Look back 2018: A shift in focus for education

It was a year of change for schools and tertiary institutions as they pushed forward in the direction led by the Education Ministry to encourage a real love of learning. Through moves to expand admissions based on talents and skills over test scores, or value the work experience of adults in higher education, the aim is to shift Singaporeans from their fixation on academic grades. A new task force will also pay greater attention to the role that schools play in social mobility for children from disadvantaged families. The Straits Times looks at eight things that made the news.


More students were accepted into secondary schools this year even before they sat the Primary School Leaving Examination, on the basis of their talents.

A total of 3,000 Primary 6 pupils - 500 more than last year - who applied for places through Direct School Admission (DSA) received confirmed offers after the scheme was expanded.

From this year, all secondary schools can admit up to 20 per cent of their non-Integrated Programme (IP) intake via DSA, up from 5 per cent to 10 per cent previously. The non-IP route prepares students to take the N-or O-level exams at the end of their secondary school education.

This year, schools also removed the general academic ability tests that had previously been part of the DSA selection process for some IP schools. This was to move away from rewarding those with overall good grades to identifying key talents in specific areas such as sports, the arts or certain subjects.


An eight-member panel was tasked to find solutions that give children from disadvantaged homes a leg-up when they start school.

The Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce, or Uplift, headed by Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah, will look at issues such as school absenteeism and how to boost motivation and confidence in pupils.

It will see how to step up outreach to parents in less-privileged families.

The task force's work comes in the midst of an ongoing debate on social equality and the role played by schools in closing the socioeconomic gap.

Its focus is on children in pre-schools and the early primary years, as research shows early intervention is crucial for a good start in life. The panel has started to consult those in the front line of working with families, including school teachers, social workers, self-help groups and community partners.


Polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) accepted more students on their talents and interests this year, in a move to broaden admissions beyond academic achievements.

All five polytechnics could accommodate at least 15 per cent of its student intake through the Early Admissions Exercise this year, up from 12.5 per cent last year.

After this year's application exercise, close to 20 per cent of the intake to the five polytechnics for next year - or 4,600 students - is expected to come via the scheme, which recognises skills and aptitude, apart from grades. The scheme has been useful in identifying students who show interest in working in sectors such as early childhood education, nursing, social work or in creative fields.

A similar exercise was also started at the ITE this year, allowing the institution more room to admit students if they show potential in a certain field. Up to 15 per cent of its intake was set aside for this scheme.


Children attending 12 Ministry of Education (MOE) kindergartens were given priority to go to the primary school sharing the same compound to make their transition to Primary 1 easier.

As part of a pilot scheme, the children applying for admission to such a school were eligible under Phase 2A2 of the P1 registration scheme.

The change took effect at schools such as Dazhong Primary School and Riverside Primary School, and some schools saw a boost in the numbers who registered.

The MOE had said previously that about half of the children in the MOE kindergartens register for the co-located primary schools, even without priority access. Each kindergarten takes in about 60 to 120 children every year.


The Ministry of Education (MOE) reverted to having just one minister at its helm when Mr Ong Ye Kung took over Mr Ng Chee Meng's portfolio in May.

Mr Ong, 49, had previously overseen higher education and skills at MOE, while Mr Ng looked after schools.

Mr Ng moved to the National Trades Union Congress as deputy secretary-general, and was later appointed secretary-general.

Since taking over Mr Ng's portfolio as well, Mr Ong has moved forward with transforming the education system to one that is less rigid and focused on tests, building on the work of Mr Ng.

Mr Ong is a strong proponent of shifting the emphasis away from academic qualifications to skills and aptitude, and has made changes to school assessments and admissions.

He has also pushed the universities to provide more training for adult workers to upgrade their skills.


All Normal stream students could take their strong subjects at a higher level from this year, following a pilot scheme.

Lower secondary students in the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams may now take subjects at a higher academic level if they do well enough in related subjects in the Primary School Leaving Examination.

If students perform well in subjects in Secondary 1, they can also opt to take those at a higher level. They can take up to three higher-level subjects.

The changes build on a flexible subject-based banding system that has been in place for upper secondary students since 2003. The aim is to allow students to stretch themselves in different subjects according to their strengths.


The eight junior colleges (JCs) that merged into four were kept busy this year, with students and staff coming together to design new uniforms, crests and programmes.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) said that the new schools would bear the original names of both colleges, with the name of the older college coming first.

The four merged schools are Anderson Serangoon JC, Yishun Innova JC, Tampines Meridian JC and Jurong Pioneer JC.

MOE said the JCs had to be merged, for the first time, because of Singapore's falling birth rate. JC intake is expected to drop by a fifth, from 16,000 in 2010 to 12,800 next year.

Serangoon JC, Tampines JC, Innova JC and Jurong JC did not take JC1 students this year, and will vacate their buildings at the end of the year.

Some schools had homecoming ceremonies for students, alumni and staff so that they could say goodbye.


For the first time, Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduates could take up a new diploma that allows them to work and study at the same time.

The institution, which launched four Work-Learn Technical Diplomas this year, is offering 10 more options next year.

Students spend 70 per cent of curriculum time training on the job, which would be in different fields such as port automation technology, microelectronics and hotel and restaurant management.

The work-study course is meant to provide a skills-based avenue for ITE graduates to upgrade themselves and build viable careers beyond a diploma programme.

ITE plans to continue working with industry partners to develop more work-study programmes.

It aims to place 7 per cent of each of its cohort in programmes by 2022. If demand is strong, this figure could eventually go up to 10 per cent.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2018, with the headline Look back 2018: A shift in focus for education. Subscribe