No more streaming for students: Full transcript of speech by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung speaking in Parliament on March 5, 2019.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung speaking in Parliament on March 5, 2019.PHOTO: GOV.SG

LEARN FOR LIFE - ONE SECONDARY EDUCATION, MANY SUBJECT BANDS

Mr Chairman, I thank the members for filing your cuts and I thank my colleagues for answering most of the questions. I will now address the last set of questions. After my speech, we will have a joint segment between MOE, MND, MOM and MSF, to address the issues regarding UPLIFT and inequality.

INTRODUCTION

We have been implementing significant changes to the education system over the past several years. This is despite Singapore's education system being very highly regarded around the world and producing strong student outcomes. In our current position, it is easy to feel complacent and tell ourselves that we only need to tweak at the edges, but that would be a mistake. We must keep evolving and adapting to ensure the system is fit for the future, and when necessary, take bold steps.

Where we can build new pathways, we will. Where appropriate, we will invest resources to improve our education infrastructure. But at our advanced stage of development, the defining changes are about processes. This is most complex because we dive into the source codes of the system, recognise trade-offs, optimise them, and find ways to break out of them.

For example, we have to balance the joy of learning and the rigour of education. Our students need proper paper qualifications to open doors to jobs - but they also need to pick up the skills which they need to progress in life and in their careers, and these are harder to credential. We are recalibrating the balance where necessary.

In this context, I will talk about the following today:

a) First, a programme to further improve our education infrastructure.

b) Second, an update on the SkillsFuture movement. SMS Chee Hong Tat has spoken about this, and I will focus on how SkillsFuture has led to building of new pathways in our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs).

c) Finally, I will talk about how we will introduce greater flexibility in our secondary school system to help develop every student's strengths.

BUILDING JUNIOR COLLEGES FOR THE FUTURE

First, infrastructure improvements, specifically for Junior Colleges (JCs). Mr Ang Wei Neng and Mr Murali Pillai had asked about this.

Four pairs of JCs were merged this year. The transition went relatively smoothly, thanks to tremendous effort from all stakeholders - teachers, students, parents, alumni members and grassroots advisors on the ground.

They designed new uniforms and school crests, composed new school anthems, and held numerous activities to get students from the merged JCs to get to know each other better. Great effort was made to preserve the heritage of the merging JCs, including the adoption of merged names.

I congratulate the four merged JCs in starting a new chapter and wish them greater achievements in the future. But more changes are to come. MOE will need to trouble them some more, and I seek their understanding.

A few of the merged JCs were among the oldest government JCs, with campuses that have become somewhat outdated. We have been progressively improving the building infrastructure of our ITE and polytechnics. Our old JCs deserve new campuses too.

So we will start a multi-year, multi-phase JC Rejuvenation Programme. When choosing which JCs to start with, we considered several factors: the age of the JC, the state of its existing facilities, and the availability of suitable holding sites while we build new campuses. We also considered whether MOE would need time to engage stakeholders for the co-funding arrangements, in the case of government-aided JCs.

The first phase, starting in 2022, will involve rebuilding three JCs, and upgrading one. So three SERS and one MUP. They are as follows:

 
 

a) First, in the East - Temasek JC, which has the oldest campus among the government JCs, at 43 years old. We will temporarily house the JC at the former Tampines JC site, which is now vacant, and rebuild Temasek JC's existing campus.

b) Second, in the West - Jurong Pioneer JC. This will address Mr Ang Wei Neng's question yesterday. Jurong Pioneer JC, now located at the former Pioneer JC site. Prior to the merger, Jurong JC was one of our oldest government JCs, at 35 years old. We will build a new campus at the site of the former Jurong JC. Once completed, Jurong Pioneer JC will move there. We chose this permanent site for the merged JC because of its convenience and accessibility, as it is near the Jurong Lake District, and will be served by the future Jurong Region MRT Line.

c) Third, in the North - Anderson Serangoon JC, currently located at the former Anderson JC site.

Prior to the merger, both were old JCs, with Anderson JC at 36 years old, and Serangoon JC at 31 years old. After the merger, we decided to locate the merged JC at the former Anderson JC site, as it is next to Yio Chu Kang MRT station, and its facilities can better accommodate the merged JC.

The same consideration is still valid in deciding the future permanent site of Anderson Serangoon JC. This means that at some point in the next few years, we will need Anderson Serangoon JC to move temporarily to the former Serangoon JC site, and move back to the current site when the new campus is completed.

This is not ideal because it involves two moves instead of one. We may also have to make additional provisions at the former Serangoon JC site to accommodate the merged JC temporarily. We will plan the transition so as to minimise hassle for students and staff.

d) Finally, Yishun Innova JC, now located at the former Yishun JC site. Prior to the merger, Yishun was also one of our oldest government JCs, at 34 years old. We will give the former Innova JC site a significant upgrade, since it is not old enough to be rebuilt. Once completed, we will move Yishun Innova there. We chose this as the permanent site because it will be served by the new Thomson-East Coast MRT Line.

Phase One will be completed by around 2025. We are already planning for Phases Two and Three, involving the upgrading of the fourth of the merged JCs - Tampines Meridian, Victoria JC, and the older government-aided JCs.

The new premises will support the evolution of JC education, where lessons are now a lot more interactive, and learning is more holistic. So instead of just the classrooms we have today, we will have seminar rooms which are modular and flexible, to support more interactive pedagogies. We will make the campuses more digitally-enabled. We will have facilities that encourage sports and CCAs, such as indoor sports halls, which will be designed so that they can be open for community use too. The JCs will have campuses that are fit for the future.

DEVELOPMENTS AT INSTITUTES OF HIGHER LEARNING

Next, I will give an update on new pathways in our IHLs, as part of the SkillsFuture movement. Our objective is to have a more flexible system of education upgrading that is not overly dependent on past academic results, but takes into account the varied strengths of our people to help develop and fulfil their potential in many varied paths.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak asked about the progress of aptitude-based admissions. Indeed, admission systems are moving away from an over-emphasis on past academic results. NUS, for example, has recently announced that they are looking out for polytechnic students with entrepreneurial experiences. Starting this year, NTU will expand aptitude-based admissions for 40 of its 111 degree programmes. It will involve interviews and the showing of portfolios.

In a similar vein, we introduced aptitude-based admissions at ITE and the polytechnics, through the Early Admission Exercise (EAE). Since it was implemented, EAE has sparked a host of education and career guidance activities in secondary schools.

Students now go through personality assessments, speak to industry practitioners and counsellors, and visit companies for their learning journeys, to discover their interests and strengths. This is a very good thing, for self-discovery is a worthwhile investment of time and effort in secondary school.

EAE will be rigorously run. The IHLs will require candidates to not just declare, but demonstrate their interests and passions through portfolios, activities outside of school, or knowledge of a particular subject that is outside of the formal curriculum. Interviews will have to be skilfully conducted.

Mr Lim Wee Kiak asked about EAE appeals. It is inevitable that with EAE, the polytechnics will receive more appeals from applicants, which they will have to evaluate objectively and independently. The rise in appeals is inevitable because EAE involves qualitative judgement and assessment.

This is essential, and we must learn how to adapt to this and do this well, if we want to shift away from an over-emphasis on academic grades, and inject more flexibility into our IHL posting system.

This year, admission to polytechnics saw a record number of EAE applicants at almost 14,000 - 10 per cent more than last year. We expect the final enrolment through EAE to stabilise at around 20 per cent of the total polytechnic intake.

So in response to Mr Zainal Sapari, with EAE well established, this year, it will be expanded to working adults for the first time, with consideration given to their current and relevant work experience, and not just their previous school examination results.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat asked if the current procedures for application to polytechnics disadvantages ITE students. The answer is no, because although ITE students apply after O-Level students, they belong to separate queues, and each group has separate places set aside for them.

The way we deliver higher education has also shifted, with new work-learn pathways that champion "learning by doing".

In 2017 we launched the ITE Work-Learn Technical Diploma. These courses provide ITE graduates with a skills-based apprenticeship pathway to attain a diploma. Last year, ITE launched four inaugural programmes, and enrolled more than 100 students.

So in response to Mr Ang Wei Neng's question, yes, ITE will expand the programme. This year, ITE intends to launch another 10 new courses, and it is planning to launch more courses the following year. The ITE Work-Learn Technical Diploma will become a major programme in ITE.

"Learning by doing" is also championed by our polytechnics and universities. Today, we have more than 100 SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programmes, and these have collectively placed 3,300 trainees into various industries.

Our universities have launched a total of 16 SkillsFuture Work-Study Degree Programmes, admitting over 150 students. One of the work-learn programmes that I found especially meaningful was the one for social work, at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

The social work industry requires social workers to be degree holders. However, that impedes the career prospects of polytechnic diploma graduates in social work, many of whom pursue their courses out of passion, but ironically, cannot be certified as social workers. They should be given the opportunity to pursue a career in this field. Many of them go to NYP out of passion, but cannot get a degree.

Hence, MSF and SUSS have developed a pathway for this group of diploma graduates. They can start work in the sector as Associate Social Workers.

With good performance, they can be admitted into a Bachelor's programme in Social Work at SUSS, delivered in work-learn format. The students' prior education and working experience will be recognised, which means they can complete the degree programme in 1.5 years, upon which they will become certified Social Workers.

SUSS can do this because of its unique role, as a university catering to working adults. Some years ago, I informed the former President of Singapore, the late Mr S.R. Nathan, that our Autonomous Universities (AUs) were keen to name one of their faculties after him.

He said that if that was to be done, he would like it to be a faculty of UniSIM (the precursor to SUSS). When I asked him why, he said: "It is a university for someone like me." Today, we have the S. R. Nathan School of Human Development at SUSS.

So to Associate Professor Walter Theseira's question, MOE will certainly support all AUs, encourage sharing of resources. When MOE says: "Every school is a good school", we do not mean that every school is the same, but that each has its own unique strengths and is good in its own way. And whether a school is good or not depends on how well it fits the student, not whether the school is popular, branded, or highly ranked. The same concept applies to our AUs.

LEARN FOR LIFE - 'ONE SECONDARY EDUCATION, MANY SUBJECT BANDS'

Finally, I will now talk about how we will introduce greater flexibility in our secondary school system, by further expanding Subject-Based Banding, or SBB.

Mr Leon Pereira talked about the importance of cultivating a resilience, a "can-do" spirit in our young. Ms Denise Phua and Dr Intan talked about moving away from an unhealthy tuition culture.

How students, parents and teachers behave, and what they focus on in education, are the result of deeply ingrained incentive structures in our labour market, the education system, in the way that society recognises success. We cannot tackle these cultural issues with another promotional campaign or by adding more to our curriculum.

 
 
 
 

Having said that, we are not helpless either. With the evolution of our education system, and the broadening and rebalancing of how we measure success, we can shift the current culture. Indeed, we are starting to see changes. This is why we launched the Learn for Life Movement last year.

That Movement is a holistic, comprehensive and multi-year plan to evolve our education system for the future. We have two movements today - Learn for Life for school education and SkillsFuture for lifelong learning. There are a few major thrusts under the Learn for Life Movement, and MOE has launched two of them.

The first is to balance rigour and joy. If learning is just stress and no joy, there will be little chance of sparking passion and self-motivation that drives lifelong learning. This is why we are revamping the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) scoring system, introducing applied learning in schools, and cutting down examinations.

The second thrust is Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce (UPLIFT). MOE has established an inter-agency taskforce called UPLIFT led by Second Minister Indranee Rajah, to tackle the challenge of inequality. She will talk about the work of UPLIFT later.

Today, I will explain the third thrust - "One secondary education, many subject bands".

As Members know, our secondary school system comprises three streams - Express, Normal (Academic) or N(A), and Normal (Technical), or N(T). Ms Denise Phua, Mr Ang Wei Neng, Mr Charles Chong, Mr Louis Ng and Dr Intan have raised concerns about the streaming system. In fact, Ms Denise Phua and Dr Intan have raised these concerns for many years now. This year, Mr Louis Ng has joined in the call.

Customisation versus stigmatisation

Let me first explain the background of streaming.

Streaming was implemented during the "efficiency-driven" phase of the education system in the 1980's and 1990's. We were concerned about the huge number of dropouts who could not read or write at the end of primary school. We had to move away from a one-size-fits-all education system because if a student could not catch up with their lessons, and did not understand what was taught, they would lose interest and drop out.

Through streaming, we customised education according to the learning rates of our students. It has successfully reduced school attrition rates from about one-third of every cohort to less than 1 per cent now. The introduction of the N(T) stream contributed significantly to this outcome. Till today, we are still benefitting from the legacy of the "efficiency-driven" education system.

So I urge members not to casually juxtapose social stratification with streaming. Without reducing attrition through streaming, social stratification would have been far worse.

Over time, parents and students also began to see the benefit of learning at a pace and rigour suited to their academic abilities. Today, for students whose PSLE scores allow them a choice between two streams, there are in fact many who prefer a stream where they can study at a more comfortable pace, and gain confidence as they feel that they are "bigger fish in a smaller pond".

However, there are downsides to streaming too. There is always some margin of error, especially if streaming is done at a young age. Further, in its original form, streaming assumed that students needed a certain pace of learning in all their subjects, whereas many students, in fact, have uneven strengths across different subjects.

Finally, and more importantly, and raised by many Members, entering a stream that is considered "lower" can carry a certain stigma that becomes self-fulfilling or self-limiting. Students can develop a mindset where they tell themselves, "I am only a Normal stream student and this is as good as I can be." It becomes self-fulfilling.

We have been grappling with this trade-off - between customisation in education and the downside of stigmatisation. That is why over the years, we have made significant changes to the streaming system.

Changes to streaming over the years

A major transition took place from the mid 2000's, when MOE phased out streaming in primary school over four years. As Members would recall, we had three streams in primary school - EM1, EM2 and EM3.

The first step was to merge EM1 and EM2, since the only difference between the two streams was the standard of Mother Tongue Language, or MTL.

Later, MOE shifted to customising learning not at the stream level, but at the subject level. We introduced different standards for the subjects - Standard and Foundation for English, Maths and Science; and Higher, Standard and Foundation for MTL. We called this Subject-Based Banding, or SBB, and started it since the mid-2000s.

Hence, by 2008, instead of having three streams, we had a single primary school course. Within the course, students could learn subjects at different standards, based on SBB.

There were sceptics at that time who asked: "What's the difference between streaming and SBB? It's old wine in a new bottle, you merely changed the labels of EM1, 2, 3 to new subject labels called Foundation, Standard and Higher. It's the same!"

There is a big difference. Streaming separates education into different courses, and we put students into each course. So each course is like a big jar. You can put different cookies into the jar, but when you close and label the jar as pineapple tarts, all the goodies in it get labelled as pineapple tarts too, accurately or inaccurately.

SBB changes this fundamentally. Essentially, we break the jar, students come out of it, take subjects of varying difficulty, based on their academic ability. Taking one or two subjects at the Foundation level is not tantamount to labelling the child. And equally important, it encourages students to find their strengths.

Since we introduced SBB, many students who would previously have been in the EM3 stream ended up taking one or more subjects at a higher level. So this way, we continued to reap the benefits of customisation of education, but minimised the downsides of labelling.

This is much harder to do for secondary school, because of the larger number of subjects involved. More than a decade ago, we started a form of SBB in secondary schools, by allowing students in the N(A) and N(T) streams to take up to two subjects at a higher level starting from Sec 3, if they had done well in those subjects in lower secondary.

It worked well, and in 2014, we formalised a bolder form of SBB in 12 prototype secondary schools. N(A) and N(T) students in lower secondary could take English, MTL, Maths, and Science at a more rigorous standard, if their PSLE scores or school examination results for these subjects justified it.

The results of this new prototype have been encouraging. About half of the N(A) students in the prototype schools took up subjects at the Express level. If we break down the numbers, 25 per cent of N(A) students took one Express level subject; another 11 per cent took two subjects, and over 10 per cent took three subjects, or were laterally transferred to the Express stream. If we had included MTL, the numbers would be even higher. The numbers for N(T) students taking N(A) level subjects were also largely similar.

As of now, the two batches of students who have participated in SBB in the prototype schools have completed their secondary school national examinations. Their results show that Normal and Express stream students, taking the same O-level examinations, perform comparably.

To illustrate, for the national examinations in 2018, 25 per cent of Secondary Four N(A) students who took O-level English got A1 or A2, compared to 24 per cent for Express students. For O-level Maths, 26 per cent of N(A) students got A1 or A2, compared to 50 per cent for Express students. For O-level Combined Science, it was 33 per cent for N(A), compared to 34 per cent for Express students.

The Normal stream students have held their own. Our surveys also showed that students, parents and teachers overwhelmingly welcome this. Given the positive outcomes, last year, we expanded SBB nation-wide.

We are now ready to take a further, major move. It will involve a few significant policy steps over the next few years. Let me explain the process.

One secondary education, many subject bands

There will be two important milestones - 2020 and 2024.

Beginning in 2020, about 25 pilot secondary schools will implement Full Subject-Based Banding, or Full SBB, with more schools joining in subsequent years. How is Full SBB different from vanilla SBB of today? There are three main differences.

One, we will allow lower secondary school students to study more subjects at a higher level - not just English, MTL, Maths and Science today, but also others, such as Geography, History, and Literature. Chemistry, Biology, will only be available in upper secondary. As it may be difficult to ascertain the level suitable for students using just their PSLE results, MOE and schools will develop guidelines and assessment mechanisms, including using Secondary One year-end examinations.

Second, we will also allow students of Express and N(A) streams the flexibility to take a subject offered in N(A) or N(T) streams respectively, to broaden their learning and experiences, or in instances where customisation will help the student. Express stream students today are already exposed to technical subjects such as Design and Technology. In time, Express students may take subjects offered in the Normal stream, such as Mobile Robotics.

Three, beyond the academic aspects, Full SBB will also give pilot schools an opportunity to reshape the social environment in schools to benefit their students. Day-to-day practices in schools play a big part in shaping a child's self-confidence, sometimes more than the academic curriculum.

I learned this from Mr Tan Chor Pang, the principal of Boon Lay Secondary. The late-coming and absenteeism rates amongst Normal stream students in Boon Lay Secondary had not been healthy. However, Chor Pang observed that when it came to Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs), the students were very engaged. In an unprecedented move, and leveraging the fact that Boon Lay Secondary has a smaller enrolment, Chor Pang decided to re-organise form classes according to CCAs rather than academic streams. Almost immediately, late-coming and absenteeism rates fell drastically.

I was fascinated by this unorthodox practice and decided to visit the school and speak to teachers and students. I found out that every morning, students would gather in their CCA groups for morning assembly. They also undergo Character and Citizenship Education classes and learning journeys based on their CCA form classes. For academic lessons, they would break out into different classes based on SBB.

I asked the students: "Why the big reduction in late-coming and absenteeism rates when the principal changed the class organisation?" The students were frank. They told me that many of them had personal and other family problems. Teachers and counsellors could help, but they also needed the peer support that they received from their seniors in CCA. Now, they look forward to attending morning assembly, because that is when they meet friends and seniors from their CCA groups.

One student told me: "Now, I can pour my heart out to my seniors every morning before assembly, even if it is for ten minutes. But to do that, I must come to school, and come on time!"

Another Normal stream student told me something profound. He said that in the past, during morning assembly, a teacher might admonish a noisy class by saying: "4N(T), keep quiet!" All the other N(T) students immediately felt like they were singled out. Now, the teacher would say: "NCC, keep quiet!" and the Normal stream students would feel okay.

The students who have gone through almost two years of the new form classes in Boon Lay Secondary have recently completed their national examinations. Across the school, results had shown improvement. MOE will need to study their results further, but there is now a genuine belief that the social environment of the school can positively influence a student's academic behaviour and performance.

I also visited another school, Edgefield Secondary, which had decided to re-organise form classes to include students from all three streams, starting from this year. Not by CCA or academic classes, but mixed form classes with students from all three streams.

Each Secondary One form class goes through about half of their lessons together, for subjects like Character and Citizenship Education, Design and Technology, Art, Music, and Physical Education, where there is little need to customise lessons based on academic abilities. The other half, comprising academic subjects such as English, MTL, Maths and Science, they are grouped according to SBB.

It has only been a couple of months, but feedback has been generally good. The students I spoke to had no basis for comparison, so they said it is very good, and are very happy, as expected. The teachers noticed that students were helping each other more frequently in class, and students from Normal stream were stepping forward to take up leadership roles during group work.

I chatted with several students at the canteen. I asked them: "How are your parents responding to this?" Most students told me told me that their parents thought that this was ok. One said his parents thought this is "awesome."

However, the principal, Mr Lee Peck Ping, told me that a handful of parents were concerned that this might slow down learning in class. Peck Ping painstakingly explained how SBB worked, what students are learning as a form class, and how classes for academic subjects were still banded based on the learning abilities of the students. Through this explanation, he managed to address the concerns of most parents.

He told me that a very small number of parents were still worried, and felt that had they known, they would not have sent their children to Edgefield Secondary. I understand the concerns of these parents. But Edgefield Secondary was making the right trade-off, to develop students both academically and socially. It was in its own way, taking the lead in reshaping our existing culture for the better.

Schools such as Boon Lay and Edgefield are important trailblazers and I thank them. After several years of progressively implementing SBB, and with good outcomes both academically and socially, the time is right for us to move to full SBB.

Implementing full SBB will be a multi-year transition. We should not underestimate the challenge of this move. There are major operational challenges, such as time-tabling. Schools will need time to learn, adapt and innovate.

By the start of 2024, we will be ready to take the next step, which is the most crucial. Two things will happen then.

One, we would have rolled out full SBB and new ways of organising form classes, across the education system. The pioneering practices such as in Boon Lay and Edgefield will become the norm.

Two, to reflect the reality of full SBB as a more flexible, single course, we will enrol the first batch of Secondary One students, who will graduate with a common secondary school certificate. This common certificate will combine the current O-level, N(A) and N(T) certificates. It will list the subjects completed and the standard band of each subject. We are not unfamiliar with this. This is similar to the 'A'-level certificate for JCs, where the certificate states the subjects and the standards they are completed in - whether it is H1, H2 or H3.

For secondary schools, we will use G1, G2 or G3. G stands for 'General'. G1 will roughly correspond to today's N(T) standard, G2 to N(A) standard, and G3 to Express standard.

Singapore and Cambridge will co-brand this new certificate, as both are strong international brand names in education, which will enhance the recognition and value of the certificate.

With full SBB implemented, form classes re-organised across the board, and a combined secondary school education certificate, we would have effectively merged Express, N(A) and N(T) into a single course. The Express, N(A) and N(T) streams, together with their labels, will therefore be phased out.

So from three education streams, we will now have "One secondary education, many subject bands". We will no longer have fishes swimming down three separate streams, but one broad river, with each fish negotiating its own journey.

Key policy considerations

I am sure that there are many questions on how all this will work. Some of them will need to be addressed as we implement the changes, but let me answer a few key ones.

An immediate question is whether we will still keep Secondary Five. It is a key concern amongst students and parents, because for N(A) students today, attaining the O-Levels through Secondary Five helps them access polytechnics and JCs.

Our plan is that by 2024, all students enrolling into Secondary One will go through a four-year curriculum, for all subject bands. At the end of Secondary Four, these students will attain the common certificate with various subject permutations - six G3 subjects and one G2 subject, or five G3 and two G2, or two G3, three G2 and one G1, and so on.

This will require us to undertake a review of our post-secondary posting system, so that students taking a combination of G1, G2 and G3 subjects can be fairly considered for ITE, polytechnics and JCs. Our review will recognise students' particular strengths that make them suitable for specific post-secondary courses.

2024 is a few years away, and we will use this time to undertake this review. We will also explore other alternatives to a fifth year in secondary schools, like the current Polytechnic Foundation Programme, to help students bridge over to polytechnics and JCs. 

Another question is "Currently, the great majority of secondary schools admit students from the Express, N(A) and N(T) streams. Now it is one course. How will the secondary school posting system change?"

MOE has thought this through, and concluded that it is better not to disrupt the current posting system. This means that secondary schools should continue to admit students across three PSLE scoring bands, even though the streams have been merged.

Educationally, this approach is practical, reasonable and sound, because the transition from Primary Six to Secondary One is significant for all students, and we need students to start off right. PSLE still serves as a useful initial gauge of the subject bands that each student is most suited for at the beginning of Secondary One.

So students admitted in the first PSLE scoring band will initially take mostly G1 subjects, those in the second PSLE scoring band will take mostly G2 subjects, and those in the third take mostly G3 subjects. Admitting students across three PSLE score bands will allow schools to offer subjects of all bands.

Once in secondary school, students can discover and further develop their strengths and interests, and Full SBB will enable them to diverge into various paths, taking a combination of subjects across different bands.

There is also an important social consideration. Admitting students from different PSLE scoring bands into the same secondary school will ensure that our students get to make friends from diverse backgrounds. Indeed, one of the key objectives of education is to forge a cohesive society.

This leads to the third question, which is what will happen to Spectra and Crest, which currently take in only N(T) students, or schools with specialised programmes such as NUS High School, the School of Science and Technology, Integrated Programme schools that take in only Express stream students today? Will MOE mandate that they take in students across all three PSLE scoring bands?

There is value in having certain schools take a whole-school approach to implementing specialised programmes. Every education system in the world will have schools that cater specifically to different segments of students, such as those with high academic ability, strengths in specific areas, or who prefer a more hands-on and technical training.

Such a diverse education system can complement the plan to move beyond streaming. We should maintain and balance diversity across schools and within schools, to allow us to better cater to the educational needs and strengths of different groups of students.

The downside is the lack of mixing in these more specialised schools. These schools have to make a special effort to recruit students from all backgrounds, wisely, using their Direct School Admissions. They will have to ensure that students participate actively in inter-school mixing opportunities, such as combining school CCAs, Outward Bound School camps, or Values-in-Action projects, where students from different schools can mingle together. I can see many of the principals from the specialised schools working very hard to do better in this aspect.

There is also scope for these specialised schools to offer more subject options. Spectra and Crest should offer more N(A) subjects compared to today, and could possibly also offer a few Express-level subjects. Similarly, in time, it will also make sense for the schools that take in only Express students to offer some subjects at the N(A) or N(T) level. After all, customisation of education, and catering more flexibly to the varied interests and abilities of students, will benefit them.

CONCLUSION

Mr Chairman, let me conclude. The emphasis of our education system has evolved over the years. Four decades ago, we made major progress in customising education to reduce student attrition. From two decades ago, we have been redesigning the system to develop the varied abilities of our students.

What is the focus now? In the digital era, knowledge has become very accessible. One smart phone and you can access all the knowledge available. But skills carry a premium. Skills - both technical and soft - are what make us human, and inoculate us from being replaced by computers and robots. But skills take a lifetime to acquire and hone, and one must be driven by passion to do so.

Skills. Passion. Growth. In this phase, more than ever, we are centred on the need to learn for life, to prepare our students for the future.

The third thrust of our "Learn for Life" movement - "One education system, many subject bands" - is another step in this direction.

We are able to take these steps now because of the work that was done in the past. So, in a way, whatever I have announced could have been anticipated. In fact, many MPs who urged for the phasing out of streaming, made references to SBB, and saw this as a natural extension of all the work we have done.

This has to be our attitude when it comes to education - never complacent, always anticipating the future, figuring out what needs to change next, planning it out, and implementing at a pace that takes into account the trade-offs, complexities, and the immense impact any changes will have on our students. We should never stay frozen for long periods, only to make sudden changes years later. So any change that can be compared to the slaughtering of any animal is probably a bad idea.

I am confident that "One secondary education, many subject bands" will benefit many students. Let me share a personal story.

I grew up in a Chinese speaking family, and when I was young, the only books I read were Chinese comics. I entered Primary One without being able to understand English very well, much less reading or writing. My late mother, a Chinese teacher, tried to teach me, but her English was very limited.

Then sometime in Primary Three, I had a eureka moment. I figured out that if "b-a-r" reads "bar", and "b-e-r" reads "ber", "b-a-r-b-e-r" put together is barber, the guy who cuts my hair. In other words, I figured out phonics. 

From then on, I started to read some English books. My first book was 'The Three Musketeers'. I could read the sentences, but had a problem - I hardly knew what they meant. In secondary school, my English standard was what my classmates would describe as "cannot swim".

This affected other language-dependent subjects such as History and Geography. So how did I pass? By memorising large chunks of text, which I could regurgitate during examinations. We hoped that we could guess the examination questions correctly, but if the examination questions came out wrongly, we had to regurgitate what we memorised anyway, and hope for the best.

If I were in primary school today, I would probably have been put into a Learning Support Programme, which would have done me good. In secondary school, it would also have been better for me to be placed in a less demanding band for English, which would give me time to pick up the basics, and then upgrade to a more demanding band if I could meet the standards. I should have done G2 or G1 English.

There are some students who are very strong in every academic subject. But most, like myself, have uneven strengths, and even specific weaknesses. It is just the way humans are. The challenge of our education system is to cater to that.

That is the central purpose of this change. Put to rest the mistaken notion that there is a single, dominant path to success that starts from a very young age. The school system will become far more flexible than today, so that we can customise learning to the student, to give them time to blossom at different points in their lives, while anchoring the belief that we can grow and get better. Beyond schools, the IHL landscape then offers even more varied pathways for the student to develop and grow based on his talents and his strengths.

In making this change, we are developing a child with the knowledge that the pace of his or her learning changes with time, all the way to adulthood. We are acting on our conviction that our students benefit most when there is diversity across schools and within schools. Above all, we are guided by our belief that no child's fate is fixed, and in an environment that encourages growth and development and promotes holistic education, they will fulfil their potential to be sons and daughters of Singapore that we can be proud of.

Mr Chairman, thank you.