The stress Singapore students face is caused largely by the belief that there is a narrow gateway and one path to success.
And despite moves to reduce stress and create a more supportive environment, the thinking persists because changing mindsets is not easy and takes time, Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah said yesterday.
She was responding to concerns expressed by MPs on student stress and an overemphasis on grades during a wide-ranging discussion in Parliament on education for the future. The MPs included Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun.
Mr Ng flagged concerns about students' high levels of anxiety, while Mr Kok asked if the Primary School Leaving Examination was necessary for young pupils, given the feelings of shame and fear that come with the pressure of the test.
To allay their worries, Ms Indranee set out how Singapore's education system has evolved in response to challenges over the years, moving from the focus on ensuring mass education for a young population to introducing greater choice and flexibility in schools and programmes.
Today, the focus is on developing each individual and creating multiple pathways to success, but always with the student at the core of the education philosophy, she said.
Other factors the Education Ministry considers in its approach include character development, and social and emotional skills needed to navigate in the world.
"We now put a lot more emphasis on developing the whole child - not just their academic achievements," she said. Book knowledge alone is not enough, and the change caused by technology and other disruptive factors means that learning has to continue well into adult life.
"The ability to learn, un-learn and re-learn will be key," she stressed.
This is because the future economy will be much more diverse, with an estimated 85 per cent of jobs in 2030 not yet invented, according to a report by Dell Technologies.
"For that, you cannot have a system that is one-size-fits-all," she said, adding that there is no longer a single measure of success either, and learning will be lifelong.
Recognising this, different types of schools - such as the Singapore Sports School - and programmes have been introduced to cater to the strengths of each individual.
There are also more pathways for students, like the ITE Work-Learn Technical Diploma that allows them to undergo apprenticeships while studying at the same time, she said.
There are multiple ways to reach a goal as opposed to one academic route from secondary school to junior college and university, she noted, urging parents and students to explore what is available and choose what works best for them.