Budget debate: More flexibility in schools and room for Singaporeans to pursue degrees later in life

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SINGAPORE - Students will have greater flexibility in subject choices and school admissions, and working adults will be given more avenues to learn throughout their lives, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said in Parliament on Monday (March 7).

The changes for students will span primary and secondary schools, junior colleges and polytechnics, Mr Chan said in the debate on his ministry's budget.

Building on earlier efforts by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to reduce an overemphasis on academic grades, Mr Chan said that it will provide more opportunities for students to progress through the education system.

To encourage students to focus on the process of learning, mid-year examinations for all those in primary and secondary schools will be scrapped by next year, he said. This will free up three weeks of curriculum time per year for educators to spread out their lessons and use creative ways to help students learn.

Schools had already removed mid-year examinations for some levels, such as Primary 5 and Secondary 1, as part of the shift from focusing solely on testing to discovering the joy of learning, said Mr Chan.

He was responding to several MPs, such as Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) and Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC), who had asked what more can be done for Singapore's education system to remain relevant.

Other MPs spoke on a range of topics, from expanding education pathways and continuous learning to supporting the well-being of teachers and students.

Mr Chan said that from 2024, three secondary schools - Crescent Girls', Tanjong Katong Girls', and Tanjong Katong Secondary - that currently offer only the more demanding Express course will take in students of varying academic strengths after the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

They will each have two classes of students mainly taking G2 subjects. These students may take subjects at the more challenging G3 level if they qualify.

"Students of more diverse learning profiles can then benefit from these schools' distinctive programmes," he said.

The move is part of the expansion of full subject-based banding, in which students take subjects at a higher or lower level, depending on their strengths.

By 2023, about 90 schools - more than two-thirds of secondary schools - would have implemented full subject-based banding, up from 59 currently. In these schools, classes have a mix of students of varying academic strengths.

This will, from 2024, replace the existing streaming system of students being sorted into the Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic) and Express courses based on their PSLE results.

Students will continue to be admitted to secondary schools using their PSLE score, but can take subjects at different levels - G1, G2, G3 - depending on how well they did in them.

They could also opt to take a third language in smaller modules, as MOE hopes to make such offerings accessible to more students.

In another step to make the education system more porous, more spots in junior colleges (JCs) will be made available for students entering with talents apart from their grades through the direct school admission (DSA) exercise from this year.

The number of DSA places for non-Integrated Programme students will go up from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the yearly cohorts at government and government-aided JCs. These include Anderson Serangoon JC, Eunoia JC and Victoria JC.

The MOE will also expand the increasingly popular scheme for Secondary 4 Normal (Academic) students to apply directly to a polytechnic for a foundation year instead of completing Secondary 5 and the O levels.

It will relax some grade requirements for entry starting with the intake for 2024, which will allow an estimated 200 more students to enrol in the Polytechnic Foundation Programme. The programme enrols about 1,500 successful applicants per year.

The MOE is also reviewing programmes for adult learners in publicly funded institutions, said Mr Chan, emphasising the need for Singaporeans to upgrade their skills to prepare for jobs in key areas of growth in a fast-changing economy.

"As we increasingly move towards interspersing working and learning throughout life, we should look beyond the proportion of each cohort that goes to university before starting work. We should focus instead on ensuring that Singaporeans can upskill continually, according to their needs and aspirations," he said.

The MOE, he added, is looking at increasing the cohort participation rate (CPR) to enable more adults to pursue a university degree over the course of their lives. It is also moving towards using the term "lifetime CPR" to reflect this growing segment of adult learners.

The current CPR - the proportion of a cohort that is given places in publicly funded degree programmes - is 50 per cent. The target for fresh school leavers is 40 per cent, and another 10 per cent is set aside for working adults.

"MOE will further study the mix of the increase in places to better cater to the needs of our learners and the economy," said Mr Chan.

Institutes of higher learning (IHLs) must grow into institutes of continual learning, he added, citing figures showing that the number of adult learners trained by IHLs has more than doubled from around 165,000 in 2018, to 345,000 in 2020.

This number is expected to increase further, he said, and the IHLs need to review their programmes to cater to more diverse learners whose needs, commitments and experiences differ from younger students.

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