The Buzz over Education: Schooled for stress?

By Sean Lim


For a country that has received much praise for its education system, one would expect Singaporeans to wax lyrical about it. But hell no, many remain worried over the relevance of the school curriculum. Are schools doing enough to prepare thinking students who would be doing life-long learning, or they simply churning out students who can only score at exams?

Sure, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) threw up impressive figures, with Singaporean students beating their peers elsewhere in mathematics, science and reading. Their scores are also above average among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

But some argue that the high PISA scores were due to over-drilling and preparing for the examinations on the students’ part. The local universities struggle with this conundrum too. Despite emerging near the top of world university rankings, local graduates and undergraduates do not seem to take much pride in them. The faculty members probably do so, as these rankings are largely based on the research output of a university. In the Times ranking, for example, 60 per cent of a university’s performance is based on research output.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung thinks it preferable that universities be assessed on its collaboration with industries, society and the government, as well as the impact they make, instead of only publications and citations.

Singaporeans have high expectations of the education system and this is reflected in government expenditure. For financial year 2018, $13.1 billion was spent on education, out of $79 billion (17 per cent). The bulk went to paying salaries ($4.1 billion). On average, teachers bring home close to $5,800 per month, the highest-paid in the world after Germany and Switzerland.

Because school fees are heavily subsidised (to the tune of about $440 million for Singaporean students), discussion about education is rarely about fees. Okay, there will be some grumbling when universities raise fees, but it seldom came to boiling point.

Non-parents who want to know what schools charge can see here.

The more contentious and evergreen talking point, rather, is school admissions. As admissions at most levels are based on national examinations, other issues such as meritocracy, inequality, tuition culture, overwhelming stress and paper chase get snowballed in.

Of the different education milestones, it is the entry point for primary school that arouses the greatest reaction. Unlike admission to secondary schools and tertiary institutions, there are no examinations to determine the allocation of 7-year-olds to primary schools. Instead, allocation is based on distance one’s residence is from a school and connections, among others, according to different phases of the allocation exercise.

The worry is that the system privileges those who are within the patronage network of elite schools. This social capital gets passed on through the generations, leaving out the “unconnected’’ to scramble for places in other phases of admission. Even distance-based allocation can be controversial because popular primary schools tend to be located in more affluent neighbourhoods. So, you could possibly kiss goodbye to a place in Nanyang Primary School, for example, if you do not live in the upscale district 10.

This obsession is because certain schools are perceived to provide a higher quality of education and prepare students better for the exams, which can get them into similarly good schools later. It is the starting line of the race to the top.

Because of how pivotal exams are in determining the next step of one’s education journey, parents throw the proverbial kitchen sink at their children. And that includes signing them up for tuition and enrichment classes to be further ahead in the rat race, especially if they do better in exams after being in those classes. According to The Straits Times, families spent $1.4 billion in 2018 on such lessons, a figure which has grown steadily for more than a decade.

Tuition expenses


The ministry’s move to de-emphasise grades in school admission via the Direct School Admissions (DSA) – which grants admissions based on one’s talents or non-academic achievements – wasn’t very effective either. Some quarters have criticised this scheme for further entrenching social inequality, since it is common for parents to invest into expensive sports or arts classes for their children from a young age, hoping they are eventually talented enough to secure a place in an elite school. In fact, there are even enrichment centres with specially-curated preparatory classes to groom a child for the DSA – centres such as Ace Academy and J Carter Centre. It is hard to imagine low-income families being able to afford such extravagance.

But those good schools in recent years have come under fire for being too snooty and elitist. Statistics have reflected class stratification among the schools, with students from higher socio-economic backgrounds more likely to attend Integrated Programme (IP) secondary schools or schools with the Gifted Education Programme – institutions that are deemed the pinnacle of elitism. Anecdotes have been surfaced, showing how teachers in top schools often indoctrinate the concept of elitism into their students, by reminding them of their status.

There are signs that things in the top schools are changing, though the jury is still out on the extent this can changes societal mindsets. For instance, Raffles Institution (RI) started giving out scholarships nine years ago to needy pupils in primary schools who are doing well in school, which aims to encourage them to study in such top schools despite their income background. Stories which depict the not-as-glamorous side of studying in a top school has also emerged, such as this Singaporean here who dropped out of the IP as he could not cope or the 10 RI students who dropped out from its IP, with one of them not even making the cut for junior college after receiving his “O” Level results.

Some significant reforms have taken place in the education system - at every level.


A massive effort was started in 2016 to make sure that low-income children will be as ready for school as their more affluent counterparts. KidStart, first introduced in 2016, is for Singaporean children up to age six and from low-income families residing in Bukit Merah, Kreta Ayer, Boon Lay, Taman Jurong and Geylang Serai. Some 1,000 children are on this $20 million programme which comprises regular home visits by relevant professionals to advise parents on child growth, supported playgroups for parent-child bonding parents and enhanced support for pre-schools. The rationale is to enable children from low-income families to have a good start in life and not get disadvantaged by their socio-economic circumstances.

Last August, the Prime Minister announced that his programme will be expanded to cover another 5,000 children. The qualification ceiling for households entitled to pre-school subsidies was also raised from $7,500 of monthly household income, to $12,000, benefiting about 30,000 more families.


The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system will be changed from next year, with primary six pupils no longer receiving the ubiquitous T-score on their results slip from 2021 onwards. Instead, they will be graded with wider scoring bands, similar to the “O” and “A” Level examinations. Pupils will no longer be ranked based on how they do relative to their peers in the PSLE, with the aim of encouraging them to focus on their own learning rather than competing to outdo their peers.

There was some confusion over how students doing Foundation level subjects will be assessed alongside their peers in the Standard curriculum - and whether they disadvantage some students from getting into a secondary school of their choice.

There is even an online petition set up to persuade Mr Ong to review the PSLE scoring for pupils exempted from studying their mother tongue, with 11,408 signatories as of 28 January 2020.


A sacred cow - streaming - has been slaughtered. For decades, students were allocated into Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams based on their PSLE results. This was originally aimed at reducing high attrition rate from a one-size-fits-all system with pupils of differing capabilities. With streaming, pupils can learn at a pace that suits their learning capacity. This also meant those less academically inclined can still have an opportunity to learn instead of dropping out of school.

But streaming has led to social stratification as students from the Normal streams were stigmatised as being not as intelligent as their Express-stream counterparts. Under the reforms, streaming will be abolished in 2024 and replaced by subject-based banding. Like an ice-cream cone with different flavours instead of a single flavour, students can pick subjects from three different tiers, pegged at different difficulty levels, based on their strengths and interests.

Another reform introduced is the abolition of mid-year examinations at the Secondary One and Three levels by 2021, to reduce the emphasis on academic results. This move, however, worried some parents who saw the mid-year exams as a gauge of their children’s standard.


This year, four in 10 in an age cohort should be studying in institutes of higher education.

Although Education Minister Ong said that graduate unemployment rate is low because most of the education students receive remain relevant to industries, there are still worries over an oversupply of graduates. Even if graduates manage to find a job, there is still a question mark over whether they can find one that fits their aspirations and interests.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Mr Ong also said hiring practices should be changed to focus more on one’s competence instead of only qualifications. This is because times have changed - in the past, fewer people studied in a university and hence being a graduate signalled that an individual is capable.

However, with close to half of each cohort now able to study in a local university, Mr Ong said employers must adjust to hire one that can do the job, instead of one with certificates.

Read Sean’s take on this issue here.

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