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Don’t demoralise the best

I belong to the generation who never had to go through streaming in school, at least not in so refined a manner. We just did six years of primary school, and then moved on to four years in secondary school. There were only two “streams” then, Arts and Science. So-called smarter students studied science. Then we had to decide if we could clear the hurdle for two years of a pre-university education, or do three. The pinnacle was getting accepted into the one university we had then.

So it was a funnel which kept getting narrower and narrower – before we were streamed/strained/dripped and, hmm, creamed out. Even now, I kid my undergraduate students that if I threw a stone into a crowd, I would probably hit an undergraduate or graduate.

My route was far less complicated than that which my younger brother took, as he was among the earliest batches of Normal and Express stream students. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when he was fed into the Normal stream. No matter how officials cut it, Normal wasn’t normal, as it meant five instead of four years in school.

There has been so much differentiation since, in the form of the Gifted Education Programme, and EM1/2/3 in primary school. Then Normal was divided into Academic and Technical and the general assumption was that the Normal (Technical) stream took in the worst students, whether in grades or character. Now, there are Foundational and Standard subjects in primary school and soon, a three-level system of subjects in Secondary school. My nephew will be in the first cohort to take the subject-based banding in  PSLE in 2021. My brother and I don’t know if it is good or bad to be a guinea pig in the education system.

The latest changes announced by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung aim to take the stigma out of streaming, which had really never faded away since my brother’s time. This is even though in recent time, the media keeps profiling ex-Normal students who did well later in life and extolling the virtues of a slower pace of education. I wish the media also did the same for the Express stream students who did badly for a balanced picture. This would prove that a great start does not always lead to happily ever after.

Many people have weighed in on the changes, wondering among other things if this was just more of the same. I think the challenge will be a logistical one for schools, which will have to grapple with students of different abilities in different subjects. I reckon they would be moving from classroom to classroom, joining different students depending on the level of the subject taken.  This is not unlike the way undergraduates move from tutorial to tutorial in the course of a school day. Of course, the aim of de-stigmatisation would be moot if schools take the easy way out, and group all the students who G3 every subject together.

I think the boot is now on the other foot. The stigma is now attached to the best students in the best classes in the best schools. Now more so because the changes do not apply to the Integrated Programme schools. Already charges of elitism are being levelled at the Education ministry. Should this last bastion be stormed too?

Whenever I read parents’ cheering response to the changes, I wonder if their children are good students or just “ordinary”, “normal” kids. I cannot see a parent of a genius child applauding the changes and making a beeline for a neighbourhood school. It would still be an IP school for his kid, although it wouldn’t be politically correct to say so in these times when egalitarianism, equality and inclusiveness are buzzwords. Out of fashion: meritocracy, excellence and exceptionalism.

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I sometimes pity the students from good schools. In competitions, they are the ones to beat. I have seen other students give them a wide berth or demonstrate disdain. Since there are fewer of them and more of the rest, they are isolated minorities whenever schools cluster. They might be cosseted and held up in the community, but I am not sure it is true among their peers and cohorts.

Of course, there will be charges of exclusivity and privilege against them and some of them might be true. However, I sometimes wonder if it is society which forced them to be separate,  rather than though any intent or action of their own.

These clever ones put in a glass bottle, the clever ones. And because of the “clever” label, the assumption is that they come from high SES homes, had a good head start and are armed with plenty of social capital, something which Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing once railed against.

I make this point because even as we chafe against putting our children into boxes, bottles or jars, we must realise that the best and the brightest would spill over and out of them. And they should be given every opportunity to shine, even if it means stressing them to do better in the company of peers of equal ability. Just as we don’t like our children to be labelled stupid, I don’t think we should denigrate those with talent or who want to do even better in different surroundings.

It’s a tough balance then, between becoming more inclusive while upholding excellence as a virtue.

The recent debate on inter-school competitions was instructive. So sports competitions for students aged nine to 11 will have medals to recognise the first eight “winners”, if the competition involved more than 15 students. Questions are being asked if this is a blunting of excellence.

By a strange coincidence, my nephew is affected too – by having his sport, shot put, suddenly extinguished from school calendar and no longer considered one of the Junior Division games. It was bolt from the blue for the nine-year-old, who had been collecting gold medals in friendly inter-school competitions for two years.

Over the years, meritocracy has been getting a bad name. It is now seen as a system more relevant at a time when everyone was starting at more or less the same low base. Now it is viewed as a system which perpetuates an elite class who used the rewards of meritocracy to advance its own progeny.

So changes have been made: Rankings have made way for bandings and academic results are top secret. It is better to give more medals – or none. Unless it is for the glory of the country or education system, like PISA competitions and Maths Olympiads, good students should not be seen nor heard. Or unless they made it against some terrible odds. Some schools have even done away with “top” classes in a bid to be more inclusive.

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Some people will say the secondary school streaming changes are overdue or too little or too late. I happen to think that is best to be cautious with the education system, rather than subject it to shocks. When the new PSLE scoring system was announced, some people asked why this could not be done immediately. I did too, until I figured that we should not penalise current students by changing the goalposts midway. The same is true for the new “banding” system in secondary school, which will start from 2024.

Back to my nephew. I wish that same deliberate touch had been applied to sports. In a Feb 20 letter in The Straits Times, an MOE spokesman writing in response to comments on changes to the National School Games Junior Division competition said it was “important to remember that these changes affect only nine-to-eleven year olds, not the entire school population”.

But nine-to-eleven year olds are important too.

Now I have to keep telling my nephew to be patient about throwing his shot put. Just a year or two to wait for the next competition, I said.






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© 2022 Bertha Henson

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