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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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So I failed my PSLE…how?

I was surprised to read that O level results matter in a polytechnic student’s application to study at university. So it counts for 20 per cent of the university admission score with the rest based on how well they did in the poly.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung thinks it should be removed: “A practice like this will raise the stakes of O-level examinations. This sends the signal that the results of this exam have long-lasting impact on your life. Perhaps, it is time to review it.”

I suppose the O level component was put in place when there wasn’t enough confidence in the value of a polytechnic education. Now, the polytechnics are seen as on a par with junior colleges, and even a more attractive option because of their skills bent.

I quipped on my Facebook timeline that looking at old exam results is like an employer asking for a potential employee’s PSLE scores. I was amazed to find out that employers, including those in the public sector, still do.

I said in my earlier column that if we want to change mindsets of society, especially parents, about the value of academic grades and skills mastery, then we should be concerned about the end point. Parents want their children to have good grades to aim for places with money and power. And employers who ask for grades obtained in examination halls eons ago add to this mindset that grades matter, even those you attained when you were 12.

I ask myself whether this is a reflection of employers wanting to keep detailed records (can you take back your resume if you’re not employed in the end?) or whether such scores really matter when deciding who’s good for the job.

Some thoughts:

  1. Maybe academic records will show consistency in performance, which might be a factor if, say, you are gunning for a scholarship.
  2. Maybe, poor results can be read as evidence of a late bloomer! Somebody who overcame the odds and got better and better!
  3. Maybe blips in an academic record is evidence of erratic genius. (Do employers ask what co-curricular activities you took part in in primary school?)

I guess that in an employer’s market, you simply have to give up what records employers want because you’re too desperate to land the job. Nobody wants to call such data “private’’ lest they be deemed potential troublemakers even before making it through the door.

But this column isn’t about data privacy, it’s about bringing people round to the idea that grades aren’t everything. It’s fashionable to blame the education system, not matter how much it changes its curriculum to include thinking rather than memory skills or to include more “applied’’ components.

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It’s even fashionable to blame parents. There was this term “effort inflation’’ Mr Ong used for students who still slog as intensively even when such effort wasn’t demanded of them or even necessary. Somehow we simply cannot believe that school is not stressful.

Talk to employers and they will say that grades don’t count for everything. That’s the politically correct thing to say in public. You hear of their aptitude tests and interview skills and how they are more important than exam scores. They don’t tell you that the exam scores are the first cut. They don’t explain why they want your PSLE, O level and A level scores. More often, they cite “policy’’ as if it is the answer to all pesky questions.

Those with long memories will recall how during the 1984 general election, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had compared the O level results of Potong Pasir candidates Mah Bow Tan from the People’s Action Party and the opposition’s Chiam See Tong.

He said: “Mah Bow Tan, age 16, took his ‘O’ Levels – six distinctions, two credits. Mr Chiam, age 18 – six credits, one pass.”

The voters didn’t care and MrChiam won 60.28 per cent of the votes. I suppose people will now say that electing a politician and employing someone require different considerations. Maybe. But my thesis still applies. Why would you care how a person did in school so long ago when the concern should be whether they can do the job that is placed in front of them.

Now, if the university admission criteria can be changed for polytechnic students, the same question can be posed to employers who want all sorts of academic data – why is it so important for you to know?

Maybe Mr Ong can assert his authority in the public sector and, at the very least, drop this notion of PSLE scores as an application requirement.

PS. I didn’t fail my PSLE.


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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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