Ensuring an open, inclusive education system is key

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 20, 2013

ON SUNDAY night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced key changes to the education system, ranging from extending Edusave grants to more students to replacing the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system.

They were significant moves. As Mr Lee said, they will help to ensure that the education system remains open and inclusive.

The two changes that were eagerly anticipated by parents were the ones concerning the Primary 1 registration and the PSLE.

On the Primary 1 registration, Mr Lee announced that from next year, schools will reserve places for those with no prior connections to the school.

The more important PSLE change, though, will come a few years later when the T-score system will be replaced with grades like in the O- and A-level examinations.

These two topics had been hotly debated.

One of the complaints over the registration scheme has been about the priority given to different groups - alumni, those with church and clan links, and parent volunteers. Parents wanted this changed because the lion's share of the places in popular schools would go to those with connections, shutting out those without links.

Mr Lee admitted that this was already happening. Henry Park Primary, for instance, had only nine of the 300 places remaining for phases 2B and 2C this year, after the phases for applicants with siblings there or whose parents are alumni.

"If we do nothing, one day, these schools may have no such places left at all," Mr Lee said.

So parents welcomed the tweak that Mr Lee announced, but many felt that the Government could have gone further and reserved more than 40 places for those without connections.

One parent, who has his eyes on nearby Henry Park for his daughter, pointed out that if the change had been instituted this year, more than 90 places would still have gone to the school's alumni. "Why so many places to alumni?" he asked.

Like many parents, he feels that it would have been fairer if the 40 places were set aside for Phase 2C alone. He also feels that parents will find a way around the new rule.

He is not wrong. In fact, some alumni parents have already been considering moving nearer the schools of their choice to hedge their bets. If the number of applications exceeds places in the Primary 1 registration, those living near the school will have priority.

The PSLE change was better received, with many parents hoping that the new scoring system will be put in place soon before their children sit the examination.

For years, parents had been urging the Government to change the T-score system, complaining that it sorts children too finely and adds to stress over the exams.

Still, not all parents were happy with the solution that the ministry came up with.

Parents were full of questions yesterday on how exactly schools will admit students, since they will have a wider pool of applicants to choose from.

The Education Ministry said it has yet to work out the details, but some parents are worried that schools will select students based on less measurable attributes such as leadership potential and character. This will lead to a more subjective and less transparent admission system.

Those who are happy with the change, though, point out: If the system is accepted for junior college, polytechnic and university admission, then why not for admission into secondary school?

But perhaps, as Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said in his Facebook posting on the changes, there is no perfect policy that can satisfy everyone.

What parents should ask themselves is: Will the new schemes give schools more space to focus more on the holistic development of their children and build a more diverse student body necessary for social mixing?

Do the changes help to open up the schools and the system as a whole to students from various backgrounds and ensure that education will continue to be the social leveller?

If the answer to these questions is "yes", then we should welcome the changes.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 20, 2013

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