I’m glad my parents were so chill about education

By Sean Lim

PHOTO: LIANG LEI


The recent changes to the education system came too late for me — although I have no laments personally. Frankly, I sailed through the school system, not because I am a top student, but I’m good enough. So when I was asked to assess what the changes would have meant to me if I were still in the school system, I thought: mampus, siao liao.


Determining my Primary Six worth with a T-score or achievement levels (ALs)? Either way doesn’t matter because I’m fortunate to grow up in a family where my parents do not place academic pressure on me. Nor did they emphasise the difference between Normal and Express streams in secondary school. Being the oldest sibling, I was spared comparisons with my sister, who is three years younger. My parents didn’t even see the need for private tuition.


Unlike my peers who get the rotan because they do not score full marks for an exam, my parents were pretty chill about my results. Having ALs wouldn’t make much of a difference to me since I’m not someone who would get the slipper treatment if I scored 94/100 instead of 95/100. In fact, I was more likely to get the rotan for misbehaviour rather than poor academic performance.


I understand why my friends got caned. It’s about face. Parents can’t bear to think their children will be labelled “stupid”, “hopeless” or “CMI” (cannot make it) because of what school they go to or what education stream they are placed in. Classifying students into academic streams worked in the 1970s when many were dropping out of school but over time, it has increased the social divide among young people.


To make things worse, there are unequal opportunities between the different streams. For example, the smarter ones in Express usually have a higher chance of helming leadership positions in their co-curricular activities while chances are slim for those in the other two Normal streams.


That’s why parents by every means possible try their best to ensure their kids are not condemned to oblivion, be it through force-feeding them tuition or chicken essence. As streaming and school admissions are determined by national exams, children face extraordinary pressure from their parents to do well in those.


And that is why it is almost a ritual for parents and children to cry foul whenever there are difficult questions in the PSLE paper, never mind such questions are only a handful.


I’m fortunate to have the brains to do well at the PSLE. My score could not get me into the likes of Raffles or Hwa Chong, but decent enough to enter my choice school, Chung Cheng High School (Yishun) – and in the Express stream. Stigmatisation from streaming doesn’t bother me since I’m on the long end of the stick. I did not even worry about streaming - I just assumed my results will certainly be good enough to be in the Express stream, which takes in students from a wide band of scores, ranging from 188 to 300. Talk about being part of the privileged majority.


Replacing streaming with subject-based banding (SBB) wouldn’t have benefited me either because I am a jack of all trades, hence the status quo of taking all subjects pitched at the same standard works well.


But I’m aware of my privilege. I am fortunate to be blessed with the ability to sail through my school years smoothly under the existing system. When Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced some of these reforms during the 2019 Committee of Supply debates, some of my Normal stream friends, even after having left those school days behind, were elated that streaming will be abolished. They never forget how they suffered through the labelling and sense of inferiority created by streaming.


Over time, let’s hope Express and Normal will disappear from our lexicon. After all, we hardly hear anyone bring up EM1, EM2 and EM3 in the education discourse anymore, right? What are those acronyms, the younger ones may ask. EM stands for “English and Mother Tongue”, with the smartest students in EM1 studying higher mother tongue and EM3 students doing foundation-level subjects. The system was completely abolished in 2008.


However, I have some bones to pick with the ministry’s reforms. Under subject-based banding, the traditional concept of a “form class” will change. Students will be in different classes for various subjects, according to their ability level, only convening in the “form class” for common non-core subjects such as physical education. The “form class” will not spend the whole day taking the same subjects together.


How to build camaraderie among classmates if they spend fewer hours together in a fixed form class? I recall being very attached to my class and my classmates felt like a second family. Such bonds will be hard to create if all were like nomads, shuttling around different classes. This softer and emotional aspect of school life seems to be neglected by MOE in the reforms. They need to rethink if school is simply all about picking up knowledge and hard skills, or also a learning journey filled with friends, mishaps and happy memories.


Also, erasing labels is a good thing but not if they still stick in the minds of teachers and come out of their mouths. They need to refrain from casual snobbery. Even within the Express stream, my chemistry teacher favoured those who took the pure sciences, which is academically more rigorous, over combined science students. This is similar to the Subject-based Banding framework where subjects are pitched at different levels of difficulty.


The same thing happened in my junior college years where lecturers say: “If you are lazy and do not perform for your H2 subject, you will downgrade it to a H1” — with H2 subjects being more academically rigorous, implying H1 students as less capable than their H2 counterparts.


I’m also disappointed that individual rankings – one’s position in the class and cohort – will no longer be recorded in the report book. I thrived on the competition. I will miss the friendly banter in class where we treated the release of results like the annual Star Awards “Top 10 most popular artistes” ceremony, cheering and clapping. Besides having it all in good fun, the rankings spurred me to work harder (if my position slipped) or not be complacent (if I was in the top 10).


Fostering competition is not always bad if we treat it positively. We need to be careful that in our bid to discourage disparagement, we might be going the anti-elitist, conformist mode of being politically correct — such as, uhh, recognising the top eight positions instead of four in some sports at the National School Games, to “provide more opportunities for student-athletes to experience success”. I share the same sentiments as this Straits Times journalist, who wondered if such broad-based awards will blunt the competitive edge and the drive for excellence in sports.


The recent education reforms may not benefit me personally, but I must not forget others with less favourable circumstances who would find the new changes beneficial. While school was fun for me, it was certainly not funny for those labelled and consequently left behind under existing policies.


I am supportive of the reforms. Even though they are no longer relevant to me, who knows, it might be for my children in the future.


But let me find Miss Right first.


Read the buzz over education here.

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