For Secondary 1 student Zayeed Ibrahim, the start of the new school year yesterday was especially exciting because he was one of the first students in Singapore to have classmates from other academic streams.
The 13-year-old Normal (Technical) student is from Ping Yi Secondary School, one of 28 schools from this year to pilot full subject-based banding, start form classes with students of different streams, or do both.
"I am happy because we will get to spend time together in a class, but nervous because we haven't gotten to know each other. I hope we can be good friends," said Zayeed.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who visited the school in Chai Chee yesterday, said the changes mark a "big step ahead for our education system" in bringing out students' potential.
The pilot schools are trying out new Sec 1 form classes with students from different streams.
The students will take a common set of subjects, which include art, character and citizenship education, and physical education. Traditionally, students are sorted into Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams.
Ping Yi Secondary has four Sec 1 classes, each with 30 to 35 students from different streams. Speaking to reporters, Mr Ong said: "Each class is carefully composed of students from different streams, different ethnic backgrounds, different profiles, special needs students.
"If you are a stronger student... you can play a part to teach other students who may not be keeping up as well in the academic subjects, and they in turn have something to teach you in sports, in values, in various subjects."
Such changes, he said, are meant to help students break out of mindsets that constrain their achievements and how they perceive themselves.
Students at Ping Yi Secondary can also now study humanities subjects - geography, history and literature in English - at a more demanding level from Sec 2, if they have the aptitude. Previously, options were limited to English, mathematics, science and mother tongue.
Two of the school's Normal (Academic) students are now taking geography at the Express level, and three are studying Express-level history. They are all in Sec 2.
Principal Ang Chee Seng said: "These students took humanities subjects at Sec 1, and based on their results last year, we are confident that they can cope with higher-level subjects."
Sec 2 student Lim Tie, 13, who is studying Express-level mathematics, geography, history and science this year, said: "I want to learn more... I am quick with numbers and mental calculations.
"I didn't expect to be able to take Express subjects. I thought Normal (Academic) is Normal (Academic), and there is nothing you can do about it," he said. "In primary school, I was very playful. But now, I like studying and I feel happy about it."
His classmate Hajamaideen Asimathul Jafriya, 13, is also taking four subjects - mathematics, science, geography and Tamil - at the Express level. She is keen to study geography to find out about the world.
"I want to work harder to go to junior college or polytechnic, and work even harder there," she said.
The pilot comes ahead of the roll-out of full subject-based banding to all secondary schools by 2024. The Normal and Express streams will be scrapped that same year.
Mr Ong said teachers will have to cater to students of different abilities in one classroom. "Some students are more vocal, some students are more quiet... So, the teacher (has to) actually make a conscious effort to draw out the students who are more reserved."