What the experts say

(From left) ST managing editor Fiona Chan, the moderator; Ms Wendy Ong, UOB executive director and head of group retail marketing; Ms Genevieve Chye, divisional director of MOE's engagement and research division; Nurture Craft's managing director Hen
(From left) ST managing editor Fiona Chan, the moderator; Ms Wendy Ong, UOB executive director and head of group retail marketing; Ms Genevieve Chye, divisional director of MOE's engagement and research division; Nurture Craft's managing director Henry Toi; education blogger Tracey Or; lawyer Josephus Tan; MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education; and ST senior education correspondent Sandra Davie. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

On PSLE stress:

"How did (the PSLE) evolve into becoming something that is high stakes? In the past, people never thought about the PSLE scores, they just naturally went to the secondary school in their neighbourhood or wherever their family went to...

"(Today) there is a perception that if you go to certain schools, you are set for life. I mean, that's also not true. We know that when children go to certain schools, if the environment doesn't fit them well, they're not going to succeed even if it is your so-called top school."

On catering to different strengths:

"It is about understanding where your children are at and helping them to achieve what they can from that starting point...

"Even if you don't get the 200 (score) or go to Express... it doesn't mean it's a dead end. It doesn't mean you can't progress and achieve what you want.

"(The strength of our system) is in catering for the different types of, different stages, of development."

MS GENEVIEVE CHYE, divisional director of the engagement and research division at the Education Ministry.

On the PSLE

"Parents now look at PSLE as a different thing. It's like a lottery... It means if you get a good score, you're kind of set for life. And it's kind of departed from what MOE wanted to do with that, which is really to have a checkpoint where you say, this is where I am and my pathways are now open in a variety of ways."

On streaming and broadening assessment:

"(The purpose of an assessment like the PSLE is really to stream.) Why do you want to stream? So that it's easier to place and manage resources. That goes all the way back to the 1900s... Maybe this worked for Singapore when we had very little resources...

But today it's different, we have a lot more resources... Perhaps our job today is to help our children discover what they're good at, what they're passionate about and give them that avenue and the resources to go (in) that direction. Perhaps that makes a much happier citizen."

DR HENRY TOI, managing director of education firm Nurture Craft.


"The problem with high-stakes exams is that it skews the priorities in education. If you think about what teachers do, they're supposed to look at desired outcomes in education, plan a curriculum, teach a lesson and then do an assessment to see if they met the outcomes.

"But with high-stakes exams like PSLE, what happens is that they start with what is being tested in this exam, and then I'll plan my lesson accordingly to ensure that my students score as high as they can.

"(The PSLE) may give kids some idea of where their strengths lie, the pace which they should go. All this is well-intended, but then how it's then interpreted and translated by parents and society of course is completely different.

"Do we need the PSLE and for what purpose?

"Is there another way of sorting kids into secondary schools that could be kinder, gentler, less stressful and that could help us reach our more important goals in education?"

MS SANDRA DAVIE, The Straits Times' senior education correspondent.

On the effect of PSLE scores:

"What is bad is that there is a tendency to shift towards labelling and stigmatisation at a very, very young age. I think that is really something we should earnestly try to move away from...

"In hindsight (the PSLE) did me some good because I realised that if you can overcome that kind of stigmatisation, I think generally you'll succeed in life."

On how to motivate pupils:

"I have come across about two or three primary schools (that started career talks) and I thought their approach is very, very enlightened...

"They invited people from different professions and these are not your usual lawyers, doctors, accountants but they invited people like a film-maker, a pilot, a nurse, a teacher or a software engineer...

"The educators at the school told me it is about developing (pupils') interest and their dreams... not creating stereotypes or not defining success in a particular way."

MR JOSEPHUS TAN, a lawyer and director at Fortis Law Corporation, who scored 183 in the PSLE, which he took in 1991.

On the need for more ways for assessment:

"From Primary 1 to Primary 6 or even beyond, we should train ourselves to look at formative assessments, so we can tell (if) students are learning. We don't wait until Primary 6, or fail once or twice, to decide that you're not good at maths."

On an alternative to PSLE:

"We've seen systems whereby we can do a 10-year through-train. In Scandinavia, (students) at 15 or 16 years old grow up together... even the academically inclined students do woodwork and sew... If we can't change the mindset (here), then why can't we do something for those who desire to take the years spent on preparing for the PSLE to do other things that will enrich their education experience?"

On the role of educators:

"Maybe we need to sit down and have a deeper conversation on what the future is like - the future of the workforce, future economy, future of learning - and what we really want our students to be.

"Our educators need to move away from... helping our students do the best for their exams to designers of experiences, to curating all the information, all the education resources that are out there so that they can then pass on or help facilitate learning, be life coaches because we speak so much about character development, but there's not much time to do that."

MS DENISE PHUA, a Jalan Besar GRC MP who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education.

On learning

"Today we keep focusing on the output, but I think perhaps as a society we should be looking at how our children are learning. And the output doesn't really matter as much as how the child actually develops his ability to think, his ability to solve problems, his ability to be creative..."


"The PSLE is a good checkpoint because at the end of the day I think primary school is all about equipping children with what I term as basic skills, the ability to read, write things.

On parents:

"The spotlight also needs to be on the parents because a lot of times... the kids feel the pressure from the parents... you come back happy and say 'Mum, I've got a B.' 'Why did you get a B? Why is it not an A? You try for an A the next time.'

"So as parents I think we have that responsibility to try and understand how do we help our children learn rather than how do we help our children score."

MS WENDY ONG, UOB executive director and head of group retail marketing.

On parents:

"Conversations have to expand beyond just: 'How did you do in school? What did you score? Did you do well for this test?'

Parents have to stop asking these questions and start having real conversations with their children - 'What do you dream of doing? What would you like to do today? Would you like to go to the park?'

"If we demonstrate that, the children will catch on that life is not just about one exam. There is more to life than this."

On the PSLE stress:

"I recently heard from a friend who jokingly termed PSLE as 'Parents Should Lower Expectations'. I felt that was rather apt in describing some of the stress that parents face, the expectations that we have on ourselves to nurture our children and to be able to respond to society to say that, 'Hey, we have done it adequately'...

"It is a very real struggle for parents and I think that in Singapore where grades are really an emphasis, it is something we cannot ignore."

"But... if we broaden our definition of success, it will empower many people to understand this is not the end point and this is purely the beginning."

MS TRACEY OR, a former teacher and mother of five who blogs about education issues.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline What the experts say. Subscribe