Parliament: PSLE doesn't cast in stone what students can achieve in life but removing it not the way to go, says Ng Chee Meng

Lakeside Primary School pupils waiting to collect their PSLE results on Nov 24, 2017. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - There was another call to remove the high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) from Singapore's education system.

But Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng on Monday (March 5) rejected this proposal, arguing that this would only transfer the pressure on parents and students to other parts of the education system. Speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget, he also described the PSLE as a "useful checkpoint" at the end of primary school, which gives a gauge of each child's academic strengths and helps guide the child to a suitable academic programme in secondary school.

Yet, the PSLE does not cast in stone what students can achieve in school and their future, added Mr Ng, who was responding to a suggestion from Ms Denise Phua's (Jalan Besar GRC) of piloting no-PSLE through-train schools.

Ms Phua, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said that hot-button issues like high-stake exams and tuition still exist, and she has received feedback on the perceived over-emphasis on academic success.

The PSLE is one "sacred cow", she said, describing it as a "structural thorn in the flesh of the system" that needs to be removed.

"There are highly respected education systems globally which do not sort students at the age of 12," she said.

She went on to ask: "If we have improved in dealing with these hot buttons, why do many parents, students and educators still fret incessantly over them? Could it be that it is insufficient to simply tweak the system through changes such as PSLE banding instead of T-scores; by allowing subject combinations instead of removing the labels of Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) and special schools?"

"Are we merely rearranging the chairs on the deck and not making deep enough changes?"

Workers' Party Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) said that despite MOE's increasing focus on holistic education, the unhealthy obsession with academic competition is entrenched among parents, with anxiety growing in the face of globalisation and technological disruption. He urged the ministry to "not stop completing the transformation of the system despite these diehard habits".

Citing a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which showed that anxiety among students here was higher than the OECD average, he asked if MOE could conduct its own study on primary and pre-school children. The ministry could also educate parents on the many pathways to success so they are less anxious, he suggested. Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung also said that parents can also help children learn, by taking a step back sometimes.

"Perhaps one of the best things we as parents can do for our children is to know when to let go, and what to let go of," he said. "By ensuring that they are so well-taken care of, does it help them or are we inadvertently blunting their abilities to adapt?"

Recounting how he taught his daughter to cycle, he said: "I learnt that a young girl cannot learn how to balance with an overly-protective dad holding the back of the bike. I had to let go. Eventually when my running cannot keep up with her peddling, I did, and off she goes.

"She learnt how to cycle, I learnt how to let go."

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