Reflecting on the storm over PSLE leave

Any discussion over the PSLE is likely to generate many comments. We saw that happen yesterday.

Minister of State Josephine Teo’s Facebook comments about OCBC’s PSLE leave as “over-the-top” and fanning the exam fever have stirred up robust online discussions. It prompted TODAY to write a front page story on it. ChannelNewsAsia featured her comments as well.

My three children have completed their PSLE. The youngest did his last year. My wife and I did not take extended leave to be at home to watch over them. We try not to be kiasu parents, although as concerned asian parents, we did monitor them more tightly during the PSLE year. We try to encourage them along the way, both at PSLE and at O levels. If we were at OCBC, we would probably not forward our annual leave to use all 15 days for the PSLE. After all, the 10-15 days in OCBC’s scheme are not extra leave but staff are allowed to carry them forward to be used during the PSLE year.

In response to press queries, OCBC Bank Head of Group Corporate Communications Koh Ching Ching pointed out: “We have seen more and more employees applying for annual leave to spend time with their children who are taking PSLE or for sabbatical leave to take a break from work.”

Then-Senior Minister of State, Ms Grace Fu had said in a parliament speech during the Oct 2011 Debate on the President’s Address that

“Many women whom I have met told me about their concerns for their children’s education, and I would add to Minister Heng’s list of 20 speakers now, who will speak on this issue. They have found the system to be highly competitive and felt compelled to take time off for their children’s education. Many education systems in Asia are competitive but, in Singapore, competition comes early with a high-stake examination – PSLE – at 12 years old. Peer pressure cause parents to head towards award-winning enrichment centres, tutors and coaches for their children.

Sir, having spent three years in MOE, I would, more often than not, explain to them the policy considerations. They generally understand the policy intent but, nevertheless, find it emotionally very tiring to cope with it. Coaching their children for PSLE is probably one of the most frequent reasons for working mothers to take leave from work. I know because I used to do it.”

OCBC was responding to a trend and the call by the government for companies to provide more work-life balance for employees. OCBC and others like Minister Grace Fu have acknowledged the high stress parents face over the PSLE.

I am not a fan of our high stake PSLE exam and the sorting that comes with the results. It is done too early in the education lifetime of the child. The exam is over in 4 days (5 days if there’s a higher mother tongue), conducted over a couple of hours each day. Our system has made it such that the results obtained over that 4-5 days essentially determines a lot about the future of the child. This is so because we have made our secondary schools so highly differentiated. Students are sorted into academic streams. Within academic streams, there are further differentiation. Years of branding, banding and ranking have cast schools into different brackets. Whether MOE intends it or not, parents perceive how good a school is based on the types and grades of students they take in. They want to push their children into as ‘good’ a school as they can, with ‘good’ being measured most of the time by the academic abilities of students entering the school. Students that do not do well academically will somehow have an invisible label stuck on them that they are not as good.

I can understand where MOS Josephine Teo is coming from. PSLE is already a highly stressful event, both for children and for the parents. I am glad her husband and her chose not to be overly anxious for their twin children’s PSLE this year. Unfortunately, many parents are so highly anxious over PSLE that they will take many days of leave and even a year off from work to coach their children for the PSLE. Even Minister Grace Fu said she had taken leave for her child’s PSLE. She acknowledged that the PSLE is high pressure that comes early in the child’s life.

My concern is why our system has come to a state where the competition level at 12 years old has become so excessive that a major bank has offered special leave consideration for it and saw it as important enough to have a press announcement to highlight this. Often, when I explain our education system to foreigners, they found it strange that we have high stake sorting done at age 12. What is there so much attention on a single year and on a single event in a child’s life? In that respect, I agree with Josephine Teo that we do not have to specially highlight PSLE leave to make already anxious parents wonder if they are doing enough to push their children at this exam. The bank intends well for its staff. It can implement this as an internal matter without any public announcement.

I recall when I was schooling, I went to a neighbourhood primary school. The majority of my peers progress to the affiliated secondary school. My humble neighbour secondary school has produced the current President of Singapore, a former Minister, many scholars, and top lawyers, doctors, engineers, professionals, entrepreneurs and some politicians. Singapore did not have academic streams, Gifted Programme or Integrated Programme then. We went through a common curriculum with other secondary schools. That neighbourhood school could produce many successful people. The PSLE was a non event for most of us.

Since then, many changes were introduced to the education system to differentiate secondary schools. Today, these changes have effectively pulled the neighbourhood and top schools apart because schools are now highly differentiated. Some differentiations are real while some are perceived by parents. Schools today enroll students from a narrow band of T-Scores for each academic stream they take.

The result of the changes over the years is that parents have now become very conscious of what the PSLE score can do for the child. Many unfortunately think the overriding outcome of a primary school education is what happens at the PSLE. The PSLE determines the academic stream and the secondary school the child will enter. Parents see a top school as a black box where if you put their child there, the school will somehow magically produce someone successful in his/her career later on. People consider top schools as having better resources and a better learning environment. With a top school, they believe there will be better chances for scholarships and more secured pathways to top jobs.

There is a National Conversation that is currently ongoing. The PSLE came up rather early for discussion. The Prime Minister has weighed in on this topic, saying that the PSLE is here to stay. He explained that the PSLE is needed to assess the standards obtained by students and to determine who goes to which secondary schools. I certainly hope policymakers will take an open view on this topic. While MOE has been introducing holistic assessment and values and character education, the schools are under pressure to deliver at the PSLE. The pressure has caused many good holistic programmes by MOE to be overriden by the singular concern over PSLE results.

A proposal I had surfaced during the Committee of Supply debate on MOE is to have through-train primary to secondary schools for those who wish to opt out of the PSLE. I elaborated further in a blog post to allay concerns that people may use this to a shortcut into top schools. We can exclude top schools from the exercise. After some period of execution, we can review society’s attitudes again to see what more we can do to cut down the importance of the PSLE, or even do away with it totally. I believe we can see positive results from schools that have 10 continuous years to develop a child without a high stake examination mid way. Continuous assessments of students to assess standards would suffice.

Another thing I believe we can do is to consciously make the differentiation in secondary schools less acute over time.  I would like to see a system in which students of varying abilities can be mixed in each school and with resources and good teaching staff distributed more evenly across schools. This will allow better integration between students of varying abilities in a natural setting. It will also make the choice of secondary schools less critical. Others have also made interesting suggestions on how to tweak the secondary school admission system, such as discarding the use of T-Score and to use actual grades instead. To make any modification to the school admission system work, we will first need to narrow the differentiation (both real and perceived) between schools.

Unfortunately, the policy has been moving in the opposite direction for some time. It has introduced finer categories to further differentiate schools based mostly by academic abilities of students. The most recent changes were more Integrated Programme schools that will effectively take the top 10% of the cohort out of regular schools, and specialised Normal Technical schools that will only have N(T) students. Such changes will inevitably add more stress to the PSLE as T-Scores are used to select students into schools, not withstanding Direct School Admission exceptions. MOE may say all schools are good, but as long as some schools are perceived to be much better and to be safer bets for the future success of the child, we will continue to have excessive stress at the PSLE.

We are still in the early days of the National Conversation. We should continue to be open to proposals on our education system, even radical ones. I look forward to how we can have education without the national obsession over early high stake exams.


3 comments on “Reflecting on the storm over PSLE leave

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 26 Oct 2012 | The Singapore Daily

  2. It is not the branding of the secondary schools nor the Tsocre. It is the IP program that is driving all parents crazy. Before the IP was introduced, the PSLE were much calmer and saner for parents

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