PARLIAMENT: Budget 2019 debate

Parliament: Scrap streaming in secondary schools: Louis Ng

Mr David Hoe's poor PSLE results put him in the Normal (Technical) stream, but he later became one of the top N-level scorers. When he was not allowed to take his O levels, he wrote to the then Education Minister, who intervened. Mr Hoe then took his
Mr David Hoe's poor PSLE results put him in the Normal (Technical) stream, but he later became one of the top N-level scorers. When he was not allowed to take his O levels, he wrote to the then Education Minister, who intervened. Mr Hoe then took his O levels and is today an economics teacher at a junior college.ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

Subject-based banding can help social mixing, curb stigmatisation of Normal stream students

MP Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) is an animal rights advocate who opposes the culling of animals, but there is one sacred cow he wants slayed - streaming in secondary schools.

Mr Ng yesterday called for the system to be eliminated in favour of subject-based banding, to ensure social mixing and prevent the stigmatisation faced by students in Normal streams.

Noting that the Education Ministry replaced primary school streaming with subject-based banding in 2008, he wants the same system applied in secondary schools.

Although subject-based banding was rolled out in secondary schools last year and allows Normal stream students to take subjects at a higher academic level, streaming is still used to separate them according to their PSLE score.

Streaming was introduced in 1980 to systematically customise learning for students of different profiles, but there have been calls in recent years to scrap it.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said this month that while sorting students by ability has led to better educational outcomes, it may have come at the expense of students in the Normal streams losing confidence.

Yesterday, Mr Ng acknowledged that streaming caters to students' different learning needs and pace, but said the problem is that it is based on academic results. He said Normal stream students tend to have a lower socio-economic status than those in the Express stream.

From 2014 to 2018, 69 per cent of secondary students who received financial help from the Education Ministry were in the Normal stream, he said, adding: "We all know we hang out with our classmates much more than with schoolmates. What streaming has possibly done is to reduce social mixing and harden social stratification.

"I am sure streaming was not meant to divide our nation by social economic status, but we now see streaming does contribute to it."


What Mr Ng said about playing to students' strengths resonated most strongly with me. I think this will help the child to figure out what his aspirations might be, and find the motivation to pursue and work towards it, even if there are obstacles.

MR DAVID HOE, 31, a former Normal (Technical) stream student who is now an economics teacher at Eunoia JC.


Using figures, he showed the lack of mobility between streams and said: "If you are a student from the Normal (Technical) stream, you have less than one per cent chance of moving to the Express stream."

Mr Ng said the stratification continues further up the education ladder.

In the past three years, Normal (Technical) graduates formed only 5 per cent of graduates from public polytechnics and only 1 per cent of those who graduated from autonomous universities, he said.

Psychological barriers could be one reason Normal stream students struggle to move into the Express stream.

But there are Normal (Technical) stream students who have done well, he said, citing Mr David Hoe, an economics teacher at a junior college. However, they are in the minority, he added.

Mr Hoe, 31, scored 110 for his PSLE and went into the Normal (Technical) stream. He fell into bad company and took up drinking and smoking. But his circle of friends changed later and they coached him in his studies, Mr Ng said.

Mr Hoe was one of the top scorers for the N levels, but was not allowed to do the O levels. Undeterred, he wrote to then Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam - now a Deputy Prime Minister - who intervened, and Mr Hoe got to take the O levels.

Calling for streaming to be scrapped, Mr Ng said: "Our students are not stupid and should not feel they are or face that kind of stigma.

"We need to make sure their future is not decided by one major exam. We need to make sure that, like where we live, we don't have social stratification in where we study."

He added: "I know streaming is a sacred cow and this practice has existed for many decades. Members will know that I don't like to cull animals, but it really is time to slay this sacred cow."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2019, with the headline 'Scrap streaming in secondary schools: Louis Ng'. Print Edition | Subscribe