Subject-based banding to replace streaming in schools

Senior education correspondent Sandra Davie explains why the Ministry of Education has decided to stop streaming in secondary schools and how the subject-based banding system works.

Students can take up subjects at higher or lower levels, and graduate with common cert

Forty years after streaming was introduced in secondary schools, the Ministry of Education has taken the momentous step to do away with the Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic) and Express streams.

In their place will be full subject-based banding, in which students take subjects, at a higher or lower level, based on their strengths.

The ministry will start full subject-based banding in about 25 schools next year, and apply it to all secondary schools by 2024.

All Secondary 1 students in the 2024 batch will take subjects at three levels - G1, G2 or G3, with G standing for "General". G1 will roughly correspond to today's N(T) standard, G2 to N(A) standard and G3 to Express standard.

Through their time in school, and as they further develop their strengths and interests, they will be able to take a combination of subjects across different bands.

When they reach Sec 4 in 2027, the students will take a common examination and graduate with a common secondary school certificate which will be co-branded by Singapore and Cambridge.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said: "With full subject-based banding implemented, form classes reorganised across the board and a combined secondary education certificate, we would have effectively merged Express, N(A) and N(T) streams into a single course. The Express, N(A) and N(T) streams, and their labels, will therefore be phased out.


ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

"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."

With students taking up subjects of varying combinations, the ministry hopes schools will group students in different ways and not just academic abilities. This will bring more social mixing and encourage students to help one another.

Explaining why the ministry was doing away with the Normal-Express divide, Mr Ong said that streaming was introduced 40 years ago during an "efficiency-driven phase" to cut down on student dropout rates.

Attrition rates have come down from about a third of every cohort in the 1970s to less than 1 per cent now. At the same time, the ministry recognises that there are downsides to streaming, said Mr Ong.

"Entering a stream that is considered 'lower' can carry a certain stigma that becomes fulfilling or self-limiting. Students can develop a mindset where they tell themselves, 'I am only a Normal stream student, so this is as good as I can be'," he said, pointing out how, over the years, several MPs have brought up these pernicious effects of streaming.

This point was also highlighted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post yesterday, when he said that streaming has some drawbacks: "It lacks flexibility, and students in the slower streams may become demotivated. Banding overcomes these difficulties, while enabling each student to learn at the pace which suits their aptitude and level, depending on the subject."

Mr Ong said that while there are some students who are very strong in every academic subject, most 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."

But the move to do away with streams is not the culling of a sacred cow, but rather an incremental move, he added.

Over the years, subject-based banding was gradually extended, and Normal stream students who took higher-level subjects have performed comparably to their Express counterparts.

Mr Ong said the ministry has been grappling with this trade-off - between customisation and stigmatisation - adding that changes should be thought through in education.

He said: "We should never stay frozen for a long period, only to make sudden big changes years later. So, any change analogous to the slaughtering of any animal is most likely a bad idea."

He ended his speech by saying that in making this change, the ministry was guided by the 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 whom we are proud of".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2019, with the headline 'Subject-based banding to replace streaming in schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe