March 23, 2017


by Joshua Ip

IN 2020 all the schools agreed to fight a crisis:
A monstrous insurgency more virulent than ISIS
A pedagogical distraction from the goals they’re reaching
The number one obstruction to good schooling is GOOD TEACHING.

It’s too labor-intensive. Doesn’t meet clear KPIs.
Technology is not exploited in this enterprise.
One staff for forty students, can you multiply the cost?
Spend so much time with children, then who spends time with the boss?

If you’re standing in the classrooms, who will sit on all the comms?
If you try to teach them lessons, who will fill in all the forms?
You look at all these teachers – where are their priorities?
How can schoolwork be more crucial than school anniversaries?

Experiments have proven if you take a Sec 4 class
And fire all their teachers – teaching will not help them pass –
Play tuition centre advertisements five hours a day
Their grades will drastically improve, hip hip hip hip hooray!

No need for any marking. Work life balance will improve!
Co-curriculars excel when the curriculum is removed!
Don’t worry about scaffolding, leave each student to each –
every school’s a good school when it doesn’t have to teach!

The School just has to make them Think, no need to make them Learn
The Nation will help out (depending what the parents earn)
We’ll mould our students’ minds like pots, well-rounded as they spin,
And empty in the middle. Someone else can fill them in.


Joshua Ip is a poet and founder of Sing Lit Station, a literary non-profit that organises Singapore Poetry Writing Month, Manuscript Bootcamp, and other activities to promote writing in Singapore.


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by Li Shan Teo 

PARENTS no longer think that good grades are as important as before, a recent survey revealed.

But does that mean an easier time at school for kids? Well, it might be worse – for now, at least, says a National University of Singapore sociologist.

The survey, released on Sept 22, was conducted by the United Overseas Bank (UOB) in May. It gathered responses from 447 parents with children aged 12 and below, on their attitudes toward their children’s future success.

The results were, simply put, interesting:

As many as four in 10 parents believe that today’s employers focus mainly on good grades when hiring. But when asked about job hiring in the future, this number drops to only one in 10 parents.

This means parents foresee what are seen as “softer skills”, such as creativity and problem solving, to take priority when trying to clinch a good job.

However, while almost all parents polled recognised the importance of their children’s natural talents for future success, only half were aware of their children’s talents.

The reduced emphasis on good grades is surprising because just last year, parents were hiring tutors to complete their children’s homework. Many parents have also confessed to being the “main cause” of studies-related stress in kids, acknowledging that the Singapore school system is “competitive and demanding”.


So why the change in mindset?

For one, the G is attempting to move away from academics and wants students to develop their aptitudes and interests. In April, it was announced that the National Arts Council and Early Childhood Development Agency would expand their arts education programme to a total of 55 pre-schools, up from the current 19.

If you’re wondering why the G is doing this, it’s because the global economy is evolving.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2016, the top five skills needed by 2020 are: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management and coordinating with others. Social skills such as persuasion and emotional intelligence will be in higher demand in the future, compared to narrow technical skills.

Mr Dennis Khoo, Head of Personal Financial Services Singapore, UOB, said parents have to “reassess their traditional notions of what defines career success” because good grades won’t be the sole determining factor of success.

The global shift has made parents more eager to nurture their children in non-academic areas. According to the UOB survey, the top three areas are: music, sports, and speech and drama.

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) Arts Kindergarten only had 60 students when it opened in 2004 – it now has a full capacity of 300 students, and its waiting list runs up to three years. The recent Olympic gold medal win of Joseph Schooling has also spurred some parents to support their children’s sporting dreams.

And parents are willing to go all out: The UOB survey reveals that nine in 10 parents have already begun a savings plan for their child. Of these, 75 per cent are starting saving as early as at the child-planning stage and before their child’s first birthday.


Is the shift permanent? 

While it’s too early to tell, it certainly seems to be heading that way. Some educators have expressed the importance of looking beyond good grades to develop important values – Mr Edmund Lim, a former primary school teacher, told ST that grades should be seen as “only a milestone in a person’s life journey”.

The G has also stressed this fact in recent years, revamping the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) grading system. A new system that focuses on “achievement levels” is set for 2021. The Ministry of Education implemented these changes to encourage students to “focus more on their own learning, instead of scoring higher than their peers”.

But the changing mindset among parents may not be a blessing – at least not immediately.

In an interview with TMG, Dr Tan Ern Ser, a survey specialist and sociologist from the National University of Singapore, said that before employers show that good grades aren’t everything, “parents would see the need to excel in CCAs and other qualities as additional requirements to be fulfilled”. Parents may also “find themselves stretched to source for additional funds to enrol their children for enrichment courses”, he added.

“This would likely add stress to parents and their children.”


Featured image Swimming at the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics, Singapore Sports School by Flickr user Jack at Wikipedia. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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by Glenn Ong

WHAT can $7.16 million get you in Singapore?

A 5,000 sq ft bungalow in Bukit Timah, for starters. What about four brand new Ferraris – COE included – with change to spare?

Well, that’s the amount – $7.16 million – that “may be unrecoverable” from outstanding students loans from all higher education institutions, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said. This was in response to the Workers’ Party’s statement on the lapses stated in the Auditor-General’s report for financial year 2015/2016.

The WP’s statement included a claim that more than “half of the scholars selected by the AGO for test-checks failed to fulfil their scholarship obligations”, which MOE has clarified is “incorrect”.



The WP intends to ask a number of questions relating to the report in Parliament after the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) called the MOE out for failing to “ensure that tuition fee loans and study loans due were promptly recovered and prompt follow-up actions were taken on long outstanding loans“.

Taken in context, however, MOE said that the sum that it may not get back is “only 1.4 per cent” of all student loans, which, in total, amounts to $511.49 million.


Here’s a breakdown of who said what, and when:

In its audit report, the AGO said that out of 30 scholars it checked who were not serving their bonds, there were 14 cases in which MOE delayed sending letters of reminder/demand. This is probably where the WP got their statistic that “half” of the scholars the AGO checked had defaulted, which, again, MOE says is “incorrect”.

In addition, the AGO said that MOE still has $511.49 million of student loans from all Institutes of Higher Learning combined to collect, of which $228.04 million were owed by former students of NUS and NTU. This is the part which needs clarification: Scholarships are not the same as student loans. Scholarships come with bond obligations that are repaid with employment in the ministry after graduation, while loans are repaid in cash and do not bond the student to any form of employment post-graduation.

The AGO report made no reference to anyone – whether scholars or borrowers – defaulting. The focus of the report was on whether MOE had done its due diligence to recover its loans and ensure its scholars served their bonds.

MOE, however, did talk about defaulters in response to the WP, but what the ministry referred to was loan defaults, not scholarship defaults. It said that those student loans that “may be unrecoverable” account for “only 1.4 per cent” of $511.49 million, which as we have seen, is $7.16 million – still a huge sum.

MOE had also previously argued that study loans are different from other commercial loans, and that the “compassion” it exercised towards borrowers with financial difficulties justified the delays. However, economist Donald Low has called this “very bad and confused (economic) reasoning”.



Loan defaults in context

So how does the 1.4 per cent default rate, as stated by MOE, compare to others?

In comparison to car loans, the latest available data by Credit Bureau Singapore shows that car loan delinquency across all age groups ranged from 2.69 per cent to 4.79 per cent between 2003 and 2012.

What about student loan defaults in other countries? In the United States, the default rate is often in the double digits – the national rate was almost 12 per cent at the end of last year, with some schools facing a default rate as high as 26 per cent.

In the United Kingdom, about 24.5 per cent of student loans belong to British students residing outside the UK whose contact details are unverifiable. While this figure is not the default rate, it highlights the grave problem the UK has with unpaid student loans, which is so serious it could cripple their education budget.


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by Wan Ting Koh

IF YOU live in a posh area, you’ll be more successful – in our school system, at least.

A study focusing on how the distance between school and home affects income inequality across generations has found that children from less privileged backgrounds are generally hindered from succeeding in the education system.

Why? Main reason: “Better” schools tend to be located in expensive neighbourhoods.

Results of the study show that the best-performing primary schools tend to be concentrated in areas with high property prices. For example, the study observed that six “elite” primary schools, namely Nanyang Primary, Henry Park Primary, Anglo-Chinese School (Primary), Methodist Girls’ School (Primary), Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (Primary) and Raffles Girls’ Primary School, were all located in the affluent Bukit Timah neighbourhood.

The study, conducted by Mr Deepak Warrier, 21, who is entering New York University next month to read economics, and Mr Pu Liang, 21, who is studying computer science and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, was done over the space of a few months last year. It was submitted to the Singapore Policy Journal last September and published earlier this year.

Its objective was to research how giving priority to applicants who stay closer to the schools worsens inequality across generations by preventing poorer students from gaining entry to good schools, which tend to be located in wealthier neighbourhoods.

Elite schools which are located in wealthier neighbourhoods tend to favour applicants from wealthier families.

Competition for places in these schools is intense due to the multiple phases through which applicants are admitted. At the earlier stages of admission, applicants who have connections with the school, such as siblings who are studying in the school, or are children of alumni, are admitted first. And within these phases, if the number of applicants exceeds the available number of places, Singapore citizens who reside within 1km of the school are admitted first. So, elite schools which are located in wealthier neighbourhoods tend to favour applicants from wealthier families and reject students from less-advantaged families who stay further away.

Study: “In this manner, the status quo erects an obstacle to equality of opportunity and social mobility.”

Applicants from wealthier families will have the chance to attend a good primary school, likely do better in school, and eventually earn higher wages when they enter the workforce, the study said. Though the researchers acknowledged that the pathway might be overly simplistic, they added that there is a basis for arguing that school choice is likely to affect future wages. So the converse might be true for a student who enters a non-elite school. They may “plausibly be less motivated and meet with poorer academic outcomes”, the study said.


The link to property prices

The study divided the schools into three clusters based on the prices of the properties within a 1km radius. Schools in the first cluster had nearby properties with the highest prices, most of which tended to be condominiums and private property. The average weighted price for these ranged between $902.40 per sq ft and $1765.30 per sq ft.

The second cluster had schools in neighbourhoods with intermediate property prices, ranging from a weighted average price of $389.80 per sq ft to $891 per sq ft, while the third cluster represented schools situated in relatively inexpensive neighborhoods with a weighted average price of $322 per sq ft to $642 per sq ft.

Cluster one had 33 schools, while cluster two had 100 schools. The rest of the 57 primary schools studied fell under cluster three.

Apart from the six schools named earlier, cluster one includes other “brand names” like Anderson Primary School, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School, Maris Stella High School, and Tao Nan School.

However, some renowned primary schools were still situated in neighbourhoods with inexpensive housing. Of the 15 schools that were picked by the two researchers for their Gifted Education Programme – and their prominent brand names due to their celebrated histories of being set up by Christian missionaries or Chinese philanthropists – two were located in cluster three, including Ai Tong School, which is situated in Bishan.

Schools with rich histories and scores of alumni, affiliated churches and Chinese clans are able to attract private donations that may mean an “increase in educational quality arising from their brand names”, hence making them attractive to parents. The schools’ affiliation to secondary schools of quality also make them more appealing. Getting into prestigious primary schools facilitates entrance into “branded” secondary schools through alumni ties, lowered admission criteria, and CCA programmes, further entrenching inequality.

If you’re interested, we’ve mapped out the “elite” schools in the wider Bukit Timah area here:

primary school location
Eight “elite” schools are located in the wider Bukit Timah area. Image from Google Maps.


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Educational Inequality

by Yong Sheng Wong

I GRADUATED this week. I read PPE at Oxford. A lot of my graduating peers, British or otherwise, may not have found their education here particularly spectacular. It is increasingly likely that their parents went to university; to them, graduating is a momentous but nevertheless well-defined life course.

Growing up, my family was solidly working class. My mum’s parents saw very little value in a female’s education, and quite literally threw the public secondary school fee – a tiny sum even for the 60s – at her. Needless to say she stopped at GCE A-levels and was obliged to start working to support the family. My dad did the then-equivalent of ITE, and then, only after a decade of work, finished a part-time diploma and BBA. My parents chose to delay marriage and childbirth to save up enough for a HDB public flat.

Things took a turn when my dad was retrenched during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 but secured a more stable managerial role after, allowing my mum to stay at home and care for the house and our education. As I grew up, we gradually became more middle class, but my parents’ ethos on our education and austere household spending did not change.

What worries me is that my experience is increasingly unique among children growing up in households with working class or ethnic minority origins. Singapore has a growing problem of class and race inequality in its public education.

I came from a ‘neighbourhood’ primary school, and grew up under my mum’s strict supervision with the richly stereotyped “Singaporean” formulation. Like so many other “tiger mums”, she pushed me hard – a solid daily regimen of homework, extracurriculars, and so on. This helped me succeed academically beyond what my social class background would usually suggest.

What worries me is that my experience is increasingly unique among children growing up in households with working class or ethnic minority origins. Singapore has a growing problem of class and race inequality in its public education. A lot of the latter disparity can be explained by the former, like many other postindustrial societies. We see this in the income disparity across and within schools, and also in the geographical dispersion of “elite” schools.


Types of inequality

These inequalities take three main forms.

First, inequality in grades. Children from poorer class backgrounds tend to have lower academic performance – whether in alphabetical grades or the new PSLE “Achievement Levels”. Parents in service classes have more resources to provide direct cognitive benefits like intellectual stimulation from books at home, nutrition, and coaching. Or they can pay others to do it for them, explaining the booming demand for the tuition and childcare industry. More indirectly, service-class parents can afford a home environment conducive to developing their child’s non-cognitive advantages, from motivational support to guidance on how to behave toward teachers and peers in school.

Seeing education as a collective family mobilisation effort, they increase their children’s admission chances by relocating near competitive schools or volunteering in school.

Second, the inequality of progression: keeping grades constant, how much more likely are children from higher income families to progress to the next level than their lower-income counterparts? Directly, parents who are better off are also more networked and successful, and pass these benefits to their children by the ‘old school tie’, connections to internships and graduate positions. They also tend to have higher academic and career ambitions of their children. Seeing education as a collective family mobilisation effort, they increase their children’s admission chances by relocating near competitive schools or volunteering in school.

More indirectly, children from more privileged households do not need to contribute to the family’s income and so have a lower opportunity cost of lost income from higher levels of education. Finally, there is a perceptual element to all this: children raised in service-class households are more confident of their success in future education stages. They also share a prevailing view that higher education yields proportionate benefits, given an implicit belief that tertiary education is increasingly decisive of salariat access.

Finally, inequality of status. As Singaporeans are (almost) universally completing secondary education and thus demanding more tertiary education, its supply has accordingly increased in number of providers and courses. We now have five public universities like SMU and SUTD, and a substantial diversity of private institutions likes UniSIM and Kaplan. On one hand, I think it very positive that more secondary school students are eligible and enrolled into tertiary courses, providing opportunity for upward mobility. My dad’s post-secondary education in 6 years of part-time private university is a case in point.

Our education systems sort students into clearly differentiated milieux – academic and more “prestigious” tracks with similarly privileged classmates, versus vocational or more industrially focused ones. Singaporean children born today face destinies more divergent than ever before.

But the growing abundance of options has an insidious effect of society ranking institutions and courses based on reputation and ‘performance’, not necessarily connected to the actual school culture or courses offered. This reinforces a ‘prestige gap’ between institutions like NUS and some overseas universities like Oxbridge and the Ivy League, and others like locally offered private university courses. Our education systems sort students into clearly differentiated milieux – academic and more “prestigious” tracks with similarly privileged classmates, versus vocational or more industrially focused ones. Singaporean children born today face destinies more divergent than ever before.

The result of these three inequalities, as I see it, is that the initially small advantages of a child in kindergarten snowballs into large differences by the time he reaches tertiary level. In Singapore’s system, it is hard to catch up once you fall behind. So yes we are meritocratic, but in a narrow sense: a student’s one-off poor performance makes it near impossible to change ‘track’ if he/she performs better in the future. A N-level student has an abysmally low chance of entering university.

I found this true from my (limited, 18-month) experience as a student coach in a Children’s Society care centre. It provided after-school care for ‘at risk’ children from families facing financial or other difficulty. A close friend found the same when volunteering for the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home. When tutoring, learning, and playing with a whole diversity of children, I understood that most did not have a home environment conducive to further education, almost by default expecting to finish at ITE. This is not bad in itself; rather it is the fact that education attainment is so stratified by household income that is.


What can we do about it?

First, to target grade disparity, we should level the playing field. If the government is as committed to educational equality across classes as it says it is, it should minimise initial disparities before the child steps into his primary school, and not after. This is important given how price-dependent the quality of kindergartens has become. From the start, the Ministry of Education should provide broad standards and monitoring in kindergarten curriculum and delivery, especially in linguistic and numeracy skills.

To its credit, it has very recently focused on two broad types of programs: financial and developmental support to preschool children from poorer neighbourhoods like KIFAS and KidSTART, and direct English language support like Focused Language Assistance in Reading (FLAiR). The latter two programs, barely in their test phase, are too little and too late. As of 2016, just 400 children benefit from FLAiR – hardly substantial enough to make any real difference. The government would have a much easier time reducing class inequalities in education if it preempted and prevented them.

Naturally, parents may not always see the value in sending children to enrichment programs like Children’s Society activities or Mendaki’s math workshops. So centres have a critical role in bringing parents onboard: overcoming cynicism and convincing them of the program’s value. Further, research robustly suggests that educators subconsciously discriminate against children of disadvantaged class or race backgrounds in assessment. Thus, routine training in unconscious bias for teachers, especially on race and class, will encourage patience and additional supervision for less capable students.

Next, in targeting inequality of progression, Singapore has begun diversifying its academic offering. For instance, pupils now get much greater diversity of academic and non-academic options at each level of education, as well as broader criteria for admissions. We have selectively adapted practices from Nordic countries, a byword for education that is of both high quality and high equality. But this is not enough – for instance, the popular early admissions programmes (DSA in junior colleges or EAE in polytechnics) encourage students with non-academic talents to enter, but these talents are often nurtured by parents who can actually afford to develop these talents in their children.

We can do more. Structurally, the ministry should postpone or provide more “decision points” in the tracking process. Education streams, from Normal-Technical to the GEP, should not be hermetically sealed from one another. Students should be given multiple chances to explore their different and evolving intelligences and aspirations – vocational or academic. Psychologically, we should ensure that JCs and polytechnics extend their access and outreach programs to all secondary schools. Secondary (and even primary) teachers play an important role in developing their students’ aspirations, by organising trips to target schools or having freedom to arrange attendance to a tutorial in a course of interest.

If less-privileged but deserving students are not aware of opportunities available to them, then we must make opportunity go to them.

These changes are important to equality because they transform a student’s ‘opportunity set’ – particularly what lower-income students believe is possible to attain. If less-privileged but deserving students are not aware of opportunities available to them, then we must make opportunity go to them. This is what I mean by meritocracy in a broad, generous sense. It has to extend over time. When a primary school child does not have the same language skills because he did not attend kindergarten, or when a secondary school doesn’t perform well in one exam, he should have the opportunity to more rise up if he performs better later on.

Finally, existing changes in educational policy, not least the reforms I propose here, require capacity reforms to the Education Service.

Plainly, we need to first resolve teacher deficits, particularly striking in certain subjects like the humanities and in some neighbourhood schools. These are either due to teaching losing its sheen as a key profession, or the anecdotal ‘brain drain’ of MOE teachers to private tuition centres. Now the MOE may not fully control teacher attrition to the tuition industry, but it can certainly sweeten its deal to attract more to the Education Service. On compensation, it has recently raised the starting pay of teachers by up to 10%, but it could consider linking some proportion of pay to 360° reviews and grades to incentivise teachers who outperform in dedication or use ‘best practices’ in teaching.

Besides compensation, the Ministry should also consider ‘experience recruitment’, by training and supporting fresh graduates to become new teachers for a “trial” period of time. This is similar to UK’s Teach First program, which has successfully channelled many teachers to work in primary and secondary schools in low-income communities. Many of the largest UK firms, like PwC, have schemes which allow their recruited graduates to teach for a year or two, safe in the knowledge that they still have the option of joining the firm if they wish to stop teaching. It is fiddly to negotiate with private firms, but the UK experience shows it can be done.

Moving forward, teachers deserve a career development scheme that allows flexibility of transfer across leadership, specialist, and teaching roles. Educators are not mere transmitters of content; they understand how the cogs come holistically together. They have taught in neighbourhood and elite schools alike and are able to interact with all way of students.

Capping all of this is the regular collection of data on inequality – not just on basis of racial disparity in attainment (which does not usually yield a direct policy solution), but also of income. The recent NUS-Melbourne panel study is a start. The Ministry of Education should have a dedicated, consultative board on inequality that actively protects the interests of children from less affluent backgrounds.


What next?

I had origins humbler than my peers. I remember when I told my mother that I hoped to go to a good secondary school and to university. Her face changed, and she was hopeful but hesitant in supporting that dream. I now realise she wanted to manage my expectations, especially if I didn’t get to go. I write about our education system not as an educator, but as that child.

Of course policy changes have their limits. The government can only do so much. Inequality in education is a complex beast and often interacts with other inequalities, like income and race. No single policy or solution exists. But by making the system more equal, the government changes the structure of incentives that parents, teachers, and students face. In the short run, this alters how all actors behave. And in the long run, children raised in the rental flats of Jalan Kukoh have the same educational aspirations as those from Sixth Avenue.

Singapore has many inequalities, no doubt, but the very first that its citizens encounter are those in education. A nation’s education speaks directly to its character – what defines us as a nation, and what kind of society do we want to be? If our education system cannot give an equal opportunity to each child, then what else will?


Mr Yong is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. His post was first published here on his blog,, on July 18.


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by Joshua Ip

THE trouble with the education system is that it is like a complicated maths problem, but compounded by mis-information and prejudice. The thing is, it IS a simple maths problem if anyone bothers to think it through logically. Because if your Ah Boy or Ah Girl is in, or going to, primary school, you might want to read up a bit. And don’t just use the education system as a convenient whipping boy for your Ah Boy’s stress.


1. The T-Score isn’t the mark that your kid scored on his exam.

T-score stands for “Transformed Score”. It’s a number that has been moderated to show how well your kid did relative to the rest of Singapore. If your kid is NOW in primary school, you should know this. If your kid starts primary one only next year, you have to know something else.

The exact formula for T-score can be found at the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board website here.

Anyway, here it is:

“T = 50 + 10 (x-m)/s

Where x is the candidate’s mark for the subject Q
M is the average mark (mean) scored by all the candidates
S is the spread of the marks around the average mark (standard deviation)”

See? It’s a maths problem. So let’s take a few examples to illustrate.

Let’s say Ah Boy scored 100 marks out of 100 for his PSLE English exam. Good job Ah Boy! But let’s say the English test was really easy and the average score for the whole of Singapore was… 95 marks, and most people scored in the 92-97 mark range (for convenience, approximately a standard distribution of 10).

This means that Ah Boy’s T-Score would be 50 + 10 (100-95)/10 = 55… putting on him on track for an aggregate T-score of 220 over four subjects.

Let’s say that Ah Boy also scored 100 marks out of 100 for his PSLE Maths test. But, the Maths test was difficult and the average score for the whole of Singapore was… 80 marks, and most people scored in the 77-83 mark range (for convenience, approximately a standard distribution of 10).

This means that Ah Boy’s T-Score would be 50 + 10 (100-80)/10 = 70… putting him on track for an aggregate T-score of 280 (wow!) over four subjects.

As you can see, Ah Boy’s T-score depends heavily on how well every other Ah Boy and Ah Girl in Singapore does. It is a measure of relative superiority/inferiority rather than an absolute benchmark. One could also call it the “competing with the whole of Singapore” score.


2. The new scoring system is absolute.

In the new system, T-scores are done away with and you have Achievement Levels instead.

If Ah Boy scores 100 marks out of 100 for his PSLE English test, he gets 100 marks, which is AL1, no matter how well or how badly the rest of his cohort does.

As long as the standards of difficulty are clear, Ah Boy will have an identifiable benchmark to train towards.


3. This is less stressful because you compete against a fixed benchmark rather than a shifting finish line.

Once a few years’ worth of test questions and results data are out, Ah Boy will be able to test himself on that greatest of Singaporean institutions – the Ten-Year Series. If he is able to consistently score 91 per cent on his Ten-Year Series, he is likely to score that same result on the PSLE, give or take a few per cent.

Now, one may think this sounds like the exact same thing. Ten-Year Series Ten-Year Series mug mug mug – my child will still be stressed! No change! Waste time! Review system for what?

But let’s draw a clear comparison: In the past, Ah Boy would be doing his Ten-Year Series and scoring 91 per cent consistently. But 91 per cent would be his absolute grade, not his T-score (“competing with the whole of Singapore score”). If he was surrounded by a swarm of smart kids in that batch who consistently score 95 per cent and above, then his T-score would actually be below the mean – closer to an A/B instead of the A* or AL1 he would get under the new system. And the worst thing is that he would have no idea of this until the day his PSLE results appear.

As a result, the only way to guarantee success in the current T-score system is to engage in an arms race to make sure your child is more prepared than anybody else in Singapore. First, you compete to take the most tuition in Singapore. Second, when your child runs out of waking hours, you compete to take the most expensive tuition in Singapore. Then, when you find that all your friends are paying equally expensive tuition teachers, you pull all the strings you can to find the most exclusive tuition in Singapore.

The new system incentivises everyone to try to achieve their best.

Imagine if you were an NSman trying to pass your IPPT, and you were told that you would only pass if you were among the top 20 per cent of runners in your test. The able ones would start buying compression shorts and crossfit trainers and taking steroids – whereas the rest would just give up and walk.* That’s the difference between the new system (fixed benchmark) and the current system (relative benchmark). The new system incentivises everyone to try to achieve their best. The current system incentivises the rich to spend their way to the top and the poor to give up.

*(Of course, the best NSmen would “pak kat” to run slowly and minimise effort once they were clearly ahead of the pack – but apparently most Singaporean parents haven’t reached that level of genius yet.)


4. This is less stressful, because if you know which school you want to go to, you can actually aim towards it.

Let’s say Goreng Pisang Secondary School has a historical PSLE cutoff (old system) of 220. There is honestly no way to ensure – with reasonable confidence – your chances of getting in without knowing where your child stands relative to every other child in Singapore. So, regardless of how well your child is doing on his Ten-Year Series, the solution is just to add more tuition and add more expensive tuition until either PSLE comes, you go bankrupt, or your child has a nervous breakdown.

Under the new system… Your child’s results are her own.

Under the new system, let’s say GPSS has a cut-off of 20 points. If your kid just does assessment books and can reach 18-19 points comfortably and consistently, you actually have the option of just leaving it as that and maintaining a regular schooling tempo. You don’t need to worry about a sudden surge in genius in the rest of Singapore, or a last-minute burst of bonus tuition from 30,000 other kiasu parents. Your child’s results are her own.

Of course, there will be parents who think – oh, since my child can achieve 18-19 points, maybe I should push her to go for Ice Kacang Institution instead, because their cutoff is just 15-16 points and it’s within reach, with just a bit more tuition! In that case, the stress on the child clearly does not come from the education system. People need to take a long hard look at who exactly is shifting the goalposts.

Ultimately, the new system succeeds in reducing uncertainty for most Singaporeans (less the top few per cent who will be forced to play with game theory – see Daniel’s article here). Parents will now have the option of confidently picking a decent school with a strong fit and near their house, with far more certainty of getting in – rather than a random throw of the dice based on their ambition for their kids.

An absolute scoring system gives parents clearer information than a relative scoring system (assumptions: after sufficient time has passed, and if MOE doesn’t drastically tweak the difficulty of papers year on year.) And this will eventually lead to more kids and parents getting their first choice schools, without the stress of uncertainty.


Unsure of what the PSLE changes are about? Read our coverage here:

  1. 6 years is too long for longed-for PSLE change
  2. PSLE changes: Broader bands and psychological games
  3. How the new PSLE game is going to be played
  4. DSA: Don’t Study Anymore; play sports 
  5. Changes to PSLE scoring: But what about the curriculum?


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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PSLE Curriculum

by Kwan Jin Yao

IF THE aim of the new PSLE changes – replacing the T-score with wider scoring bands and introducing choice order as a tie-breaker – is to reduce the stress of excessive competition and the over-emphasis on results, then the changes should be somewhat successful.

Because within new “achievement levels” – unlike the old T-score or transformed score, which ranked student’s performance relative to other PSLE-takers – students will not be differentiated that finely or comparatively, and how they rank their secondary school choices will allow the more academically-inclined students to be distributed across a wider range of schools. This is aligned to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s vision that “every school is a good school”, and at the 2013 National Day Rally it was also the first time the G announced its plan to use wider bands for grades.

But what if education stress in Singapore results from different causes? The stress which stems from getting up to speed with curriculum content in the first place? Or the stress which stems from our continued reliance on examinations as an assessment format? And in the bigger picture, are the new PSLE changes even consistent with the broader national movement away from academics and grades, to a focus on aptitude and skills?

“… the focus of our education system should go beyond test scores. Currently, despite our efforts to move towards a holistic education, there is still a narrow emphasis on academics and paper qualifications.”

Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng seems to think so. At the Committee of Supply debates in Parliament in April this year, he first spoke of the need for better balance in Singapore’s education system, a system which he said places “narrow emphasis on academics and paper qualifications”.

“Some broad level of differentiation [at the PSLE] is still needed,” Mr Ng added, “to guide students to academic programmes that best suit their interests and strengths. But the scoring will be blunted to a large extent.”

And a month later in May, during an interview with current affairs programme Talking Point, the education minister repeated talking points about how wider scoring bands will “temper unhealthy competition” which has arisen from the T-score system of ranking students relative to their peers. Again, the focus is on the stress created by competition, and not necessarily the stress created by content or curriculum.

Yet, when Mr Ng was asked if “the school curriculum was a key source of stress that drove some to seek tuition for their children”, his response was far from convincing. “I don’t have a really good answer for you in that because it’s such a multiplex issue,” he said, before listing piecemeal changes by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in recent years, such as not naming top PSLE students and the de-emphasis of rankings between schools. “Multiplex” was the word he used to describe how many players, such parents, students, educators, and employers, must contribute to mind-set shifts.

Effecting such change may be beyond the control of the MOE, though surely some progress can be made with its curriculum and examination design, beyond the new PSLE changes? To first determine whether existing content is reasonable – if it creates pressure for those who fall behind, for instance – and then to determine whether examinations are the best way to assess skills and knowledge.

There may well be anxious parents who send their young ones to tuition, chasing that one or two extra marks – a phenomenon which should ease when the new changes come into effect in 2021 – but there are also those with children struggling to simply catch up, and for whom tuition is the only way to keep up with homework or assignments. In this vein, how much do we know about the difficulty of school content or curriculum, and the extent to which primary school students are coping? Would these students necessarily lose out if, for example, some content is removed?

Examinations, such as the PSLE, are billed by the MOE as a checkpoint to “gauge understanding of concepts and strengths” so that secondary school programmes can be better tailored to the needs of students, but how much do we know about their efficacy? And are we open to other modes of assessment?

Remember in 2010, when 16 prototype schools did away with their end-of-semester examinations for primary one pupils? This was after the MOE’s Primary Education Review and Implementation Committee in 2009 proposed to replace examinations with “bite-sized assessments” at the primary one and two levels. So what emerged from these trials? How have these primary one and two students performed since then, after two years of no examinations? Have their subject proficiencies or skills suffered as a consequence?

Examinations like the PSLE are laden with so many interpretations and experiences that parents and students have different expectations of what it should be. Given this, the MOE might want to be more explicit about the problems its policies seek to solve, moving beyond anecdote-driven conclusions. This lack of clarity between policies and problems is why many argue that the recent PSLE changes feel like no change at all and, besides levelling the secondary-school playing field, may do little to facilitate the desired mind-set shifts.

Even the anticipated success of reducing minute comparisons between scores and of making every secondary school a good school cannot be assumed. Already some are saying that the G should instead provide all secondary schools with better equipment, facilities, and teachers, when in fact it might be a chicken-and-egg problem. Since talented students – be it scholastically, or in a particular field – are central to any programme that a school or teacher wishes to run, then a critical mass of these students is needed within each school.

Outstanding concerns about the Direct School Admission or DSA scheme must be addressed too. When Mr Ng first announced the PSLE changes in Parliament, he added that a review of the scheme was underway. Students will be provided with more options, he said, and at the same time the talents or achievements identified will also be more specific. There are, nevertheless, worries that the DSA has actually created more stress and that the scheme benefits students from the more affluent families, and therefore have access to more opportunities.

In the next six years before 2021, in addition to the necessary changes to the DSA scheme, the MOE might want to set up a transparent appeal system to resist pressures from parents and alumni to stretch admission boundaries. The MOE must also be more explicit about the “distinctive strengths” and “niche programmes” of secondary schools, for parents and students to make more informed decisions. You can read our story here.

The inevitable implication, unfortunately, is that competition would now shift from academia to areas of specialisation. Perhaps, competition is something that will never quite go away, in Singapore. But at the very least, we can make it a little fairer.


Unsure of what the PSLE changes are about? Read our coverage here:

  1. 6 years is too long for longed-for PSLE change
  2. PSLE changes: Broader bands and psychological games
  3. How the new PSLE game is going to be played
  4. DSA: Don’t Study Anymore; play sports 


Featured image by Sean Chong. 

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.


SO PARENTS of the next year’s Primary One cohort will have to learn about playing mind games when choosing the child’s secondary school six years later. More than PSLE results, whether in terms of the proposed Achievement Levels or T-scores that go into three figures,  the parents’ bigger bugbear is: Which secondary school? There’s a perception that it just might be okay to have the child relax in primary school but the choice of secondary school is oh-so important, as if it determines the child’s future education trajectory and career/professional achievements.

The PSLE changes are going to relieve the stress about beating the next child by one point. It saves parents from comparing notes and feeling elated/depressed about the academic achievements of their progeny. We argued that it would even blunt the elitism effect by spreading good students among more “good” schools. You can read our story here.

Educators and parents were quick to point out in the wake of the changes that the Direct School Admission (DSA) programme might be an anomaly. The better off household who can afford the extra enrichment lessons for the child would still get a foot into a “good” school before everyone else. And what is this good school? Most likely an Integrated Programme school or the brand name schools that allow the student to skip the O levels and head for the A levels or IB.

And what is this good school? Most likely an Integrated Programme school or the brand name schools that allow the student to skip the O levels and head for the A levels or IB.

The G did its best to dispel this perception of unequal distribution when it said in February that about 60 per cent of 2,700 students who secured places in 126 secondary schools through DSA over the last five years live in HDB flats. Now, that’s an average figure. It doesn’t have the proportion of such households in the 18 IP schools.

So what you say? Just 18 schools? Another thing to remember is that  IP schools “will generally admit up to 50 per cent of their Secondary One IP intake” this way. That’s what  the Education ministry said on its website which we assume has been updated since this year’s DSA exercise started two weeks ago on July 1. What’s the quota for the rest? MOE said that for independent schools, the ceiling is 20 per cent and for autonomous schools, it is 10 per cent. There is a category known as “schools with distinctive programmes’ ‘ which can admit up to 5 per cent.

DSA has been increasingly criticised over the years.  One complaint has been that the top schools are “choping” the exam-smart by harvesting those in the Gifted Education Programme. Then there is a different complaint: That schools are letting in those who may not do well academically but can add glitter because of their sports or other non-academic talent. In other words, if you aren’t extremely smart, you must be at least extremely good in something else to make it into a top school.

This discussion came to the fore after we broke the news about how,  in the “pioneer” GCE ‘O’ Level class of 2015 in Raffles Institution, only one in 10 qualified for junior college (JC). You can read the story here.

In April this year, the G said that the DSA would be reviewed. Details will be released later but Education Minister Ng Chee Meng said the guiding principles are to “expand opportunities in more secondary schools” under the scheme and sharpen its focus to “better recognise talents and achievements in specific domains, rather than general academic ability”.

Mr Ng said: “In sum, with changes in the PSLE, DSA and a more variegated secondary school landscape, we will create more opportunities and choices for students at the Secondary 1 posting juncture.”

It’s a no-brainer. The DSA scheme has to be reviewed because the PSLE scoring system has changed. Or it would simply move the competition to the DSA arena.

One way is to move the attention away from the IP schools to those with niche programmes or in the new parlance, Applied Learning Programmes. We’re not talking about schools which are top in a certain sports or the arts which bring glory to schools,  but those which have declared that they would distinguish themselves in a specific area. There are 77 schools in this category.

If the child shows an aptitude in, say, robotics, then secondary school choices might extend to Greendale, Hai Sing or Admiralty secondary schools – where robotics will be taught in-depth right through the school years. Pasir Ris, Serangoon Garden and Riverside declared themselves distinctive in the Humanities while, and this is of interest to us specifically, St Hilda’s wants to specialise in the English language while Holy Innocents has listed journalism and broadcasting as niche areas. Last year, Bukit View took the top prize in a nation-wide green technology ideas; its Applied Learning Programme is in clean energy and environmental technology.

The G has six more years to get even more secondary schools to develop an area of strength so that they wouldn’t look like they came from the same cookie mould.

The G has six more years to get even more secondary schools to develop an area of strength so that they wouldn’t look like they came from the same cookie mould. And from what can be gleaned by the information that secondary schools give about their Applied Learning Programme, it looks like so much fun too. Bukit View students learn to build a solar car in secondary one and a water-sensing device the following year.

By then, perhaps, parents will see the value of picking a school not for just its academic results but because of the skills it will impart to young people. By then, perhaps, to drive to get companies and society to recognise the value of skills mastery will have taken root.

By then, the IP schools won’t get all the attention during the DSA exercise because there are so many other interesting schools to choose from.


Additional reporting by Vishnu Preyei

Featured image Woodlands Ring Secondary School Secondary 2 Camp by Flickr user whyohgee singapore 2010. CC BY 2.0.

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by Felix Cheong

THE blood, sweat and swearing. The preparation, pain and pressure. And it all comes down to this: A sudden-death tie-breaker.

No, it’s not extra-time in the Euro 2016 final but something more serious: Getting into a secondary school.

On Wednesday (July 13), the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced a new scoring system, due to take effect in 2021, for the life-and-damn exam called the PSLE (Please Score or Leave Empty). You can read our take on it here.

What’s interesting to me, though, is the new posting system. A three-tier tie-breaker comes into play when students have identical scores.

Citizenship status comes first, then the students’ choice order of school. If all else fails, a computerised ballot will take over.

Yes, your child’s future will be decided by a good spin of the wheel, like playing jackpot at the casino but without the $100 entry fee. It’s as random as that.

Here’s a suggestion: Why not assemble all the students on a field and let them fight over a ball, the way grown children like Ronaldo do?

Think of it as a humane version of Hunger Games. That way, we can at least say the system is still a “level playing field”.

Better yet, lock them up and see how they break out (and I don’t mean pimples). If they’re street-smart and desperate enough, they’ll find a way.

Mr Anwar  Kim An was certainly desperate enough. He escaped a Jakarta prison last week by doing it the Mas Selamat way – in drag, complete with sunglasses and a dash of lipstick.

The Indonesian, serving a life sentence for raping and killing a schoolgirl, was visited by his wife and two children on Hari Raya. Three visitors walked in, four walked out.

The guards, however, were none the wiser. Maybe they failed  Math? In any case, their days on their job must be numbered. You can’t count on good help these days.

Perhaps Mr David James Roach, the suspect behind the $30,000 bank heist at Holland Village last week, could’ve gotten away if he had dressed to the nines as a woman in Bangkok. After all, the Thai capital, where he was tracked down and arrested, is (in)famous for its lady-boys.

As it turns out, no fairy means no fairy-tale ending.

A roach, of a different kind, was also in the news this week. On Wednesday (July 13), economist Sanjeev Sanyal suggested at a conference that Singapore’s future depends on it being nimble like a cockroach.

“It is the cockroach you should be following, not the T-Rex,” he said to an audience of 500 participants. The dinosaur might be a fearsome predator, but it became extinct millions of years ago. Meanwhile, the cockroach is still around.

His point? “Your historical strength is flexibility, not innovation. It’s okay not to be the first guy to do something.”

Here, I’d like to invite Mr Sanyal to my home to witness, first-hand, my wife’s and my reaction to a cockroach doing a fast and furious run.

It’ll be a scream. Literally.

He’ll see how T-Rexes can suddenly be nimble, leaping in the air onto chairs; how it’s not okay for the guy in the house not to do anything; and how, despite my evolutionary fear of insects, I’ve to innovate with what’s within reach to kill that &^%$#.

Times like these, you wish actress Margaret Chan lives next door, so you can get her quickly over, like the matriarch she is, to say her immortal line: “I will crussssh you like a cockroach!”

It might well be China’s line, too, as it plays out Masters of the Sea with the Philippines. Maybe both sides could settle it the good old-fashioned Singapore way – by ballot instead of bullet.


Featured image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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TO FIGHT online vice, such as sexual services at hotels and residences arranged by syndicates, the Ministry of Home Affairs is working to deter and detect activities through enforcement operations and even new additions to the law. From this month, it is an offence to operate or maintain a remote communication service that offers or facilitates the provision of sexual services, and those convicted can be fined up to $10,000 or jailed for up to five years, or both. And while measures like better street lighting, more police cameras, and stepped-up patrols have maintained law and order in Geylang, more may be plying their trade behind closed doors, connecting with clients through the Internet and providing services in condominium apartments as well as shoebox units.

The challenge now, for the authorities, is thus to prevent and detect criminal groups which may be forcing or exploiting individuals.

From Geylang to the checkpoints at Tuas and Woodlands, motorists who evade tolls and other fees when entering or exiting Singapore can expect stiffer penalties. A composition sum of $50 will be introduced from next month, while repeat offenders will be fined $100, an increase from the $10 administrative fee currently levied upon those who are caught. Besides the deployment of more officers, the tougher penalties include charges for toll and fee evasion, and convicted motorists can be fined up to $1,000 or jailed up to three months.

To increase their safety, banks in Singapore have also been urged by the Monetary Authority of Singapore to put in place thorough threat assessments and adequate security measures – such as security personnel and alarm systems – after the robbery on Thursday at the Standard Chartered branch in Holland Village. A teller had handed over $30,000 to a Caucasian man, who is still at large.

In other news, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the start of work on the first 60km of the 150km-long Round Island Route green corridor, which will add to the 300km-long Park Connector Network. The overall plan is to increase cycling as a choice of commute for Singaporeans – from one and a half to between three and four per cent – with Ang Mo Kio as a car-lite test bed in the next three years. In addition to longer cycling routes or paths, the other plans include bike-sharing schemes, bike-parking at train stations and further improvements in cycling zones to keep cyclists safe.

And finally in education, 350 Singaporeans received their SkillsFuture Study Awards yesterday, and they can use the $5,000 award “to defray out-of-pocket expenses during their course of study”. Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung also took the opportunity to emphasise lifelong learning and the different pathways open to Singaporeans throughout their lives. Proficiency in the Chinese language – according to Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who was speaking at the launch of this year’s Speak Mandarin Campaign – is best built from young, with parents guiding their children to get better with practice.


Featured image from TMG file.

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