Tweaks to PSLE alone won't relieve pressure on children

Parents need to change mindsets, and shift focus from just marks to character and values

For the past two months, we have been watching a re-run of the first season of Junior MasterChef, and it came to a close a few weeks ago.

Jubilation erupted after 12-year-old Alexander Weiss emerged as the winner, but my 10-year-old son made a remark that caught me off-guard.

"Wow, Alexander joined the competition in his PSLE year. Doesn't he need to study?" he asked.

While I did not expect his comment, I was not surprised that he was aware of the looming exam - three of his closest friends have older siblings who sat the Primary School Leaving Examination in the last two years, and I know they compare notes.

I braced myself for the onslaught of questions that would follow when I said: "Alexander doesn't have to sit the PSLE. There's no PSLE in America."

As expected, he railed: "What? No PSLE? So unfair! Why?"


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

I tried to explain that different countries have different education systems, and ours favoured an exam at Primary 6 to sort pupils, so they can learn at a pace suitable for them.

It was perhaps too simplistic an explanation but he left it at that, and, after some grumbling, moved on to think about the dishes he was inspired to cook for the family.

We put aside the discussion after that, and he paid only cursory attention when I told him days later that there would be changes to PSLE that would affect his sister, who is in Primary 1 this year.

The PSLE T-score will be replaced by wider scoring bands in 2021, but the bigger issue is how pupils will be sorted, based on those grades. With little information available at present, it is premature to speculate about the outcomes of the changes.

But many people, including my husband, wonder whether the new system, meant to reduce the nation's obsession with results, will end up creating more stress.

Will the focus on non-academic achievements result in additional pressure for the children?

Will this mean that those who can afford to hone their non-academic skills will have an edge?

Will there be a fair way to allocate school places to children who attain the same letter grades?

While I cannot control how school allocation is done, I can do my part by telling my children there is more to life than academic results - character and values are what will see them through life.

Eventually, when they leave school and start work, it is their attitude that will go a long way to helping them succeed. Not their PSLE, O-level or A-level results.

And in reality, will it be any different from the current system?

These are some issues the Education Ministry will have to grapple with as it works out the nuts and bolts of the new system.

But these are among the other questions on my mind:

Who are the people obsessed with results?

And what will it take to persuade them otherwise, since mindsets would have to change for the changes to be effective?

It could be a chicken and egg situation.

Parents who load their children with tuition, assessment books and past-year exam papers say they have no choice since they want to give their child an edge in the current system. And the stress begins even before the child enters primary school.

On the other hand, schools say they are catering to parents' demands. I once asked my son's pre-school principal why he was given so many worksheets to do in a day, and why playground time was cancelled if worksheets were not completed. She said it was because parents wanted it. And so the vicious circle persists.

When I wrote about pulling him out of that pre-school, like-minded parents shared their stories.

One said she pulled her child out of remedial classes because she did not think the additional hours were necessary since her child was not failing in the subject. "We say we are happy when our child scores a B or C, and we mean it," she added.

It takes a brave parent to go against the tide and make that decision.

Parents I spoke to also suggested that effort could also be made to level the academic playing field, perceived or otherwise.

This would go some way in assuring parents that the same academic resources are available to their child, no matter which school he is in. After all, the children eventually sit the same national exam.

This could come in the form of a centralised portal where resources, for instance revision notes or exam papers of top schools, could be made available to all schools.

This is even as steps have been taken to help schools distinguish themselves from one another in non-academic areas, to make "every school a good school".

But apart from parents and educators, mindsets of employers and interview panels for scholarships will also have to change, otherwise the move to reduce academic obsession would be a meaningless exercise.

Even before more details are released on PSLE grading and school allocation, several things are clear.

The change is to reduce the obsession with academic results, not to lower academic standards or remove the rigour from our education system.

It ultimately aims to encourage parents to choose secondary schools based on their child's interest and strengths. And that to me, as a parent, is a move in the right direction.

The best schools in Singapore that many are aiming to get into may not be the best match for the child, even if he qualifies for them. But at the moment, not many may consider this.

While I cannot control how school allocation is done, I can do my part by telling my children there is more to life than academic results - character and values are what will see them through life.

Eventually, when they leave school and start work, it is their attitude that will go a long way in helping them succeed. Not their PSLE, O-level or A-level results.

So, no matter which secondary school they end up in, it is up to them to make the best of it, and up to me to help them make the best of it.

Of course, most parents, including myself, want to have our cake and eat it too. I want the children to enjoy their childhood, I also want them to do as well as they can for exams. But it is also up to me to help them strike that delicate balance.

If I manage to do that, then joining a competition like Junior MasterChef in the PSLE year may not be such a far-fetched notion, after all.

And if the upcoming changes allow our children to enjoy learning, find their strengths and discover their passions, that would just be cherry on the cake.

•Jane Ng, a former education journalist, is now a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'Tweaks to PSLE alone won't relieve pressure on children'. Print Edition | Subscribe