Withholding PSLE top scorers' names a superficial fix

The PSLE is seen as the gateway to different educational and socio-economic pathways and thus gets a lot of parental attention.
The PSLE is seen as the gateway to different educational and socio-economic pathways and thus gets a lot of parental attention. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Last Sunday, Straits Times Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong questioned the "awkward shroud of silence" surrounding top PSLE scorers. Puzzled by the Ministry of Education's (MOE's) practice of withholding the names of top scorers, she argued that we should not shy away from giving credit where credit is due and celebrate the academic achievements of PSLE graduates.

I agree. Not only because we should recognise the "discipline, grit and perseverance" it takes to ace the PSLE, but also because it externalises the contradictions embedded in an education system that, on the one hand, professes commitment to well-rounded human development while, on the other hand, still subjecting students to an increasingly elaborate system of measurement, ranking and benchmarking of talent.

Therein lies a clue to Ms Chua's bewilderment at MOE's decision to stop disclosing information about top scorers. Even though it has been more than 15 years since MOE's 1997 Thinking Schools, Learning Nation reform, stressing holistic development of students for a knowledge-based economy, the Singapore education system is still criticised for its obsession with grades and academic qualifications. These critiques question the meritocratic basis of the schooling system, which is seen to reflect and perpetuate socio-economic and cultural inequalities.

In other words, examinations and academic success as a basis for categorising "merit" - and accordingly, the material and cultural rewards that follow - are in question because they tend to favour those who already have a leg up to begin with. These are children with educated and affluent parents who provide the resources for additional tuition classes, or buy properties near or volunteer at popular schools to enjoy priority in admissions.

Thus, rather than address a concern about perpetuating an unhealthy fixation on grades, MOE's practice of withholding information on top scorers represents a superficial fix to allay anxieties over widening class inequalities. Because the PSLE is largely seen as the gateway to vastly different educational and socio-economic pathways, it receives an enormous amount of parental attention. Yet, by subtly shifting the onus for perpetuating a results-oriented culture to "kiasu" parents who crowdsource the names of top scorers, policymakers shift attention away from the education system itself and its intrinsic flaws.

More to the point, while the stress and anxiety associated with a results-oriented culture is vilified in favour of a system that recognises "holistic development and all-round excellence", the system remains one that is predicated on intense competition.

But now, instead of narrow competition over grades, competition is broadened to encompass more "holistic" traits.

The ironic twist here is that the competitive and stressful education environment still persists, though in a reconfigured way.

Students are compelled to prioritise competitive endeavours in CCAs. Furthermore, the emphasis on "holistic" and "creative" thinking has resulted in absurdly difficult examination questions to further differentiate students. Some of these questions have been so mind-boggling they have gone viral on social media and been reported on by the international media.

In addition to tuition centres prepping students for academic excellence, there is now a burgeoning "enrichment" industry that trains students to compete in more creative and performative fields.

Indeed, the claim that the system is based on meritocratic principles and intense competition obscures the significant role of privilege in education outcomes. For instance, students in elite junior colleges enjoy a degree of informational and cultural capital that their less-elite peers would unlikely have access to. Such capital can be in the form of dedicated tutors to guide one through the admission process to Oxbridge and Ivy League institutions, training for scholarship interviews or advice from successfully admitted alumni. All serve to facilitate and smoothen what is a complex bundle of procedures and deadlines.

"Talent" here continues to be defined in remarkably narrow terms, drawing on an extremely small pool of privileged people, in direct contradiction to all talk of "holistic development and all-rounded excellence".

In striving towards a system that celebrates diverse talents, we need to critically reflect on and scrutinise the fundamental tenets of our current education system.

We need not only to broaden the measure of success but to reframe what success is and the environment it is cultivated in, not just in words, but in deed.

•The writer is a graduate of the National University of Singapore.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline Withholding PSLE top scorers' names a superficial fix. Subscribe