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The Straits Times
Jul 13, 2016
It has been a long wait, but at last the Education Ministry revealed the details of the new Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system.
The majority of parents with children now attending pre-school heaved a sigh of relief over the phasing out of the PSLE T-score, where each pupil is compared with his or her peers and assigned a score.
Under the new system from 2021, each pupil will be given a score based on how well he or she has done in the subject, independent of how others fare.
Many parents agreed that the T-score, which ranks a student's performance in relation to his peers, ratcheted up the competition. They hope that the new system will create some space for students to pursue other activities that will nurture in them skills needed to thrive in a volatile, uncertain future.
But will the new system effect a change? Will parents stop pushing their children to chase that last mark and, instead of sending them for tuition, encourage them to pursue sports or the arts that will nurture in them creativity and people skills which are becoming essential for work?
Going by the knee-jerk reactions of the majority of parents, it is not likely, at least in the initial years.
Several parents with children in Primary 1 and kindergarten already admit that now their target will be a PSLE score of four. This means their children will have to score at least 90 marks - in all their four subjects.
They feel that it is even more urgent now to chase the last five marks and score in the top band because, with the new PSLE scoring system, the advantage their academically bright children have over their peers will be eroded.
Those hoping to enrol their children in Raffles Institution or Hwa Chong feel that the new system hits these chances. Since a wider pool of pupils will be able to meet the entry score, they may be reduced to keeping their fingers crossed at computerised balloting.
Said one parent who did not want to be named: "So for me and my son the stress and competition will not be reduced, and to think that now we have to take our chance at a lottery, that just increases my anxiety."
A few parents voiced concerns over the fact that under the new system, it will not be possible for a pupil to "make up" for a weak subject by doing very well in the other three subjects. Under the current T-score system, a student can still get a good T-score with three very high A*s and one B.
On the flip-side were several parents who felt that the Education Ministry was not bold enough with the changes.
They feel that the Grade 1 band is pitched at too high a level at 90 marks.
A typical comment came from a mother of two, Desiree Teo: "Surely if you want to reduce the stress and want students to pay attention to developing other skills, a 80 or 85 will do. Why set the bar so high at 90?" she asked.
Several parents also voiced concerns over the move to make choice count for more.
When two students are tied for a place in a school, the one who had listed the school as his first choice will have priority over the student who had listed it as his second choice.
Parents were worried about it will be difficult to choose, given that schools do not publicise their distinctive strengths well.
But it is important to keep in mind that the changes in the PSLE scoring system is just one part of it. Another big piece of the change, which is still work in progress, is helping every secondary school to build distinctive strengths.
With several good schools to choose from, in the years to come, students will hopefully pick the best school to nurture their interests and talents, and not just the top-performing school in the O or A levels.
MOE should show parents how it is committed to making every school a good school.
It should be transparent about its spending on the lesser known neighbourhood schools and ensure that they are given the resources, including talented principals and teachers, to build distinctive programmes.
This will go some way in correcting the perception that it spends more on "elite" schools and allocates better teachers to them.
The move to send some well-regarded principals to neighbourhood schools is a good one. This should be publicised more.
But the end of the day, fixing the education system is a long-haul process.
Hopefully with time, parents will come to realise that they need to have a broader view of education.
As the former Education Minister Heng Swee Keat warned last year, to continue on a path with a narrow focus on grades and examinations could lead the country into "a spiralling paper chase and expanding tuition industry".
It would churn out students who excel in exams, but they will be ill-equipped to take on jobs of the future. Neither will they find fulfilment in what they do.
The alternative will require parents to give up their obsession with grades and recognise their children's strengths and build on them.
Teachers and employers will have to make a shift too. Teachers should strive for an all-round development of their students and employers including the government would have to hire or promote based on skills and not paper qualifications.
Hopefully, Singaporean parents being a practical lot, will see the wisdom is taking the second path.