MORE schools are offering places early through a decade-old scheme that gives them leeway in accepting students.
The direct school admissions (DSA) route lets schools take in students based not just on academic ability, but also sports and the arts. A school good in rugby, for instance, can accept students who excel in it even if they do not meet the academic entry requirement.
The scheme began in 2004 with just seven secondary schools that took in some 860 students.
Last year, about 2,600 students entered 121 secondary schools this way, out of more than 14,000 applications
About 15 per cent got into schools based on their strengths in the arts, and 35 per cent through sports.
The scheme has also been available at the junior college level since 2005. Last year, schools in this category received some 3,800 applications and about 540 students were successful.
This year's exercise, which started last month, involves the largest number of schools - 123 secondary schools and 21 institutions at the junior college level.
To emphasise an all-rounded education, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has broadened the DSA criteria this year to include personal qualities, such as character, resilience and leadership, though these do not form a new category.
The scheme is expanding in tandem with the number of Integrated Programme (IP) and specialised independent schools, such as NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, School of Science and Technology and the School of The Arts (Sota).
For instance, there are 18 IP schools now, up from eight in 2004. Their students progress to junior college without taking the O-level examination.
These schools have more autonomy in admitting students based on their own criteria, and can take in all their students this way. But in practice, the IP schools accept at most 50 per cent, the MOE said.
The cap on the proportion of the student intake through DSA is 20 per cent for independent schools, 10 per cent for autonomous schools and 5 per cent for fully government-funded schools.
As more schools come up with initiatives to develop strengths in specific areas, they join the DSA to admit students who can benefit from these special programmes, the ministry and principals said.
Swiss Cottage Secondary, one of the six schools that joined the DSA this year, has set aside 5 per cent of its intake - ranging from 280 to 320 students - for those with leadership traits or a keen interest in science.
Its principal, Mr Heng Yew Seng, said: "Over the last few years we've been building our strengths in these two areas, so we thought it's a good time now to offer places to students who are interested in being developed in those ways."
Jurongville Secondary, which is strong in sports such as football, has reserved 5 per cent of its intake - about 15 spots - for athletes.
Having a sporting culture "creates excitement among students and staff as it heightens the interest in sports in school", said its principal, Mr Benny Lee.
The exercise also eases exam stress for parents and pupils.
Housewife Jasline Heng, in her 40s, whose son entered an independent boys' school this year via direct admission because of his good upper primary grades, said: "I thought there was no harm trying.
"With the offer, we didn't have to worry so much about the PSLE. We were more relaxed."
Madam Lee Hui Ling, a part-time operations manager in her 40s whose daughter is applying directly to two girls' schools this month through choir, said: "DSA is a good option for talented students who have no chance of getting into good schools with just academic scores."
The scheme also lets students pursue their interests.
Mrs Audrey Lau, 49, who works in a financial company, has three children who went through the exercise.
Two of them who love the arts now study them at Sota, while her eldest child, now 19, chose NUS High over DSA offers from Raffles Institution and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), because he was very interested in mathematics and science, she said.