I Not Stupid (小孩不笨)


 Finnish System, As Told By A Senior Finnish Educator

I had a chance meeting in London with a Finnish gentleman who is in charge of Finland’s Mathematics curriculum. I had read about Finland’s education system. I had referred to it in one of my blog posts. A Singaporean living in Finland read my post and then contributed a comprehensive article comparing our education system with Finland’s.

Despite what I already knew, it was useful to be able to clarify my knowledge of the system with someone who is actively implementing it. He shared the following:

(1) There is only one curriculum, for both fast and slow learners. Unlike our system with many branching points into different academic streams and school types, Finland has only one system and one curriculum for all.

(2) Students of mixed abilities are put into the same class. This is deliberate because they do not want students to be labelled. He said, “otherwise, later in their lives, they would remember that they were branded as ‘no-good’.”

Teachers learnt to deal with the situation. He said, sometimes a teacher aide or another teacher will be there to help the slower students. It does call for a more creative way to organise the classroom to deal with this. Teachers have great empowerment to organise their classrooms and to make individual learning plans for each student. (An internet article quoted Finland’s Minister for Education stating that the average class size for all grades is 21 students. Every teacher must have a Masters qualification. The teaching profession is highly respected.)

(3) At age 16, when students finish basic education, there is NO national examinations. The results from schools are used for entering into academic track or a vocational track.

(4) Finland acknowledges that they only have people (5 million of them) and trees, with no oil and other natural resources. So they believe that education is very important for their economy to keep competitive.

(5) For the system to work, it had to get the support of the community and parents. Everyone must ‘buy-into’ the system and make it work, and they have. (A Finnish resident told me the system is a WON -Whole Of Nation approach. Parents do take active involvement in the lives, thoughts and well-being of their children.)

Despite going against the conventional practices of many other countries, we see that Finland is able to produce top scores in international tests, as well as create globally competitive companies (think Nokia, Angry Birds).

Bottom-Friendly Versus Top-Conscious

What struck me the most in that conversation was the concern that those at the bottom will feel that they are no good. The labelling may destroy their self-worth. I thought to myself that this is a very gentle system.

While Singapore also provide good physical and teaching resources to the academically less abled, such as good facilities in the ITEs, the philosophy behind our system and Finland’s are poles apart. We have a competitive system that consciously sieve out students based on examination scores at regular intervals. We pick up the top to set students apart so we can push them with more challenging curriculum. We select the gifted at 9 years old. We classify students by subject ability at 10 years old. Then comes the PSLE at 12 years old, which is essentially a big sorting exercise. We now have Integrated Programme (IP) schools, Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools and regular schools that offer Express stream, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams. Even amongst these regular schools, years of school branding and ranking exercises have moved schools into bands according to their Cut-off Point based on PSLE T-Score.

From an organisational point of view, sorting out students allows curriculum to be more targeted and resources to be channelled more efficiently. However, it creates a highly stressed and competitive society where tuition is the norm. The academic score of the student determines greatly what will happen to the child: the type of schools, the choice of academic streams and even to some extent, the career opportunities. Those at the top can choose from a good range of scholarships, which then determine their career paths. These sort of pressures are applied to children from a young age, often before they can fully appreciate the importance of doing well in examinations.

Does such a system create disparate talent ponds? If so, where will this lead us to?

Handling The Academically Weaker Students

The announcement of the setting up of the two new specialised Normal (Technical)-only schools has set me thinking. Will this lead to further segregation of the top and bottom?

I tried to understand the reasons behind these specialsed schools. I spoke with several Normal (Technical) teachers and former students about the challenges of being in this stream. The teachers explain that there are only 1 or 2 Normal (Technical) classes per level in a school. So there is little pooling of resources unlike in the Express stream where there can be 4 to 6 classes per level. So when it comes to setting examination papers, the Normal (Technical) teacher has to set them, while in the Express stream, teachers can take turn to set the papers. With the specialised schools, this wouldn’t be a problem.

There can also be facilities to focus on the technical nature of the courses in the specialised schools otherwise not available to regular schools. A teacher told me that some schools are not even able to offer the Design & Technology subject for Normal (Technical) students due to insufficient teachers and lack of workshops. Some Normal (Technical) students may be interested or gifted in performing or visual art but the school does not have the facilities nor expertise to cater to the students. While I do not have details of the programmes that will run in the specialised schools, it may now be possible for these schools to offer specialty courses.

This sounds logical and good. I feel the downside will be the congregation of all the students with weaker abilites. There is the lack of role models for the students to look to. There will not be higher academic scoring students in the school for the lower scoring students to aspire to emulate or compete against. Will there be strong negative influence if some are involved in gangs or are not motivated to study? Will these specialised schools suffer from negative labeling by the public?

Some of the students come from challenging family backgrounds and some are involved in gangs as early as in primary schools. An entire gang may now move from the primary school into the same secondary school, which may create challenges to the management.

Northlight school has been cited as an example of how putting low academic ability students together had helped. I have had the privilege of visiting Northlight several times since its formation. I had also interacted with its students through running a short programme there once, and another time with Assumption Pathway school. I saw two types of students in these schools; one with genuine learning disability and another who may be bright but lacked motivation to study due to family background, gangs or other reasons.

From my viewpoint as an observer, I consider Northlight to be a success. I saw cases of genuine turnaround for some of the challenging students. In my opinion, Northlight succeeded for two main reasons (there may be other reasons).

Firstly, I saw it had a motivated and nurturing team. Teachers opted to be transferred to the school knowing full well the challenges they will face. There were more teachers wanting to teach at Northlight than there were vacancies. They had to be interviewed to be selected to teach there. It was the first school of its kind then for those who have repeatedly failed PSLE. That motivated teachers who genuinely wanted to change lives. The founding principal, Mrs Chua Yen Ching had a proven record of nurturing students from challenging backgrounds.

Secondly, Northlight started on a clean sheet, unencumbered by expectations of academic passes, existing curriculum, etc. These students had repeatedly failed PSLE. They could not enter any secondary school. The only road for them then was out in the streets. The school could plan the curriculum they felt was appropriate for the students. There were no suitable textbooks to use. Teachers had to develop suitable teaching and learning materials from scratch. The curriculum was tailored to fit the students, instead of rigid alignment to the standard curriculum in mainstream schools

It is not easy to repeat Northlight when you start to replicate with several more specialised Normal (Technical) schools. When we start to expand schools at the lower academic ability levels, it is not easy to find enough principals as well as motivated teachers with the required virtues and calibre for the betterment of these type of students. There will be pressure on the specialised schools to show that they can deliver better academc performance than that achieved by Normal (Technical) students in regular schools. Unlike in Northlight, these specialised schools will follow a national curriculum where there will be academic examinations at the end of 4 years of study. I fear competitive benchmarking may turn these schools to become too results oriented.

I spoke with a friend who was a former Normal (Technical) student. He eventually graduated from the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore. I was intrigued by what turned him around. He was expelled from school at secondary three for behavioural issues. A nurturing teacher counselled him and arranged for him to enter another secondary school. Spurred by the teacher, he found his determination and motivation to study hard, and made it through university. I wonder how many gems like my friend we had lost in our eagerness to filter children according to their abilities. By labeling them early in their lives when some were not ready for examinations, we may have lost some of them for good.

Teachers do make big differences in students’ life. In specialised schools, we will need many teachers like that one that transformed my friend’s life. I hope in meeting performance indicators in the specialised schools, teachers will not forget to nurture the students to grow their self-confidence and create in them the motivation to do well. I hope these specialised schools will be given lots of autonomy like in Northlight to design their own curriculum and execution, and even through train directly to ITEs and polytechnics. This will enable these schools to focus on devloping students rather than to meet examination performance indicators.

Are There Alternatives To The Current Normal (Technical) Scheme Of Things?

I wonder if we can find a way for Normal (Technical) students to continue to be in regular schools, allowing integration of these students with those in the Express and Normal (Academic) stream.

If we do not have specialised schools, then what can we do to improve the situation of Normal (Technical) at regular schools? That was my concern when I posted a supplementary question to Minister of State Lawrence Wong in parliament recently on this issue.

I think the issue of resources can be partly solved by working the existing schools cluster system. There are currently 28 clusters, with 10-15 schools in a cluster, each supervised by a cluster superintendent. While schools do currently have some form of collaboration within a cluster, I found that it is rare, if at all, for schools to set common examination papers. It is also uncommon for students to go to another school to use specalised resources or facilities. How much collaboration takes place within a cluster is left to the schools to decide, and I feel collaboration can be deeper. If regular schools continue to run Normal (Technical) classes, there could be more enforced sharing of resources, including having common examination papers. There could even be sharing of programmes so that courses requiring specialised facilities or teachers can be centralised in one school. Under the current setup, is difficult to expect schools or even the cluster superintendent to initiate this on their own. If this is important, a stronger push by MOE has to take place to make more sharing happen.

Assuming we can plan on a clean sheet, we may then ask if there are alternatives for weaker students other than separating them into the Normal (Technical) stream? Students who are less academically inclined may do better with a modular system, including having examinations done at modular level rather than having high stake examinations. Perhaps we can re-look at the entire approach to see if we still need Normal (Technical), or if we can integrate these students into the Normal (Academic) stream. We would then need to find a way to deal with slower learners, just like what Finnish teachers have to do with weaker students. Besides core subjects, perhaps students can choose electives within the stream and have examinations on a modular basis, like how polytechnics and ITE conduct assessments on students. There can also be some elective modules that are more hands-on in nature or can include performing and visual arts.

Through-Train From Primary to Secondary, Anyone?

Another radical thought is that we may wish to explore an experimental school in which students progress from primary school till secondary 4, skipping the PSLE. Some students mature later, and may not be able to cope with high-stake examination stress at a young age. Not all parents are competitive and wish to have their children go through PSLE for streaming into top schools. Having 10 years of education before the first major examination will also allow the school to try out innovation curriculum without the stresses of preparing students for PSLE.

There are currently government aided schools which already have priority for graduating students to enter into the affiliated secondary school. Some of these aided schools have strong character and values education programmes, being linked with religious organisations or ethnic groups. Some have long operating history with strong school boards and staff. They can have a stronger hand in designing their curriculum at the primary and lower secondary level before focusing students for the O levels.

While this may seem unconventional, many private schools locally and overseas already through-train students from primary to secondary. At the secondary level, students are then prepared for the iGCSE or the IB examinations. Some of these schools do well at international examinations. I had the opportunity to observe the operations of some of these schools.

Finland has a system that progresses a student through from primary to secondary in the same school, and at a much larger national level. It does not have any national examinations. All schools in Finland are equally resourced. Importantly, students are not segregated into different types of schools by academic scores. Even within a school, higher and lower ability students are in the same class. It does take a greater level of skill and planning for teachers to handle such classes, but the task is possible.

I feel such a system deserves deeper thoughts. It will not be easy to immediately implement such a system in Singapore. Perhaps we can start with just one school that is willing to go into such a system. I feel that aided schools are strong candidate for this, if they so wish to. It will also take parents acceptance. I believe there will be sufficient number of parents who will want such a system. I would, if I could.

Towards A More Egalitarian System

If I seemed obsessed with the Finnish system, it is because I am intrigued by how an egalitarian system has worked. The specialised Normal (Technical) schools and the increased number of Integrated Programme schools may just be another gradual step that we have unconsciously taken towards a path of greater elitism in our system.

What is the purpose of education? I believe we want the best out of all our children. Our system has become increasing complicated and focuses a lot on the dichotomy of students. Why has it become so?

Each child has his / her unique talents and abilities. How can a system bring strengths out rather than highlight the child’s weaknesses?

Hence, I believe there must be lessons we can pick up from the Finnish system to see how we can better cater to those who are weaker. I like the Finnish philosophy of not labelling those who are weaker so that they will not feel they are ‘no-good’. It gets the student to say confidently, “I, not stupid” (小孩不笨). Yet, Finland’s system did not seem to disadvantage the stronger ability students as well.

A Normal (Technical) teacher shared with pride how one of his student displayed good leadership skills and made it to become vice president of the school’s students council. It gave the student and his peers tremendous pride to demonstrate that those weaker in academic abilities can exhibit strengths in other areas to compete with those perceived as stronger. If we separate these students from the high academic ability ones, this Normal (Technical) student leader will not have the chance to prove himself against the best.

In fact, I believe that stronger ability students can even learn better by mixing with the lower ability ones, as diversity can make the system stronger. The stronger ability students can learn by helping those who are weaker. They may be strong academically, but I am sure there can be other things the weaker academic ability students can teach them. Those who are weaker academically may exhibit abilities in other areas. It makes for better integration, and I believe it can lead to a more caring and cohesive society in future.

It will require deep thinking and research to see how this can work in Singapore’s context. I believe it will be an important exercise to consciously explore a more egalitarian system which yet will not disadvantage the able.

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25 comments on “I Not Stupid (小孩不笨)

  1. Very impressed that you give a lot of thoughts on our education system. Just wonder how much of these have been filtered to the parliament. The fact of life is our education is getting more expensive, more elitist and yet there is no guarantee that upon completion of education they can get jobs with decent pay. I’m one of those with university education and even have a professional qualification, yet still struggling in life. So, I don’t really feel happy for those who score so many ‘As’ (being given a lot of publicity during each year’s results release), these ‘As’ don’t mean anything much in real life.

    Feel that the education system should equip students to survive in an economy that is still struggling to find the ‘magic’ to replace those old ‘favored’ sectors of low-cost manufacturing, to survive in an increasingly competitive global world.

    From my impression, the existing education system is not equipped to deal with this. What will happen is there will be lots of graduates swarming the streets doing under-paid jobs and of course lots of disappointment from both the parents and students. Of course, those who do well under this system will be those specially treated or favored scholars. The social gap will be greater and greater and maybe our society will be less and less harmony.

    Hope You Can Keep Reminding Those People About The Real Hard Facts In Future Parliament Sittings!

    • Thanks Eng Hou. We seek opportunities during parliament sitting to raise issues and offer suggestions whenever appropriate. Looking back at some past suggestions WP had made in previous parliaments and in our manifestos, we are encouraged whenever we see suggestions being eventually implemented in one form or another.

  2. Dear Mr.Yew,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject. You have touched on many areas about our educational system and I would like to share my views pertaining to the secondary streaming system.

    The idea of adopting Finland’s educational system might seems to be noble but is it practical? For example, if we were to place a below average swimmer “John” with a team of national swimmers, what will be the possible outcome?

    First and foremost, we must agree, not all are created equal. Some are taller and some are stronger and there will always be some who are natural competitive swimmers. By trying to be fair and not wanting to classify them as weaker swimmers, will they be better of training with the national swimmers?

    We may not want to hurt the pride of John and choose not to tell him that he is actually weaker than the rest of his team members. But at the end of every race or training sessions, John would already know that he is the slowest in his swimming class. To make things worst, John will have difficulty coping with the intensity and rigors of the training.

    If you are the chief trainer of this national team, you will want to set a higher benchmark for your team but what will happen to John? Would you set a lower standard for the entire team or would you have two separate teams instead? Perhaps, you may even deploy a special trainer to focus on the swimming techniques of John and the other weaker swimmers.

    By training all the weaker swimmers together, the coach will now be able to focus on their respective weak points. Some will need to spend more time in the gym and some will need to focus on their kicks. The coach may set a lower benchmark for them and help them to exceed these benchmarks before moving them to a higher level. And there will definitely be some who are able to improve overtime and subsequently, John may even have the chance to rejoin the national team.

    Our country’s educational system is not perfect but I must say, over the years, we have certainly improved. These days, there are so many more options and path for our children to pursue their interest and career.

    In reality, the problem do not lies with John or the national team. The problem lies with those who constantly chose to think that John is different from the rest. But on the other hand, we cannot stop some parents for wanting to make comparisons and as John’s parents, I cannot protect or shield him forever. However, I can play a part by showing him that he could be stronger in the other areas or he has other talents and in the process, it is my responsibility to help him pursue his dreams and goals in the other areas.

    I believe, there could be many other opinions but once again, thank you for allowing me to share my views on this subject.

    Have a good day.

    Best regards,
    Simon

    • Thanks for your sharing Simon. I agree it is a tricky challenge how to handle fast and slow learners in the same class on the same curriculum. We would naturally feel it is impossible to achieve this, and that segregation and differentiated pathways approach is better. That was what made Finland’s example more interesting when they went against such conventional wisdom, and yet still achieve top results in international tests. They had a differentiated system prior to education reforms in the 1970s, when they had elite grammar and private schools then. After the reforms, performance improved.

      We may not be able to replicate everything they had done due to cultural and societal differences, but I think it is worth a long hard look to review if we are moving in the right direction by having further segregation. If we believe we have to, then the next issue is how to do it in such a manner so as not to destroy the confidence of the child who is slower academically.

      • Dear Mr.Yew,
        Thanks for responding. I think there is no doubt that there are different types of educational systems adopted by the different countries and regardless of their system, there will always be people who are able to achieve top results in international test. The question would then be: “1) what is considered good results? 2) how many in percentage who took the exam is able to achieve “good results” in international standard?
        If we have these data, we may then be able to do a fairer comparison.

        As a parent myself, I have to manage my own expectations. Secondly, I cannot stop how people think. Thirdly, i know that I cannot protect them forever. When they enters into the society as an employee, they will also be graded based upon their performance. Rather than being concern about how people may label them, I would rather focus on developing their confidence in the other areas.
        Thanks again and wishing you a great weekend ahead.

      • Hi Simon. The international test I referred to is the PISA tests, which are taken by 65+10 countries/economies at most recent tests in 2009/2010 http://www.pisa.oecd.org/. Participation is voluntary by these countries, with assessment in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. PISA is recognised as an objective method to benchmark students across countries at 15 year old, the age where most countries would finish basic education. Testing and sampling are done in a manner which researchers deemed as fair for comparison purposes of general education level in the countries surveyed.

        Finland is recognised internationally for its outstanding performance consistently since the tests were implemented in 2000. For the records, Singapore is in the same league as Finland too – amongst the top few. What differs is how Finland achieved it, seemingly with little pressure on students, no tuition, lowest classroom hours in developed economies, true equality of schools and no streaming. Finland hasn’t always been doing well, until she implemented current system. Not everything can be copied but we should not ignore the implications from Finland’s approach too, which went against how nearly all other countries carry out their education. (btw, I am Yee, not Yew :>)

    • Hi Simon,

      I think the focus here is more about how we can learn from successful education systems that produce students who are comfortable with and confident of their own abilities, whatever they may be. I don’t think Mr Yee is saying that we shld copy Finland’s system “wholesale” without adapting it to our needs.

      That said, I feel your analogy of a swim team may not be the best when describing an education system, because it would depend on what the purpose of education is. If education is to produce top scorers who can win medals in international Olympiads, then yes I would say your analogy is relevant. But I believe education is a lot more than that; it’s about character development and civics/moral ed as well, among other things. So if you have to use the example of swimming, then perhaps we shld think about a recreational swimming club, where the aim is to nurture good swimmers as well as teamwork and sportsmanship.

      Just wanted to share a different perspective. Thanks!

  3. Hello Mr Yee

    I am heartened to note your enthusiasm and care for the N(T) kids. I am also excited by this prospect of having specialised schools for N(T) kids, not least because of my experience among one.

    There are good practices that we can emulate from schools from other countries. Some Finnish practices may sound good but sometimes I do wonder if this is also due to their social context. Many countries have mixed ability schools largely due to geographical reasons rather than abstaning the need to filter their abilities. Case in point, all students from a town will be limited to a few choices within the town iteself.

    The N(T) system has been around for more than a decade and ground sentiments have shown that despite the attempt in egalitarian approach in neighbourhood schools, the N(T) kids are still being left out. I largely blame this on our Asian mentality, where excellence is lauded and failure is frowned. Having a specialised school will allow N(T) students to flourish in an environment at their own time without the stigma of LC among their peers. Teachers in this school also possess the passion to develop these kids.

    I suggest we let the MOE do their work and hope for success. They have not let us down so far. I am sure as a beneficiary yourself of the Singaporean educational system, you can hardly say it had failed you.

    • Thanks Marko. The 2 N(T) schools have been decided upon. One will open next year and the other in 2014. There’s no turning back. I was glad to hear MOS Lawrence Wong say that there will be no third one planned, as yet. We need time to see the results.

      The schools may end up going into one of 2 paths. If we work hard on nurturing the students, adapting curriculum to them rather than forcing them to adapt to curriculum and expecations, providing good resources, and even more autonomy to through-train to ITEs and Polys, I think there will be decent chance that parents will accept these schools and even clamour to put their children already streamed to N(T) into these schools.

      However, if it becomes perceived as a dumping ground for N(T) students for whatever reasons, then the reputation will stick on and it will degenerate.

      Having said this, I think that while these 2 N(T) schools are running, we should not stop thinking about how we can better support N(T) execution in current regular schools, whicb I feel a lot of improvements can still be made. We should also pause to reflect on whether we wish to go onto a path of greater segregation or if we can find a way to have better integration of students of different academic abilities.

  4. Thank you for your wonderful article. Sad to say, our education system is still very much a work in progress and our only resources, our children are more like guinea pigs. Having 2 kids on both end of the ranking spectrum, it seriously makes me ponder what is the aim of our system. Increasing I have seen children of so called middle class families in N (tech) and N (acad). Therefore it is not just family profile or problems that these kids end up there. I kind of think our syllabus is too overwhelming for a typical 12 year old. Hope you can help bring such questions and I have become very disillussioned with our much vaulted sysem.

    • Dear Dan,

      I hope that this will be a form of encouragement for you.

      I have a personal friend who was once an ITE student but today, he is a Director of an international bank. I have a relative who fails his O level and he could not even get into any of our Polytechnics. But today, he is working in Shanghai as an executive creative director for a large multinational advertising agency.

      As a parent myself, I have gone through PSLE twice and I know how it feels.
      While academic performance is important, it is really not everything in life.

      I hope you can agree with me that there are many factors that will contribute to their success later in life. For example their attitude towards people, towards life and towards work.

      Best regards,
      Simon

  5. Hi Mr. Yee,

    I found this web-site which has a number of links written by academics who are critical of the study done by PISA. http://www.heppell.net/pisa.questioning the methodology of their research.

    Nevertheless, i understand where you are coming from and knows that you are seeking for a better system for the students and I am sure, many parents would appreciate this effort.

    Thanks again
    Simon

  6. You can take the Chinese out of China, but you cannot take China out of the Chinese.

    For the majority of Singaporeans, what our society is reflects the society from where our forefathers originated.

    It is a truism that helps to explain practically every aspects of Singaporean society.

  7. JJ, thanks for being so persistent in talking about education, in particular good education:)
    I think a lively debate after your blog post is a good sign. Many people are interested and want to see changes in our education system. U have touched on various points which also speak to me as an educator – the labeling of students at a young age, the role of aided schools as a strong candidate for this type of experimental school and also the through train program. I still believe the reason I survived the education system during my time was cos I was allowed to dream and fail. Not all students are focused and results oriented at a young age. The same O and PSLE system still exist during my time and now. What is different is that now we try to do more in-between assessments. These assessments become mini exams – taking a lot of time to design, grade, mug adding unnecessary stress to students and teachers. If we can let go of assessing students all the time, and allow for individual time off to do interesting and worthwhile projects (e.g. older student can opt to take a few months off to do farming? or help teach in a developing country), this will enrich our education system.

  8. Thanks JJ for taking the lead on this topic. As a subject of the original experiment (I believe my cohort was the 1st Normal/Express streaming), I can only say the experiment then was only good in doing one thing – labeling. It labelled all of us (me and classmates) to be of lower intellect and we became constant target of ridicule and “outcasted” – by student, teachers and principal alike. It had a negative reinforcement to my belief that, if I am stupid, why bother to study?

    I took that attitude during my lower secondary years and school was just a playground for me. It did not helped when my family never really believed in education. The only person who believed in me, was one of my teachers in my lower sec sch years who came looking for me after I skipped sch to work at the construction site. She gave me the reason to prove my principal wrong, for labeling the “N” Tech students 2nd class, because I wanted to prove her right. This is what I believe made the difference – our education system models the traditional value of results above all else and the making of elites. That teacher probably (I never had a chance to ask her) believe that all normal borns are not stupid, unless intellectual challenged from birth.

    Our entire society is an extension of the education system. Look at our structure and you can see differences between us and the west. Take as an example, IT managers and IT programmers. I was told in other parts of the world, senior programmers are paid as high as IT managers. Here, all programmers know that if they don’t get out of programming, they will reach max potential in a few years and it is the end of the road as far as career progression goes. What made our society tick like that? Our system creates the path between have’s and have-not’s, right from the tender age of 7? How many parents today enjoys the growing up years with their child and let nature takes its course instead of running for exams again and again, depending on how many child they have? Which parent can say they do not mind letting their child enter N(T) stream if they can choose? We have created an education system, not to educated, but to sieve out the “classes”.

    Being a N(T) student myself with a Comp Sci degree, I can only say that the classification system is flawed and the scarring may be for life, for those more unfortunate compared to myself. 2 years ago I asked a teacher in charge of the school program in an “advance school” who spoke with pride about teaching and using social tools like twitter in class for his primary school kids this – what if the kid gets addicted to twitter and twits all his life, and it becomes the very reason for the child’s poor performance in life later on, would the teacher take responsibility of the child’s life? Of course, there was no answer for me. It is not a once-size-fits-all situation and we are not cookies. There is one thing that I have that some of the “elites” by definition of our education system may not have in fact, and that is Integrity.

      • My pleasure JJ. I oppose the way streaming classification is done today at a young age, unless it is error free. As it is there is an inherent margin of error that could destroy lives. Children are not cookies from cookie cutters. Just because a child is unmotivated for certain reasons during PSLE does not necessarily mean the kid is dull. All talk about a gracious society is vapor if our fundamentals are not supporting it.

  9. Thanks Mr Yee, this is the fight that may last a long time. Being Parents of two boys from Normal Stream, I can complete appreciate the flaws in our system. My boys were almost destroyed by this system and in their teens, we really had a very difficult time pulling them back and restoring their self-worth. The shame of being in the normal stream suddenly dawn upon them in school had impacted them tremendously but thank God they emerged stronger after our encouragement and asking them to stop comparing with others. I believe this government will not change to see the effects because those in charge are all scholars, they only can see the their side of the story, having been brought up by the same system, how do we expect them to see teh other side of the story. Keep fighting for those young generation, I believe this is only right to do if Singapore is going to bring up the good of next generation.

  10. We should be asking ourselves (especially the 66%) questions like how did we allow them to take away our pensions and award it exclusively to themselves? How did we allow such a situation where Ministers were already receiving their pensions while still getting their millions? How did we allow such a situation where the Finance Minister’s and later PM’s wife was head of government-owned Temasek Holdings which manages a portfolio of about or more than $200 billion?

    We should be asking ourselves why the children of our millionaire Ministers are recipients of government scholarships at prestigious universities overseas instead of more needy and equally (or more) deserving Singaporeans. We should be asking what are the true facts of President Tony Tan’s son’s national service? After denying vociferously and even scolding the public, no clear explanation or evidence has emerged as yet to put the allegations to rest. How did we allow them to bully, destroy and finally disqualify capable opposition members like JBJ and Francis Seow and then turn around and point to the lack of quality opposition? How did we let them to pay themselves millions of dollars while we saw our wages stagnate for so long? Their justification was that we have to pay top dollar to get top quality – if that were true, why so many screw-ups then?

    Screw-ups like HDB’s (mission == affordable housing for masses) soaring prices, allowing someone as dangerous as Mas Selamat to stroll out of a max security detention centre, most Singaporeans not having enough in their CPF upon retirement, HDB’s DBSS, the frequent floods, the all-too-frequent MRT breakdowns, the breaches of security at SMRT, Singapore’s overpopulation, the swarming of foreign ‘talents’ especially unqualified and non-English-speaking PRC’s in frontline jobs, the over-granting of scholarships to foreign students – I could go on with more like the graduate parents scheme and our birth control schemes but this paragraph wouldn’t end.

    All of a sudden, our government has changed its tack and are willing to change and listen to the people. Why this sudden change? Not because they sincerely want to listen and change but because the unthinkable took place at the last GE which, for the first time, showed them what could happen at the next election. Also because the New Media has allowed the masses to hear alternative views for the first time after being force-fed by the government-run (no, LKY-run) SPH. For the first time in its history, it’s helter-skelter time at PAP HQ as they keep getting kicked in the teeth day after day, expose after expose.

    So let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the government has changed in any drastic manner as they are simply doing what anyone in survival mode would do – try to placate the masses with empty promises and acting like they care but still trying to bulldoze their policies through. Now they are trying to shoot down Prof Lim’s proposal by painting dire and gloomy scenarios. The same way they say and keep saying that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese PM or minimum wage and that multiracial Singapore will never be a melting pot like US because we are just too different from each other.

    We played our part in making Singapore the success story it is by tightening our belts, taking pay cuts with no bonuses during difficult times – shouldn’t we be given a slice of the pie in good times (not the pittance they throw at us every now and then especially just before the elections). We can only hope that the 66% who voted in the government only to grumble and point fingers at the government a few months later will diminish to a much smaller percentage at the next hustings. No one is saying that the PAP should be kicked out – all many Singaporeans want is more oppositions in Parliament to fight for us and present alternative viewpoints and keep the ruling party in check and on their toes!

  11. Hi JJ, absolutely, being passive in the past and letting you run the show does not mean we don’t care. It means there were merits in doing so. But if it is we scrimp when you feast and other feast when you feast, then what has it got to do with us? Although there is one part above talking about NS matters which I thought was already publicly clarified, “debated and accepted” for closure not?

  12. That was a really interesting article and if I might add, I think it would be a better idea to downsize NT and NA classes. I noticed a lot of express and SAP schools have small classes of 20 or so students while NT/NA classes can have 40 students at any one time. Most express and SAP students are well capable of handling themselves and do not require as much help from educators. (You can have a hundred of them in class and when the teaching begins, they simply listen.) The NT/NA students on the other hand need the help but are unable to get it because the educators have to spent half the time shutting the class up.

  13. An interesting take on Singapore’s education system.

    May I add, however, that streaming has its merits. One, it “forces” you to work harder to achieve better results (by labeling pressure or peer pressure) or move upwards into a better stream. I went from a bad stream into junior college and, subsequently, university. Throughout my teenage years, I was bullied, ridiculed by my peers that for five years, I had no friends. That forced me to focus on my studies. That’s how I made it to JC. Two, it prepares you for the challenges of the working world, especially when acing job interviews and regional managerial-level tests. If not for my age (I’m not yet 27) and lack of work and managerial experience, I believe I would have been hired. I went through six rounds of interviews, verbal and written examinations with various MNCs and aced all of them. To this end, I am thankful for its benefits.

    Having said, I too, disagree with the way the system has been implemented: based on mere assumptions. Our policy makers assume that once you are in a certain stream, you are taught to a certain level because that is the most people in your stream can cope with. Also, you are taught in a certain manner because they assume that’s how people in your stream should learn.

    Nonsense.

    Nothing is ever cast in stone. And as humans, each of us have our own ways of learning. Being in a 5-year stream does not necessarily mean you are academically weaker or are a hands-on person. I happen to be an auditory learner and learn best by listening, which is surprising for people in my stream (many are dubbed hands-on learners). I am weak at hands-on work, thus I know I am not suited for ITE courses. Studying hard and doing well enough to make it into JC, CI or even Foundation studies abroad are my best options. I am glad that I made it to university, graduated with a merit degree and am looking forward to doing my Master’s.

    I do not like how Singaporeans are conditioned to think that once you’re in a certain stream, you are expected to behave in that manner. Coming from the 5-year stream, I watched teachers pick on each and every NA student, telling them off for whatever funny reason they can think of. Even the most well-behaved student gets scolded for no reason. To me, it seems that educators are unable to control their emotions or think logically / rationally before lashing out their disrespect at students. I had frequent run-ins with my DMs, HODs and Vice Principal for telling them to reflect on their behavior as this is not how an educated person should behave. I even told a sloppy teacher off for not teaching properly in class and was marched to the General office for being disrespectful. One teacher, a senior history teacher, enjoyed talking football crap during class (80% of lesson time was focused on football shit) that I told her to SHUT UP & FOCUS ON THE LESSON. In the end, I was sent to detention class for that. Really, what the f—, right?

    What’s passed is pass, but streaming needs to go in order for Singapore to progress. Let me sum up by saying that the system needs to change, preferably to an egalitarian one, the one you mentioned in your post or modeled after the Australian high school system.

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