Will changes to Direct School Admission work? It depends on how schools define 'specific academic talents'

SINGAPORE - At last the Education Ministry is taking steps to stop the misuse of the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme as a "backdoor" to top secondary schools.

Minister for Education Ng Chee Meng on Tuesday (March 7) announced that from this year (2017) schools will start moving away from admitting students through the scheme based on their general academic abilities.

During the debate on his ministry's Budget, he said schools admitting students under the category of academic criteria will instead consider talents in specific domains, for instance, in languages, mathematics or science.

In line with this, schools will discontinue the use of general academic ability tests to assess DSA applicants.

It is time that MOE stepped in to reclaim the original purpose of the scheme started in 2004 to broaden school admission criteria beyond PSLE scores. For example, schools can admit students strong in sports or in the arts even before the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

But over the years, the scheme has become a channel to secure places in the most sought-after Integrated Programme (IP) schools, whose students bypass the O levels. There have also been complaints about top schools using the DSA scheme to "reserve" not just the top sports or arts talents, but also top academic talents.

Those concerned about the lack of diversity in the top schools cheered when the DSA scheme was launched in 2004.

The hope was that the scheme will allow top schools to draw students who are talented in sports or in the arts. These students will inject more diversity into the student bodies in the top secondary schools.

But sadly, within a few years, schools and parents started gaming the system.

MOE said on Tuesday that of the 2,800 students who secured a place through DSA, about half were admitted to the IP. MOE also said that about 30 per cent were admitted based on their general academic abilities but going by several parents' accounts, it appears that in the most competitive schools, such as Raffles Institution, at least half the students they admit through DSA are "academically talented", including those from the Gifted Education Scheme.

Parents complained that many of these students would have gotten into their schools of choice based on their PSLE scores anyway.

They have a point. Clearly the DSA scheme has become another way for exam-smart, academically bright pupils to secure places in the premier schools early, ahead of the PSLE.

This contradicts the core objective of the DSA scheme, which is meant to give those with other talents a chance to shine.

MOE has said that Specialised Independent Schools and IP schools will continue to have "full discretion in admission" but said they too will be asked to move away from looking at general academic ability.

The ministry must ensure that the changes are followed through. Schools should not be allowed to admit students with overall academic ability and likely to do well in the PSLE, as having "specific academic talents".

If they continue to do so, then we will be back to square one.