Looking forward to 2017: Education

Bold policy changes but mindsets must change too

Under the new PSLE scoring system, the current T-score system will be replaced by eight scoring bands. The change aims to encourage pupils to focus on their own learning, instead of the competition.
Under the new PSLE scoring system, the current T-score system will be replaced by eight scoring bands. The change aims to encourage pupils to focus on their own learning, instead of the competition. ST FILE PHOTO

It had been a long wait but in July, the Ministry of Education (MOE) finally announced significant changes to the PSLE scoring system.

Pupils will no longer be graded on how they perform relative to their peers. Instead, the new system, which will come into effect in 2021, is aimed at encouraging pupils to focus on their own learning, instead of the competition.

The current T-score system will be replaced by eight scoring bands called Achievement Levels (AL), and the Primary School Leaving Examination score for Secondary 1 posting will be the sum of the ALs of four subjects.

The hope is that with the new system, parents will stop pushing their children to chase that last mark and, instead of sending them for tuition, encourage them to pursue sports or the arts, and nurture in them the creativity and people skills needed to thrive in a volatile, uncertain future.

But even as it announced the revamp, MOE said it was reviewing another key policy, the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme, which was also aimed at encouraging pupils to go beyond book smarts. The changes are expected to be announced next year and the new scheme implemented over the next few years.

The DSA was introduced in 2004 to let secondary schools broaden their admission criteria beyond PSLE scores. For example, schools can admit students strong in sports or the arts even before the PSLE results are out. Last year, 126 schools admitted 2,700 students through this scheme.

  • 2016: Notable events


    From 2021, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will do away with the aggregate score and pupils will no longer be graded relative to their peers.

    Under the new scoring system, announced in July, pupils' marks will be converted into grade bands 1 to 8, and their PSLE scores will be the sum of their grades in all subjects, with 4 being the best score.


    Aptitude-based admission for polytechnics and the local universities was expanded this year. This allows students to be assessed on a range of attributes and not just academic scores. It means more students can enter university based on other merits.


    Seven new subjects are set to become part of the O- and N-level tracks, so students can opt for more hands-on learning. These subjects will be rolled out over the next two years in over 60 secondary schools. O-level electronics and computing will be offered next year, along with three Normal (Technical) subjects - smart electrical technology, mobile robotics and retail operations. In 2018, drama, and exercise and sports science, will be added to the O-level curriculum.


    Earlier this month, Singapore's 15-year-olds were ranked No. 1 for mathematics, science and reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment, run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to measure how well students use their knowledge and skills to solve real- world problems. Last month, children in Primary 4 and Secondary 2 here topped another global mathematics and science test - Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

    Sandra Davie

MOE said it intends to expand the DSA opportunities in more schools for students with specific strengths, and also "sharpen the focus of the DSA" to better recognise talents and achievements in specific domains rather than general academic ability reflected by the PSLE.

Over the years, the scheme has been criticised for turning into a channel to secure places in the most sought-after Integrated Programme schools, whose students bypass the O levels. There have also been complaints about top schools using it to reserve the best academic talent.

So clearly, the DSA scheme has become another way for the 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. Hopefully, the changes will go far enough.

But the PSLE and DSA revamps are just two parts of a larger shift towards broadening opportunities for children to discover their interests and talents.

Over the last few years, several deliberate changes have been made at every level - from primary schools to tertiary institutions.

Results for national exams, such as the PSLE, have been released without the top scorers being highlighted any more.

More schools have developed programmes to nurture interests in areas such as drama and dance.

And the MOE is placing more emphasis on outdoor education. Under a physical education syllabus introduced in 2014, 10 per cent to 20 per cent of curriculum time in primary and secondary schools is set aside for it.

As part of a new National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan, from 2020, all students will take part in three cohort camps.

This shift is also happening in higher education. The polytechnics and universities are expanding their aptitude-based admissions, allowing students who do not quite make the grade, but show passion and interest, to get into the courses of their choice.

This ties in with the broader SkillsFuture initiative, which advocates mastery of skills over just collecting qualifications.

But even if the ministry shows the political will to slaughter more sacred cows in education, the shift to a more holistic education will not happen unless parents play their part.

I am reminded of the MOE's announcement a few years ago to replace exams for children in lower primary with bite-sized forms of assessment. Some parents went into panic mode and began buying up the soon-to-be-defunct exam papers of top primary schools.

Singapore's No. 1 position in international benchmarking tests will be meaningless if we continue on this path.

As former education minister Heng Swee Keat had warned, this narrow focus on grades and examinations could lead the country into "a spiralling paper chase", and we would churn out students who excel in exams but are ill-equipped to take on jobs of the future.

The bold transformation of the education system will need the collective will and action of employers, teachers, parents and students.

Parents, instead of focusing on grades, will need to recognise their children's unique strengths and build on them; employers will need to look beyond degrees and hire based on skills; and teachers should emphasise all-round development of their students.

And MOE must continue to adjust and even do away with policies that stand in the way.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2016, with the headline Bold policy changes but mindsets must change too. Subscribe