What MPs said about abolishing streaming and replacing it with subject-based banding

Lakeside Primary School pupils collecting their PSLE results on Nov 24, 2017. Several MPs said it's time to move away from streaming children into Normal and Express tracks. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - It is time to move away from streaming children into Normal and Express tracks, said several MPs on Monday (March 4) as the debate on the Ministry of Education's (MOE) budget kicked off.

Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC)

Calling streaming one of the "sacred cows" in Singapore's education system that needs to be slain, Ms Phua said that it has had negative effects on students.

"I recommend that streaming be abolished and replaced by subject-based banding for both academic and non-academic subjects," she said.

Ms Phua, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said that subject-based banding, which refers to allowing students to take subjects at different difficulty levels, is a "good solution", and the MOE has observed positive results from the scheme, which was rolled out to all secondary schools last year.

It allows students from the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams who score at least an A for English, mathematics, science and mother tongue at the Primary School Leaving Examination to study the corresponding subject at the Express level.

Normal (Technical) students who score B or C in a standard PSLE subject or 1 in a Foundation subject can take the same subject at the Normal (Academic) level.

"Doing away with streaming does not equate to putting everyone in the same class for every subject, ignoring the need for each to learn at their own pace and method. Far from it," Ms Phua said, adding that the MOE has already done away with streaming in primary schools. The ministry merged the EM1 and EM2 streams in 2004 and in 2008, announced that the EM3 stream would be removed.

She gave examples of the negative effects of streaming, citing Jack Neo's 2002 hit film I Not Stupid which revolved around the lives and struggles of three pupils in the EM3 academic stream, which was for those who were academically weakest.

Last year, a video documentary called Regardless Of Class, hosted by Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary, reaffirmed the differences between students from different streams, she added.

"Youths from the Integrated Programme, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) shared frankly, sometimes painfully, on how they perceived each other due to the labelling," she said.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC)

Streaming was introduced in Singapore's education system in 1980 with "good intentions" and to allow every student to learn at a pace suited to their abilities, said Mr Ang.

But its biggest drawback is the labelling of those in the Normal stream, he said, adding: "Students in the Normal stream often feel defeated, and that limits their potential."

Mr Ang urged the MOE to consider expanding subject-based banding further to "blur the distinction between Normal- and Express-stream students".

Drawing from his past experiences as a science relief teacher 30 years ago in Bukit Batok Secondary School, he said Normal stream students had a sense of "resigned acceptance and defeat", especially when he tried to teach them topics that were beyond their syllabus.

"As a young and idealistic teacher at that time, I tried to interest the students in science, no matter which streams they were from. Even when certain sections were not supposed to be taught to the Normal-stream students, I went on to teach them, as it was interesting," he said.

"However, the Normal-stream students were quick to dismiss most of what was in their textbooks. They said: 'We are taking the reduced syllabus, no need to learn.'"

When a Normal-stream student told him she had a deep interest in Chinese and wanted to study the subject at an Express level, Mr Ang said he "snapped at her and told her to work hard to get herself into the Express stream". The student left very disappointed, he added.

Both incidents left a deep impression on him.

Mr Ang said that subject-based banding has helped to address some of these students' aspirations, and they have done well.

"Clearly, subject-based banding has shown that sometimes we pigeonhole and stream our young too early. They have potential which can be unleashed through avenues like subject-based banding," he said.

Mr Charles Chong (Punggol East)

Streaming has a tremendous impact on students' self-esteem, said Mr Chong.

While it helps students learn at a pace with others at the same stage of learning, it can create a "class divide" between students who are deemed by the education system to be academically able and those who are less so, he added.

"Some students in the Normal streams lose motivation over time, thinking that the label of 'Normal' means that they cannot excel or even improve."

He called upon the MOE to take the next step of replacing the Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams in secondary schools with an alternative system "which recognises a wider range of abilities of our students".

Subject-based banding has proven to be a success at different school levels, he said.

"We must recognise that our students' abilities, readiness and motivation can be developed and strengthened over time," said Mr Chong. Students can improve when they are given the necessary support in learning, he added.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC)

Mr Ng, who had already called for streaming to be scrapped during a speech last week, urged the MOE to address concerns about social stratification due to streaming, and abolish streaming in secondary schools in favour of allowing students to take a combination of subjects at different difficulty levels.

"In my budget speech, I shared my concerns about streaming and how it might lead to social stratification," he said.

"I spoke about the immobility in our education system, where a student who enters the Normal (Technical) stream has little chance of leaving this stream. I spoke about how streaming can discourage some students."

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC)

Dr Intan hopes for a day when a student's examination transcript and graduation certificate will no longer indicate his or her academic stream, or if they took the N levels or O levels.

"Instead, it will indicate the student took English and mother tongue languages at the Higher Level, mathematics and science at the Standard Level, and humanities and the arts at the Foundation Level, as an example," she said.

Dr Intan, a former secondary school teacher who has long called for streaming to be abolished, said: "It has been 40 years. It has served its purpose but it is time for us to move on and recognise that academic streaming places self-limiting beliefs on students who think they are only as good as the stream they are in."

The reality is that everyone has abilities in different areas and to different extents, she said. "Some of us excel in languages, others excel in mathematics or the sciences, while others excel in sports or the arts."

"However, there are still parents, employers and members of public who believe that certain academic streams are inferior and will treat students from those streams with lower expectations, typical of what academics term the Pygmalion or Rosenthal Effect."

Dr Intan said it is time to reconsider academic streaming and how the labels can be removed.

"I hope to see a student's examination transcript showing that the student has a diverse range of abilities in different subjects as well as their strengths in specific ones, and where you can, in no way, discriminate one student from another because of perceptions of their potential based on past abilities in high stakes examinations," she added.

She also asked the MOE to reconsider the Express stream academic requirement for students hoping to get into specialised independent schools like the Sports School or School of the Arts (Sota).

"There are students who excel in Sports or the Arts but who may not excel in their academic studies and as a result of the current PSLE sorting, they may not qualify for the Express stream," she said.

"With multiple options beyond secondary school, students who qualify for the Normal stream should be allowed to be admitted to the Sports School or Sota, where they can still carry on their educational pursuits in the ITE, polytechnics or through other SkillsFuture related pathways, thereafter," she said.

"We cannot judge or limit a student's abilities in one area based solely on their abilities in another area, because of current limitations in admission criteria."

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