6 years is too long for longed-for PSLE change
by Daniel Yap
SIX years is a long time. By the time the Ministry of Education (MOE) rolls out its plans to turn Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-scores into broader bands, like we have with the O Levels, six more cohorts of precious children, including my eldest, will have braved the system and, presumably, enrolled in secondary school.
The change marks progress as the PSLE T-scores have long been criticised as being too granular, a poor differentiator of academic potential and an even poorer measure of the potential and talents of our children. I am glad that five of my kids will benefit from this change.
The question on my mind, that no news outlet has yet asked, is why 2021?
It would seem to me that the changes described would be a straightforward matter of not calculating a T-score and adjusting Secondary School admissions to mirror post-secondary admissions – systems that already exist and which can be, by and large, duplicated.
Mr Ng said that his ministry doesn’t want to “rush the implementation” of “significant” changes. He also wanted to “give all schools time to develop their distinctive strengths and niche” and allow parents and students time to adjust. Caution is a good thing. Planning is wise. But when we are allowing some 250,000 students over six years to sit through a sub-optimal system, the question of speed is also very important.
Perhaps I’m just being impatient, and the work is indeed complex and parents are difficult to please. But MOE has known about this problem for a long time. Mr Ng has only just taken over the reins at the ministry – what was done before this? The first hints of change came in 2013, when PM Lee said that MOE would be reviewing the PSLE system.
Six years (eight if you count from 2013) is a long time. When 2021 rolls around, Mr Ng may no longer be Minister of Education. Our Prime Minister might have changed. The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education would, in all likelihood, have moved on to another posting.
The Ministry of Education stopped announcing PSLE top scorers in 2012. Between then and today, this gesture has not dampened the vicious kiasuism that plagues our system as obsessive parents scramble to compile their own lists of top students and purportedly ‘good’ primary schools. Nine years will have elapsed between 2012 and the elimination of the T-score. One would be forgiven if one thought that MOE was not showing much urgency on this issue of an obsession over academic scores.
In his speech, Mr Ng announced that the Applied Learning Programme and Learning for Life Programme will be offered in Secondary schools by 2017 and will “complement the changes to the PSLE system”. Yet the changes to the PSLE system are four years away from 2017.
So why the unhurried pace? Are more changes in store for 2021 that have not yet been publicly announced? Are we going to see the implementation of a very sensible but much larger change – the through-train primary-to-secondary system that Member of Parliament Denise Phua mooted in early 2014, and which she called for again on Jan 28?
Another longed-for change is the fostering of cooperative learning – a system where one child’s relative success is not dependent on another child’s relative failure. A system where our children are not taught to eye their classmates with suspicion, or feel compelled to sabotage each other to get ahead in a zero-sum race for mere grades. A system where our teachers are evaluated and rewarded not on the grades of their charges (because every child’s academic potential is different), but by how much their students love knowledge – within and without the syllabus.
Mr Ng talked about a “paradigm shift” away from an over-emphasis on academics. These are strong words, but need to be followed by swift action. If he really wants to end what he called the untrue perception that a child’s PSLE score determines a child’s success and pathway in life, then change needs to be more emphatic and more shocking to those who refuse to adapt.
When the announcement was made, there were few protests heard from the public. Kiasu as this culture may be, we do understand that the way things are now, is not the way they ought to be. Old habits die hard. What will we lose out on in the next six years? What will waiting do to the 250,000 or more children who take the PSLE in the meantime? And what does this drawn-out timeline say about our commitment to change?
Featured image by Natassya Diana.
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