Scrapping the PSLE


Today’s issue of TODAY screamed the headline, “MP echoes calls for PSLE to be scrapped“. MP Hri Kumar had blogged to support slaying the PSLE sacred cow, as long as alternative can be agreed on. During the Committee of Supply (COS) debate on MOE in parliament in March this year, I had made a call to allow parents to opt out of the PSLE when I presented a proposal for primary to secondary through-train schools . The Workers’ Party manifesto had also called for a primary-secondary integrated prorgramme as well.

Education is something close to the heart of Singaporean parents. PSLE is something so entrenched in our system that many wonder what the alternative would be.

I would have preferred outright primary to secondary through-train schools for everyone. No need for an alternative to decide how to sieve and stream students. No need for some secondary schools to be more special than others. Have 10 years to prepare them for the first major examinations at secondary 4. This concept sounds alien to us because we have been so used to an ever increasing competitive system that continously sieve out students to place them onto pathways planned for them to ‘maximise’ their learning, and to determine how resources should be appropriately allocated according to students’ abilities. Through-train from primary school is not a new concept though, as other countries have tried such a model, most notable of which is Finland. Finland had reversed an earlier policy that had streaming and elite grammar schools into one more egalitarian, and had achieved acclaimed international success with this transformation.

However, being practical, I agree that it would be too difficult to implement such a drastic change within a short time. I had conducted focus group discussion with many parents before I presented my proposal at the COS on MOE this year. Many I had interviewed could not imagine what it would be like without PSLE. A common response that came back was, “How do we determine who should go to Raffles?”

I was encouraged though, to hear a significant number of parents supportive of the idea. I was even more encouraged when a former senior MOE official told me such a proposal was submitted several years ago by a school that already has primary and secondary sections. There had always been a vast majority of its students moving from the primary section into the secondary, so the school was interested to have programmes that could prepare students for a more holistic education without the distraction of PSLE. Not surprisingly, this internal proposal was not heard by many as it was dismissed by MOE. PSLE is too sacred a cow to be sacrified. I was encouraged because it shows that there are parents, educators and established educational institutions that will support the idea. Today, I am even more encouraged that fellow MPs from across the party divide are believing in this too.

Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat had responded during COS debate that having such a scheme would transfer pressure to the preschool level and at selection for primary schools. I think we can have ways to execute this scheme without creating such a situation.

One way to thread the ground carefully is to offer the choice to parents. Those who really do not wish to have PSLE can do so. This new through-train track shall not be a short cut into existing top secondary schools. We can exclude all existing Integrated Programme (IP) schools, which currently take in the top 10% of students at PSLE. The parents who opt for this choice must now really believe in the value of the 10-year holistic development plan of such schools. They must know it is highly unlikely their child will enter the Raffles schools and other top schools without the PSLE.

Since every school is a good school, MOE should have confidence in picking a few schools to start the programme with. A quick scan will reveal that there are still a good number of schools with primary and secondary sections run by various groups that are not one of the current IP schools. We can also be bold to pick up outstanding principals of existing autonomous secondary schools that have demonstrated holistic development and allow them to offer a new primary school section. I noted several of my principal friends who had left MOE are helming international schools overseas that cover preschool to high school education, and are doing an excellent job out of it. The programme can let some existing principals rise to the challenge to helm the new 10-year schools.

We do not need to start with so many schools initially. I believe there should be enough demand to start eight such schools, two each in each of the North, South, East and West zones. We can expand the programme as we go along.

MOE currently rotates principals out of schools regularly. A principal now typically stays with a school 4-6 years. A senior MOE official once remarked to me that if you leave principals in a school too long, strange things happen sometimes. So principals are rotated regularly and a new broom sweeps clean with each change.

I believe to make this programme work, we need to identify visionary principals who believe wholeheartedly in holistic development. Have them helm these schools, and let them do so for for a longer period, say 10 years or longer. This will allow them to really build up the character of the school and anchor the programme. With the current short cycle as principal in a school, the principal may find it hard to execute long term programmes. Give the principal the space to truly define how the school should run, given the luxury of 10 years to build up the child. Allow the principal to define the values and mission of the school and to have time to articulate that to students and parents.

MOE has also implemented holistic assessment, particularly in primary schools. Without PSLE, it is the best time for them to show off how to make holistic assessment and holistic development work.

I sincerely believe we can get the first batch of such schools to work, given that we have enough good educators and capable school administrators to do the pilot. With success, we can start to expand the programme. Over time, Singaporeans will start to seriously question why we are so anxious to have our children in a rat race to ace the PSLE. Singaporeans can truly reflect on what education and what good schools should be about. Perhaps by that time, we may truly be able to slaughter the PSLE sacred cow. Till then, a safer way to implement this is to tread carefully at the initial stage by offering a realistic choice for those who do not wish to have their children sucked into an academic rat race that distorts the true value of education.

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26 comments on “Scrapping the PSLE

  1. I’ve a friend who failed all his exams in Primary school and later became a medical doctor. He got very bad sinus problem while in primary school and could not study well. Later his sinus problem got treated and he really chased up in his study. Examination only assessed a child’s memory skill, but there are more than just memorization and issues why a child did not do well.

    If a child can be surveyed (not assessed) in his various intelligences (8 Multi-Intelligences), this will help in placing students to schools with that specific niche. This way you allow primary school students more time to develop and not be streamed (or labelled based on his memorization capability) and at the same time, surveyed their interests and strengths, and placing them in schools where these can be developed further.

  2. Thought I share my daily sharing with some sis n bros including some from BBTC :-
    Dear sis n bros,
    Man tends to go overboard with every good gifts without God. This remark came to me in context of MPs agreeing on the abolishing PSLE this morning front-page headline in TODAY newspaper. First we disband banding of schools, then discarding PSLE, to be followed with exams in schools and maybe and hopefully back to God’s original design — equality for all without meritocracy. From this babyboomer recollections, never had school banding, PSLE and parents’ pressure for studies, why all the fuss?

    The deep root to the problem is God’s great gift to man — freedom to choose. And our response. We choose to be better than our fellow beings. We are taught from childhood to be faster, stronger and richer than our contemporaries. We even pray to do better in exams than our classmates. We are subtly told we are failures if we don’t achieve the 5Cs. So what is the expected result? Mostly economic advancement and much in individualism.

    In UpperRoom today http://devotional.upperroom.org/devotionals/2012-09-18 we read in John 9 that Jesus opened the eyes of a man born blind. Then He asked him “Do you believe?” The man answered in today’s highlighted verse of John 9:36 “‘Who is he, sir?’ the man asked. ‘Tell me so that I may believe in him.'” The uneducated blind man chose to believe with his choice. We read in the same passage that the respected Pharisees who questioned and examined the miracles refused to acknowledge the miracle. They choose not to believe. Jesus said they are spiritually blind. Worse than physically blind?

    ODB today http://odb.org/2012/09/18/the-lure-of-a-message/ tells of a young boy Samuel hearing God’s call. He chose to obey. He answers in today’s highlighted verse of 1 Sam 3:10 “……Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.'” The writer asked ‘Are we listening for God’s voice in our lives today? Are we more drawn by the vibration of a smartphone than the still, small voice of the Lord through His Word and His Spirit?’ The tagline at bottom of page reads ‘Don’t let the noise of the world keep you from hearing the voice of the Lord.’
    Blessings, geoffrey

  3. I like your idea of creating options so that parents can choose whether to go for through-train schools or for the traditional system with PSLE. In general, I would like to see MOE empowering parents with more choices ala the charter school model in the US.

    MOE should invite qualified private operators to run some primary schools. MOE can still set the education standard and syllabus, but leave the operators to choose how best to teach their students. This would allow for different teaching ideas to be tried. Best practices are copied and bad ideas discarded. This would spur competition among MOE schools to provide better teaching for their students.

    An important consideration is that MOE should subsidise these “private” schools so that poor families can send their kids there and the schools don’t end up becoming “international” schools for the wealthy.

    The use of private operators to run government services is quite commonly found in other sectors, so perhaps it is time to use this approach in the education sector?

    • Parents of students who do well in primary school would most likely want their children to take the PSLE and the reverse could be true. In addition, parents who have no time for their children who can now have an option will likely decide not to do so. These students may pay a heavier price for being non-competitive after the extra 4 years.

      Comparing with China and India’s education system to ours, theirs is so much more competitive and not surprisingly, they are producing the best students. There is already so much talk that Singaporeans are not competitive compared to these people in the work place with our current education system. Why does China have so many Olympic medalist. They train and compete since young. If our students are afraid to compete among our own in school, how will they compete in an international setting when they come out to work?

      • Scrapping PSLE doesn’t mean eliminating competition. Your point concerning competition is valid. But a dynamic and informed principal will know how to instil a competitive spirit amongst students, taking into account their individualities. What we should be doing is weighing the damages of the current state of affairs concerning primary education, and asking ourselves if they are really necessary evils. Are there no alternatives which could allow us to eliminate these damages to some extent while at the same time serving or even enhancing our chance of staying relevant in the midst of global changes? Do we have to subject all children of varied strengths and inclinations to the same intense competition to achieve excellence in one thing i.e. academic? I think the obvious answer is no. We can’t predict how the future will pan out in the next 20-30 years but, with the rise of computer intelligence (3-D printing, etc) it is quite clear that this over-emphasis on getting A-stars in all PSLE subjects is grossly misplaced.

  4. I agree there are many good schools not within the IP system that will be suitable to try out the 10 years route. However, some of these schools also tend to be schools with better resources in terms of alumni and parent support groups and may make some of the government primary and secondary schools lose out. Just as with the creation of independent schools and now IP schools, selected schools that start on a beneficial scheme tend to better differentiate themselves later down the path, based on my observation and reading up on the independent and IP schools. I’m not too sure if this “selected schools” approach will help the overall education system. What Finland did was an entire system change, as with most socialist-slanted European countries. I’m not sure if your proposal will have the desired effect without a systematic national approach to it.

    • Doing a nationwide revamp like Finland requires a lot of political will to do so. I would support that if the vast majority of the population wants PSLE killed. I think the situation is mixed and hence it will be quite difficult to execute. We need not even pick the well endowed schools. We can pick a neighbourhood autonomous Secondary school with a dynamic principal, and extend a primary section for that school. The current school groups with primary and secondary sections are good candidates because they already know how to run both and have strong flow from primary to secondary. It just so happens many have strong alumni.

      • To change any system regardless of domain requires political will, not of the politicians but of the people. People must understand that some choices entails consequences both good and bad. People need to make informed decisions and government needs to be transparent about consequences as well as ALL viable options (but please let people decide!). Our experience in making decisions as a nation unfortunately limits us to the fear factor. This will hopefully change over time. It need not be a “do or perish” situation. Evolution is key. In Finland’s case, the decision making at the national level is truly practiced in word and deed by all citizens. It does not matter which side of the fence you sit on. At the end of the day, the Finns agree to disagree but will still work for a consensus to achieve what they aim for. That took some time to evolve. Hopefully, Singapore reaches that level of maturity soon.

  5. To scrap PSLE and have a 10 year education before a major examination calls for a few things.

    i. Relooking at education more than just for economic gains of the country but as means for action for the greater good of the nation, i.e. economics, social, political, spiritual.
    ii. Schools are not centres of education for academics per se but for live itself..academics, social skills, life skills, survival skills etc. ( a wholistic approach)
    iii. Pedagogies ranging from classroom to outdoor experiential learning, preparing for the Singaporean World Citizen
    iv. Focus is on Vital Behaviours like weekly or monthly project assignments and tasks vs end year examinations

    For this to happen, it requires a total mindset change of all stakeholders; students, teachers, parents, government. It requires new skills for teachers to be equiped in new forms of learning which they may not be familiar with, as well as for parents so that they can support the teachers in school as the focus changes to experimentations and ambiguity and many would be very uncomfortable with this as they are conditioned in the absolutes. It requires social motivation from all parties to support eachother and new skills for the entire society, e.g. to be comfortable with the unknown future (this will be the real challenge as the PAP has conditioned the society on total reliance on them). We also need to factor in new rewards for students, schools etc that embrace this change and for new structures to be placed, e.g. schools may need to consider smaller classrooms but bigger areas of various kinds of labs for experimentation…I am not taking about science labs.

    I think we can give it a try…not everyone would want to do this and there is no singapore experience as yet although stuff like this is common place in Australia and others. My niece was a victim of our educational system, was barely keeping her nose above water and feared going to school. Her parents migrated to Australia and under a system where there was no major exams until she was about 16 or 17 years, she thrived. Today she is in Curtin University in her 2nd yr Pharmacy program….go figure.

  6. Scrap PSLE which takes the life off the kids and put them on practical and learning thru creativity and programs that allows them to mix with all kinds of students.Not segregrate and compete.
    Share and grow and learn together as a class,should be a more considerate way.

  7. First and foremost, I would like to ask if we are one of the few or the only country that has a compulsory national exam for 11-12 year olds? Are we also one or only country to teach Science as one subject from Primary 3 level. I think times have changed and education needs to evolve as well. Teaching needs to be relevant for the 21st century.
    MOE has done such a good job administrating
    National education that I believe ‘ every school is a good school’ that can be given a little more leeway tp run on its own. Of course, that is provided we continue to have very good administrators and educators within the schools. MOE can and should continue to be the ‘big brother’ should the slaying comes true.
    I would also like to see more teaching of life skills, social skills and general knowledge thinking skills at the primary level instead of just focusing on science as a subject and at such microscopic level. More interesting topics in history and geography such as rainforests, egyptian history, local history and literature could be covered. This is not new as they are part of many Int’l primary schools’ curriculum.
    Doing away with PSLE would allow more time for teachers to engage in such teaching that is more holistic and relevant to the child in life later on. KPis set by the schools or MOE to achieve certain exam results would definitely not come in the way without PSLE.

  8. Pingback: Scrap the PSLE « Hao Hao Dang Dang 浩浩荡荡

  9. Looking at the recent new developments, i.e. pre-school, banding, relocation of schools, there seems to have an intention to scrap the PSLE. How is it going to be implemented? All system goes or gradual change? The latter is already perhaps in the making and change could happen before 2015.

    In 10-20 years, more urbanised cities will be formed and every cities will be competing for human resources. With the proliferation of social media, information is at the touch of the screen. Comments on comparison between cities are readily available. Do we want to see Singaporean talents moving out to a greener pasture or ‘live, work and start a family’ in our homeland? It is good that our government has started adopting this ‘inclusiveness’ policy beginning with changes in education sector.

  10. Pingback: Daily SG: 19 Sep 2012 | The Singapore Daily

  11. I like the idea where parents can choose the “through-train” PSLE path. We wished that it had possible when we put our kids in church based kindergarten which is affiliated from primary school till JC. Furthermore, the schools’s premises were all in the same location and the school’s spirit is very strong. The older kids will mentor junior ones and there is a natural progression so to speak. Sadly some boys had to leave the school after PSLE, circumstances due much to PSLE results. Hopefully, some stones will be turned by the new education minister, lots of them to be exact, before everyone gets fossilled.

  12. Any policy will have the winners n losers. What about pupils who enrol in the primary through train school and found themselves not suited and lose out while wasting the precious early learning years. Unlike IP school in sec where candidate had been assessed during PSLe, there is no way to assess the pupil suitability for Primary through train education n parent may not know well enough to decide. I believe the decision to scrap or not would have been thoroughly by MOE policy makers with data n research. What we need is transparency in policy making. Let instead kill the scared cow of policy making. Bare all n let us have a more informed n objective debate.

  13. Is this cry to scrap PSLE means a change of fundamental issue on “work-life” balance of a child?
    If so, I am sooooo glad to hear that.
    Please don’t scrap this just to replace it with something similar bearing other name (like em123 vs segregating children into better class and not so good class based on test results).

  14. Pingback: Tuition Lah | Integrated Programme increases emphasis on PSLE

  15. I hope MOE policy makers knowing what they do,and whatever MOE do,is not an experiment project,that caused parents concern and not backfire after 10 years.eg 2 child policy,see the damaged done now. It must be explain in simple ways,that every parent of primary understood.in 4 languages too. Interesting to know which country model MOE is looking into for this case. In short, achievement is important,can they balance with the joy of learning and not studies…for our young children. Lastly, I like this opportunity to have 2 wish for MOE look into if someone can relate to them.
    1. Reduce the nos of students in class and teachers just do the teaching and mentoring.Extra to employ more adm staffs.
    2.Reduce the tution centres or down to zero.

  16. We have six children and we have successfully home-schooled three to tertiary level and we are home-schooling another three now.

    Our first three did not do PSLE at all. We pulled our eldest son out of school when he completed Pr 5, our daughters at P4 and P2. Today one is in NUS, the other in NTU and one had just completed a diploma in Baking @Sunrise.

    Ironically, our Last three have to do PSLE due to the compulsory Education Act.http://theesshold.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/hello-world/ Drop by this link

  17. I believe that We should not scrap PSLE. But PSLE should be tweaked to reduce the stress and pressure on students. the purpose of exams are to test one’s knowledge or skill in that particular subject. but it is true that nowadays students are just memorising facts and ‘vomiting’ it out on the exam paper. The purpose of education is to learn something new and apply it daily. But students nowadays forget everything after exams(like I did lol). There is then no purpose of testing us as we would just simply forget all the knowledge and skills we learnt from all the painful studying. I believe that students should be assessed based on their daily work. this would help reduce the stress as the students would have to study constantly and not suddenly start studying recklessly towards examinations. Also, with constant studying and practice, it would enable the information learned to (hopefully) stay longer in the students brain… Scrapping PSLE is not really the answer. But I’m only 11 so I don’t know much (I’m just giving my opinion) I just hope that the gov. Will think through this topic carefully and make the right decision:) but anyways their decision probably won’t affect me as I’m taking PSLe next year… Wish me luck;)
    Btw to be honest I didn’t really read through the whole thing. I have homework to do but if anything doesn’t make sense in my comment sorry:)

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