FOR top student Wang Danqing, secondary school was so much more enjoyable because she did not have to worry about slogging for the O levels.
She even had time one year to work alongside top researchers in a biomedical lab at the Nanyang Technological University, designing an artificial heart valve as part of an attachment programme.
Danqing, from Hwa Chong Institution, was among the 1,660 through-train students who sat for the A levels last year.
The 20-year-old, whose parents are teachers, emerged as one of the top students in the exams, scoring nine distinctions - the maximum possible.
Yesterday, without giving details, the Ministry of Education said the first batch of through-train students to sit for the A levels did as well, on average, as the 10,000 who went the conventional route. Indeed, Integrated Programme (IP) students were among the best performers in the exams, with several scoring the maximum nine distinctions.
Schools offering IP allow talented students to skip the O levels and instead give them the time to explore topics and issues in greater depth, and to develop broader thinking.
Eleven schools here offer this programme, but because they were introduced at different times, only three - Hwa Chong, Raffles Junior College and National Junior College - had students who sat for the A levels last year.
All three schools refused to say how well their IP students did. But students on the IP programme who spoke to The Straits Times said they were glad they joined it.
Yuen Pak Man, 19, from Hwa Chong Institution, for instance, took time off in the middle of the school term in July to attend a student's forum in London.
'It made me more passionate about learning and more enthusiastic in my studies, and this will help anyone in any exam,' said the older of two children of a businessman and a housewife, who notched eight distinctions.
Raffles JC student Amelia Chang, 19, who bagged nine distinctions, said the IP allowed her to discover her research interests. But she did have one concern.
She said: 'One pro is that there's more time to take part in activities outside.
'The con is that we never had a major exam for a long time. If we did badly in the A levels, then all we had was the PSLE certificate.'
However, other IP students said they had regular tests and internal exams along the way, which kept them well in tune with exam-taking.
National Junior College student Annabel Lee, 19, who joined the IP at Secondary 3, said the programme prepared her better for the A levels.
'It's a four-year preparation for the A levels, instead of two,' said the oldest of three children of a lecturer and a housewife. She scored four distinctions.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Mar 8, 2008