The rising trend of pupils in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) attending supplementary lessons outside of school has sparked a new debate on the 30-year-old programme.
After The Straits Times highlighted this trend and examined the relevance of the GEP two weeks ago, it received close to 20 letters from readers on the issue in the following week.
Much of the discussion centred on why GEP pupils were attending extra classes, fuelling the growth of a tuition and enrichment industry for them.
The Straits Times had reported that enrichment centre The Learning Lab coaches 460 GEP primary school pupils, almost a third of pupils in the programme. Another centre, Mind Stretcher Learning Centre, said it has an enrolment of 450 such pupils.
These figures are between 10 and 35 per cent higher than those three to four years ago.
Every year, the GEP selects the top 1 per cent, or about 400 to 500 pupils, of the Primary 3 cohort through two rounds of tests.
Under the programme, which is offered by nine primary schools, pupils cover the same syllabus as their peers in the regular mainstream programme, but in greater depth and with more emphasis on creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving.
Tuition for these fast learners defeats the purpose of the GEP, the readers said.
Associate Professor Burton Ong, who teaches at the National University of Singapore's law school, expressed his disappointment with how the GEP has turned out.
"It's ironic that a programme originally intended to really stretch kids and introduce them to the joys of learning is now largely populated by exam-oriented, grade-chasing students," said the 38-year-old, who was in the GEP more than 20 years ago.
"In today's parent-driven environment, it seems the reaction is to pour in more resources so that children keep up. Back then, you accepted that people had different strengths. We were pushed as far as we could go, but the sense of competition and insecurity wasn't so strong."
In his time, it was unheard of to send children to classes that prepared them for the GEP exam.
Student Ng Qi Siang, 18, said the GEP helps children of higher intellect reach their full potential, but "being academically good is not equal to being gifted", and parents should not think that children can be drilled into becoming gifted if they are not.
Schools and the Government should discourage tuition centres from preparing pupils for the GEP test, he suggested.
Housewife Maria Loh, 47, who has a 19-year-old daughter, said: "Some people say less time is spent on teaching the exam syllabus in school to GEP kids, so they have to go for tuition. But if they're that bright, why can't they cope? They are probably just being kiasu (afraid to lose, in Hokkien)."
While most readers feel that the GEP still has a place in the education system as it caters to people with different learning needs, they say resources could be spread out more evenly across other schools.
This will benefit more than just 1 per cent of the student population, most said.
Forum letter writer Christabel Hong wrote that extra resources should not be spent on a group that can afford to have additional lessons outside school.
Madam Loh said: "We're concerned about elitism and the widening income gap.
"The top 1 per cent seem to be able to take care of themselves quite well."