Sunday, 17 April 2016

School Stories #17: No more T-score. Now what?

After waiting almost 3 years for more details, MOE has finally released some information pertaining to doing away with the PSLE aggregate score.

During his 2013 National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the PSLE T-score will be replaced with wider scoring bands, like the O and A level exams, in a bid to reduce stress levels by not sorting the students so finely.

Now we have a date. 2021.

The first batch of pupils to be affected will be this year's Primary 1 cohort.

Parents with children from P2 to P6 can heave a sigh of relief at finally getting an answer, and continue with their current strategies.

In the meantime, the other parents are second-guessing what is in store as more information will only be released in the coming months.

The big question being, how is MOE going to address the issue of allocating places into secondary schools when they will clearly get many students with similar grades vying for that last spot.

Already, super kiasu parents have been pre-empting the announcements and are padding their children's resumes in the event that non-academic achievements can be used as the tie-breaker.

This would be an unfortunate scenario, as instead of alleviating the current high stress levels, it will add even more stress to the children as parents push them to achieve in these other areas as well.

Furthermore, it will widen the gap between the haves and have-nots as wealthy parents have more money and time at their disposal to ferry their kids to the best enrichment classes around, some who can even "guarantee" good portfolios.

Worse, I hope that we will never see a day when parents drive their kids even harder to attain the next band up, instead of just the next point up.
The GREY HANDBOOK
What are the changes?

So far, I'm in agreement with everything that has been announced.

- that "the new system will no longer depend on how pupils do relative to each other", as has been with the T-score.

Strange that this system has gone unquestioned for so long. If I scored an A, it shows I have a good grasp of the material, and I'm satisfied with the effort I put in. Not only will it beget contentment and equanimity, but is a healthier mentality than thinking, "I have to score an A* to beat the others."

- that it will only be implemented in 2021 as the ministry needs a "few years to work through the changes carefully, developing and testing the new exam and secondary school posting systems".

Such a major overhaul is going to throw up unforeseen challenges and ample time is needed to consider how the herd will respond, so that unintended consequences can be carefully smoothened out to ensure this change is indeed for the better.

- that "a five-day OBS (Outward Bound Singapore) expedition-based camp will be compulsory for all Sec 3 students from 2020".

Brilliant. I have always believed that the outdoors is a terrific teacher, in more ways than one. More opportunities to spend time in the great outdoors is necessary especially in this age where our kids are so sheltered and spend way too much time indoors, and on their gadgets.

- that "more will be done to match students' interests with their course of study" and "up to 12.5% of the polytechnic intake, starting from next year's cohort, will be admitted via the new Early Admissions Exercise (EAE)". "The EAE will assess students' suitability for admission on the basis of their aptitude, talents and interests in the courses they are applying for. This could include interviews, aptitude tests and portfolios".

Tertiary education admission is an important part of the whole equation, as parents would be reassured of the chances of their children entering their chosen fields, and has to be carefully administrated.

All good changes in the right direction. But how does that solve the problem of the high stress levels and parents' unrelenting chase for sought-after-schools?

Nothing will change if mindsets don't change.

It baffles me how on one hand, parents are waiting with bated breath to see what alternatives the MOE will come up with, yet whenever new policies are introduced, they will try to find ways to maximise their child's chances and look for loopholes to squeeze their children into schools which they perceive as 'good'.

There will always be a tier of parents who are aiming for the creme de la creme list, believing that the elite schools and the benefits that come with them will outweigh any cost or sacrifice, whether on their part or their child's.

So be it.

However, for the great proportion of parents who wish there was a better way, a way where they can walk away from this academic arms race, yet not short-change their children, here's what can be done.

Make the majority of schools desirable to the majority of students and parents, to spread out the demand.

What do I mean?

Let's just pretend that this year, #4 were to score 250 for her PSLE. I would strongly encourage her to go to the same school as her 2 older sisters even though the cut-off point is 230.

I have witnessed first-hand how the school has shaped #2 over the past 4 years, and as a Parents' Support Group volunteer (aka opportunity to watch her interact with her peers, have informal chats with her teachers and even her Principal), I have journeyed with her closely to know that she has imbibed much more than academic knowledge.

From their specialised Learning for Life programme which every student went through from Sec 1 to Sec 4, to the vast number of leadership opportunities to nurture them, the dedication of so many caring teachers (which I can write a whole post on) and the "looking-out-for-one another" culture amongst them, I have been converted to a loyal supporter of their school.

The branding and identity of each school has to be that strong.

This entails a two-pronged approach.

The first aspect would be for every school to have a specialised programme which benefits every single one of their students, not just a select few, and the second but equally important part, is to market these programmes well to both the students and parents.

And guess what?

All our secondary schools already have these wonderful unique programmes running!

Surprised?

Here's what else our Acting Education Minister Mr Ng Chee Meng announced recently:

"(The next few years) will give parents and pupils the chance to understand and adjust to the new system. In the process, secondary schools will develop strengths and specialised programmes. This will allow students to choose a school that is a good fit for them"

In 2013, then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said that all secondary schools will offer two distinctive programmes by 2017 to develop students beyond academics.

One is an applied learning programme to help students see the relevance of what they learn and the second, a "learning for life" programme to develop character and skills such as teamwork through activities like a school expedition.

The problem is, not many parents are aware of these programmes.

I still remember the process I went through with #1 and #2 when we had to pick 6 schools after the PSLE results were out.

We took out THE GREY HANDBOOK which listed all the secondary schools alphabetically.

As with many parents, the order to select a school went more or less like this:

1) Brand name (Let's just see.. WOAH!)

2) Cut-off point (We'll flip around and highlight those that are close)

3) Distance (Narrow down the search of eligible schools by distance)

4) CCAs (Check that the shortlisted schools have CCAs he/she intends to join)

5) Details of programmes (Read about the specialised programmes and awards. With 165 pages of details of schools, we were overwhelmed and read only those we shortlisted)

6) Friends (All the better if possible to be in the same school)

We visited the various open houses and surfed the websites of the schools we were keen on. Problem was, we didn't know exactly what we were supposed to be looking for.

I casually interviewed the neighbours in my condo with secondary school going children and most of them gave me vague answers such as, "The school is not bad. The Principal is quite nice. The teachers seem ok. The friends so far also ok."

Not once did anyone mention, much less rave about any outstanding programme they knew about. Yet their own kids were studying in the school!

One neighbour did mention that her son's school has a rock climbing wall. "Since your kids like to do rock climbing, they can consider this school."

Come to think of it, I do not even know what specialised programme #1's school had and she has already graduated!

Perhaps MOE needs a better marketing communications team.

Enough of "Every school a good school."

It's like saying "Every parent a good parent".

Don't we expect every parent to be a good parent?

We need to face the fact squarely that every school is not the same, just as every student and every household is not the same.

The message should be more along the lines of Every school has a unique programme. Which one fits your child?

While writing this post, it dawned on me that if #2's school has such a wonderful programme, all the other schools must have one too!

I started pouring over the tiny print in THE GREY BOOKLET and lo and behold, I am intrigued.

What sort of specialised programmes are we talking about?

If you look under the innocuous heading of "Special Student Development Programmes" in THE GREY HANDBOOK, you will see that they run the gamut from Social Entrepreneurship training, to Eco-sustainability, Robotics and Engineering, Effective communication/public speaking, Business & enterprise/Essentials of Marketing, Leadership with service to the community and even applied learning through Aerospace!

I had actually gone through the handbook twice, once with #1 and again when #2 had a different aggregate score from her sister, yet none of these remarkable programs caught my attention.

There is a lot of information and jargon to sieve through and it is easy to get overwhelmed.
Specialised programmes
We were given 7 days to make our selection of 6 schools and as a result, we defaulted to the more easily defined match of cut-off points, potentially missing out on wonderful opportunities to discover other schools which may have been a better fit.

Then there are the niche programmes.

All schools have been building up their niche programmes, be it in sports, science or the arts.

That's an excellent way not only to distinguish themselves, but to pool resources and groom our youngsters who show aptitude and interest in a variety of arenas.

However, say I live in the East. Would it be practical for my child to travel all the way to the West for a niche sport?

It has been physically and mentally draining for my 3 older kids as training in their niche activity took up 3 days per week. One mistake I made was not factoring in peak hour traffic.

For #1, it took her 20 minutes to get to school by bus, but an hour to get home because during peak hour traffic, the buses were full and did not stop. By the time she got home it was 7.30pm, which left her hardly enough time to finish her homework and get to bed at a decent hour.

The more realistic scenario would be to look at the schools in the vicinity of our homes, consider their cut-off points and keep in mind the niche areas.

If there is no good fit, that's where the level-wide Learning for Life programmes would come in to distinguish one school from another.

Branding Every school

For many years, I've seen a strange phenomena going on in my older children's previous primary school.

It is a popular school with frantic volunteering and balloting as it is consistently in the top 10 ranking.

However, after a few years of having their child in the school, the parents are wondering what all the hype is about, and can see no significant advantage the school has to offer. And the most dismal realisation is that the stellar results were achieved via excessive tuition.

How's that for successful branding?

I still remember vividly an article about a school which allowed their entrepreneur club students to run the drinks stall in the school canteen. I don't remember the details as it was many years ago but it stuck in my mind.

Parents need to hear about exciting events and experiences that go on in the schools and the media can play its part.

How will we know we have succeeded?

We need a paradigm shift from the prevailing method of choosing a secondary school to this scenario:

Mum: These 10 schools (with a various range of cut-off points) have niche activities or specialised programmes that you would like to pursue, and ethos which our family aligns with. Instead of spending 6 hours a week on tuition for several subjects, let's allocate 2 hours for tuition on your weak subject and spend the rest of your time on family activities or other pursuits.

Another way to look at it is if the child is very talented in a particular field and sets his sights on a certain school with that niche area, it would be a great motivator for him/her to work hard to achieve the necessary grades.
Hard to study all 165 schools' information

Time to update the way THE GREY HANDBOOK presents the information.


Now that our secondary schools are rolling out interesting and successful programmes, it is time to make the information easily digestible by parents.

I had the misguided impression that the "Special Student Development Programmes Offered" paragraph was simply acclaiming their school's merit, with jargon like highly effective programme, balanced academic curriculum, and various mentions of awards, that I gave it a cursory glance.

The way the information is presented seems to be at the discretion of the schools, and for some, it was not clear if the programmes / overseas trips mentioned were for the whole cohort or a select few.


It would be immensely helpful if parents could have a separate summary booklet of all the schools' unique programs, in a consistent format. And after shortlisting the schools, they can refer to the handbook and the websites for more information.

A cheat sheet like this would be useful (the following information was randomly lifted from the grey handbook).

Nearest MRT: Ang Mo Kio

Type of school: Co-ed / SAP / IP

Mother Tongue: Chinese / Malay / Tamil

Learning for Life programme: (For All students) Design Thinking

Aims: To prepare students for the complexities and challenges faced in this digital age of social and economic revolution and innovation.

Sec 1: Integrated learning journey with holistic learning experiences

Sec 2: Leadership camp

Sec 3: Overseas adventure camp

Sec 4: Whole school youth carnival cum learning fiesta

Programme for selected students based on aptitude: Design Thinking focusing on Health Sciences and Technology, in partnership with Science Centre Singapore.

Niche area: Hip hop dance (I'm simply picking one CCA out from their list, as it is neither listed in the grey handbook nor on their website or I'm just not enough of a sleuth.)

Special mention: The students' work in designing and making rehabilitation equipment for real-life nations with wrist injuries, has been showcased at MOE ExCEL Feast 2013 and the PS21 Convention 2013.

Many parents hold the mindset that academic comes first, and all else is secondary. However, I can see how these concurrent programmes actually help to motivate them in their studies, and give them vital skills which would not only serve them well in the school setting but more importantly, laying a strong foundation for them as they move on to tertiary education and beyond.

If you ask any child, they will likely tell you that the fondest memories they hold of their secondary school life are the school camps, overseas trips, or organising of events with their friends.

Why wait till Primary 6 to hand out such important information about the  secondary schools and what they offer?

This information should be made available to parents much earlier. Or at least an abridged version.

Parents can then watch out for the budding interests in their children over the years, perhaps join some CCAs in primary school or externally to see if their interest is sustained, and start to make their plans accordingly.

If more details can be provided about what the secondary schools have to offer, parents can make a more informed decision as to which school would best fit their child instead of solely relying on brand names to equate with quality education.

With more parents loosening up and not joining in the fray to enter the perceived 'good' schools, whatever new system that will be implemented to sort the pupils by a wider band will have a chance of success at what it aims to do: reduce the stress of this high stakes exam.

A simple analogy.

Instead of trying to use genetic modification to make all fruits look like apples (or durians, the King of fruits), shouldn't we embrace the fact that together, the different fruits make a dynamic fruit basket bursting with colour?

Changes are happening very rapidly and our children will be facing challenges which they have to rise up to and conquer.

Are they prepared?

As a nation, do we want to be shackled by the single-minded pursuit of chasing that last mark as can be seen by the billion dollar tuition industry?

The next few years will be extremely interesting, to see how parents react to the new measures and if there will indeed be a shift in mindset.

Oh well, we will have no part in this academic arms race and go on our merry way as we have always done.

The good news is, now I know what to look for, and the secondary school landscape is looking much brighter for #5 and Kate. I'm going to study THE GREY HANDBOOK to mark off some suitable schools for my son!

Related posts:

When this announcement was made in 2013, I wrote a post "So who's smarter". By a policy shift, #2 who scored 3As and 1A* would be deemed smarter than #1 who scored 4As, although #1 had an aggregate 10 points higher. Much food for thought, isn't it?



School Stories:

#1 - When your son gets into fights in school
#2 - My son the loan shark
#3 - So kids can't play once they start school?
#11 - How #2 topped her level in English
#12 - DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 - Tuition - First line of attack?
#14 - Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 - First day mix up!
#16 - The day I forgot to pick my son from school

~ www.mummyweeblog.com -  a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~



4 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing, have a great week ahead.

    ReplyDelete
  2. So much food for thought... you're right in saying that the next thing to see is how the herd responds...

    I do hope that the super kiasu are really the minority, and the majority are parents who 'wish there was a better way, a way where they can walk away from this academic arms race'. I can't help feeling that the majority are the super kiasu, and folks like you and I are seens as the siao minority. I have this feeling that most parents will still try their best to give their kids a leg up, no matter what MOE says, but I do hope sanity will prevail in the medium term before we (and our poor kids) all lose our minds. :P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Lyn,

      Yes, and irregardless of what new admission criteria will be used, it will be impossible to please everyone.

      It's funny how parents pump their kids with tuition, but at the P6 level, when it becomes apparent that their grades wouldn't cut it for the top tier schools they are aiming for, they become resigned and start asking more experienced mums about other school options. And after their kids enter those schools, they have positive things to say about the school! I've seen that happening quite a lot.

      So, wouldn't it be wiser, to have in mind a range of school options with varying cut-off points right from the beginning?

      Delete

(function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i['GoogleAnalyticsObject']=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,'script','//www.google-analytics.com/analytics.js','ga'); ga('create', 'UA-43179904-2', 'mummywee.blogspot.com'); ga('send', 'pageview');