students from Nanyang Polytechnic's School of Information Technology helping visitors attending the polytechnic's open house to play a cyber security game that they developed. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

I expected parents to cheer the announcements made by the Ministry of Education (MOE) last week, but going by the chatter on online forums and the e-mails I received, they were full of complaints instead.

The MOE made two significant moves to shift the focus of children and parents away from grades and winning a place in a top secondary school to building aptitude and finding the right school, not the top school.

Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced during the debate on his ministry's budget that the new Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system - where pupils will be given letter grades and placed in "wider bands" - will come into effect in 2021. Admissions into secondary schools will also change and MOE will help schools develop distinctive strengths, so that when the broader PSLE scoring bands take effect, pupils will be able to pick options that match their interests.

Mr Ng urged parents to change their mindset, stressing that chasing after that last point in the PSLE comes at a cost to other aspects of a child's overall development.

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung announced the expansion of the discretionary admission scheme for polytechnics and universities.


Why aren't the highest government scholarships given to those who excel in the sports, arts or in fields like culinary science or information technology.

He said the aim is to help more young Singaporeans discover where their interests and aptitudes lie, and chase their dreams.

Many of the complaints that followed were from parents who feel that, with the new PSLE scoring system, the advantage their academically bright children have over their peers will be eroded.

A handful are parents whose kids are in kindergarten or Primary 1 and are already aiming for A stars and top schools like the two Raffles secondary schools and Hwa Chong, but feel that, under the new system, their children's chances of entering these schools will be less, as a wider pool of pupils will be able to meet the entry score for the top schools.

I called a few of them to hear them out.

One parent, a medical doctor who is an alumnus of Raffles Institution, said his son in Primary 1 this year already says he wants to be a doctor - just like his dad and grandfather.

The 36-year-old knows his son is likely to change his mind several times through the course of his school life, but says if indeed his son wants to become a doctor, he knows for a fact that his alma mater has produced the most doctors.

"So, why shouldn't I help him aim for top marks so that he can make it to RI? He is more likely to realise his dream."

Another parent, a father of two, picked on the fact that top government scholarships are all given out to students with top academic scores.

"If all these other talents count, then why is there no Public Service Commission (PSC) or President's scholarship for someone who wants to pursue the fine arts or film-making or wants to become an Olympic athlete?" he asked.

Yet another father said his daughter, who is in the Normal (Academic) stream, wants to go to the polytechnic and then to university and eventually become a school teacher, like her mother. But his wife, who has been a teacher for two decades, has urged her to consider another career - because she does not know of any teacher who came from the Normal (Academic) stream.

These parents raised some pertinent points.

Essentially, their complaints centred on the fact that Singapore society, including the key players who can effect a mindset change - the educators, employers and biggest employer of all, the Government - recruit, recognise and reward workers according to their level of education, the class of their honours degrees and the reputation of their universities.

Some parents wrote in about their children enrolled in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics and private schools. Their children were not top scorers in the PSLE or O levels, so they had encouraged them to look for alternative pathways, follow their interests and aim for specific careers.

A mother wrote in about her daughter who topped her diploma class at the private school, the Singapore Institute of Management. Using her diploma she applied for a degree place under the discretionary scheme at two local universities, but was not granted an interview by either of them.

Those who apply for jobs are hit by the reality of employers who make the first cut based on their grade point average and the university they come from and even their A-level and O-level results.

Even if they land the job, it is common for government agencies and even private-sector employers to have different pay scales for graduates, and to vary pay according to the person's degree class.

Parents have a point. Except for professional jobs requiring specific qualifications, like engineers, doctors and lawyers, other jobs should be open to anyone with the required skills and aptitude.

Another common practice that needs to be reviewed - paying those who gained their degrees through the private schools here less, even if they are recruited for the same position as graduates from the local universities.

Private school graduates who have the right qualifications and skills should be given a fair shot at civil service jobs - and those who make the cut should be paid the same starting salaries as those coming out of the local universities.

See if they prove their worth on the job and pay and promote them based on job scope and performance.

And the parent who raised the issue about top government and President's scholarships - he is right to complain.

Why aren't the highest government scholarships given to those who excel in the sports, arts or in fields like culinary science or information technology?

I am aware of scholarships given by agencies like the Media Development Authority and National Arts Council, but they don't carry the prestige or career promise of "the President's Scholarship".

Mr Ng, when urging parents not to over-emphasise grades, said it will take a "whole village" to change the way we raise a child.

He said MOE has taken the lead and made improvements to policies, structures and processes over time. But policy changes can go only so far. Parents and the community must make this shift.

But at the end of the day, students and parents are practical. They chase marks because they believe that this will eventually lead to a place in the university, good job prospects and a better life.

It is only when employers, including the Government, change the way they recognise and reward their employees, that parents and young people will give up the relentless chase for grades and degrees and instead aim to discover their unique talents and the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that come with hitting the sweet spot.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'Key players in jobs arena must change mindset too'. Print Edition | Subscribe