When Secondary 3 student Nicole Tan received her Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results in 2014, she was disappointed.
She had obtained a C for Mathematics, and was admitted into the Normal (Academic) stream at Pei Hwa Secondary School.
But Nicole, 14, worked hard, and eventually accepted an offer to take Mathematics at the Express level in Sec 2 - which posed its own set of challenges. She said: "I needed to catch up on the Sec 1 Express syllabus while working on Sec 2 work."
However, she persevered, and would stay back after school to study with friends who were also taking the subject at Express level.
Said Nicole's Sec 2 Mathematics teacher Huang Weiqiang: "Nicole is very self-directed, and she knows what she wants. It's not easy at the beginning, switching from N(A) to Express, but she worked very hard and her grades went up."
Nicole transferred to the Express stream this year, after doing well in her Sec 2 year-end exams.
Average number of N(A) students a year who took at least one higher-level subject from the start of Sec 1, across 12 schools.
Average number of N(T) students a year who took at least one higher-level subject from the start of Sec 1, across 12 schools.
Her school is one of 12 secondary schools which, since 2014, have participated in a pilot scheme that allows lower-secondary students from the N(A) and N(T) streams to take subjects at a higher academic level.
More flexibility for students
Subject-Based Banding (SBB) is a flexible banding system that has been in place for upper secondary students since 2003.
Normal (Technical) students are allowed to offer Normal (Academic) subjects if they are assessed to be suitable, while Normal (Academic) students can take O-level subjects at Secondary 4.
The new scheme, piloted in 12 secondary schools in 2014, and to be offered by next year in all secondary schools offering the N(A) and N(T) courses, builds on the existing SBB system so as to provide greater flexibility for lower-secondary students.
Toh Wen Li
This will be extended to all secondary schools offering the N(A) and N(T) courses by next year.
The scheme builds on the idea of Subject-Based Banding (SBB), which allows students to take up subjects at varying levels, depending on their strengths. This is "a refinement to the streaming process to help each child realise his potential", said the Ministry of Education on its website.
Under the scheme, students from the N(A) and N(T) streams who score at least an A for English, Mathematics, Science or mother tongue at the PSLE can study the corresponding subjects at the Express level.
Students in the N(T) course who score B or C in a standard PSLE subject or 1 in a Foundation subject could take the subject one level higher, at the N(A) level. If they do well in their subjects after starting Sec 1, they may be able to take subjects at a higher level.
For the 12 schools, about half of the N(A) students and 70 per cent of those in N(T) took at least one higher-level subject from the start of Sec 1. This means, in all, about 400 N(A) students and 300 N(T) students did so each year.
Most of the first batch of Sec 1 students taking higher-level subjects in 2014 continued taking at least one higher-level subject in Sec 3.
A small number did not continue, "due to difficulties in keeping up with the faster pace of learning and the heavier load", MOE said.
Many of those who stayed on have thrived under this scheme.
Mohamad Rifa'i Mohamed, 15, a Sec 3 student at Queenstown Secondary School, took up Mathematics at the Express level in the second semester of Sec 1 after performing well in his mid-year N(A) examinations.
Said Rifa'i, who transferred to the Express stream in Sec 2: "If there was no SBB, I think students would be 'stuck'; they would not be able to advance to a higher level... If I'm challenged (with a harder subject), I become motivated to do better."
Sec 4 Presbyterian High School student Leeann Chia, 16, who is in the N(T) stream, has been taking English, Chinese and Science at the N(A) level since the start of Sec 1.
She decided not to transfer to the N(A) stream in Sec 3 though she could do so, as she thought it was a "safer option" to work at a pace she was comfortable with.
Leeann hopes to pursue a business-related course at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) or a private school such as Kaplan. "I know there are other subjects I won't be able to keep up with. Because there are fewer subjects at N(T) level, I can focus on my three N(A) subjects," she said.
Queenstown Secondary School Tamil teacher Vijayarani Govindasamy, 57, said the SBB system has boosted her students' morale. "When they perform well in their mother tongue, they feel proud. They are motivated to study and want to excel," she said.
Said Pei Hwa Secondary's Mr Huang: "Students come in with the idea that they want to do well in their Subject-Based Banding subjects, and it gives them the chance to stretch themselves."
While the attitude of the public towards the N(A) stream may have improved over the years, some students and teachers said there is still a stigma associated with N(T).
Leeann said some people from other streams taunt N(T) students by calling them "stupid".
She added: "I've worked so hard to come up to N(A) standard (for her three subjects), so they've got no right to insult me. I'm now less lazy and more determined. I want to prove others wrong."
Ismahani Azmi, 15, a Sec 4 N(T) student at Jurong Secondary School, who has taken English and Malay at the N(A) and Express levels respectively since Secondary 1, said: "I've proved other people wrong, those who think N(T) students cannot do subjects at a higher level."