Last year, 126 secondary schools admitted 2,700 students through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme. This is a programme which allows students to secure a Secondary 1 place even before they sit the Primary School Leaving Examination.
The DSA was introduced in 2004 to let secondary schools broaden their admission criteria beyond PSLE scores. Schools can admit students strong in sport or the arts, for example, and do so even before the PSLE results are out.
According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), 60 per cent of students who secured places through DSA over the last five years live in Housing Board flats. This compares with 81 per cent of Singaporeans overall who reside in HDB flats.
It also said that of the 126 schools enrolling students through this scheme, 18 are Integrated Programme (IP) schools, which offer a six-year scheme allowing students to skip the O levels.
But it declined to say how many of the 2,700 students were admitted to IP schools or the proportion of DSA students in IP schools who reside in flats.
The DSA scheme has quickly became popular as parents began to see it as a way for their children to enter schools that offer the IP.
The DSA scheme and the profile of students who get into secondary schools this way came under the spotlight early this year when Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said in Parliament that it is an "open secret" that the DSA benefits children who have more resources from a young age.
She was referring to parents who engage coaches and send their kids to special classes to prepare them for the DSA.
Ms Phua brought up a valid point, but there is a more urgent reason why the scheme needs to be reviewed.
Not many people are aware of it, but some schools have been using the DSA scheme to admit students on the basis of academic strength. This includes admitting those from the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), an elite programme for the academically gifted.
Like Ms Phua, I had been concerned about the lack of diversity in the top schools, so I cheered the move when the DSA scheme was launched in 2004.
I thought - at last a scheme that allows secondary schools, including the top ones, to admit students based on not just their academic ability, but also their talent in sport and the arts. It will draw a different group of students and inject more diversity into the student bodies in the top secondary schools.
But sadly, within a few years, both schools and parents started gaming the system.
DIRECT ADMISSION FOR THE EXAM-SMART?
Top schools used the scheme, to use a local slang word, to "chope", or reserve, not just the top sports or arts talent, but also the top academic talent, including those from the GEP. Under MOE guidelines, schools can set aside a certain proportion of places to be given to students under the DSA.
Specialised independent schools such as the NUS High School of Mathematics and those offering the IP can take in up to 100 per cent of their students through the DSA. But according to MOE , they take in only 50 per cent through this scheme.
Independent schools offer 20 per cent of their places and autonomous schools offer 10 per cent under the DSA. Those with MOE-approved niche programmes, such as football, can reserve 5 per cent of their intake for the scheme.
Going by several parents' accounts, it appears that in the most competitive schools, like Raffles Institution, at least half the students they admit through DSA are "academically talented", including those from the gifted education scheme.
Based on past conversations with many parents and school officials over the years, my estimate is that about half or more of the 2,700 students admitted under the DSA scheme went to schools offering the IP from Secondary 1.
Many of these students would be from the GEP, and likely would have got into their choice schools based on PSLE scores anyway.
So clearly the DSA scheme has become another way for the exam-smart, academically bright pupils to secure places in the premier schools early, ahead of the PSLE.
This surely contradicts the core objective of the DSA scheme, which is meant to give those with other talents, including in sports and the arts, a chance to shine.
According to the MOE website, the scheme "seeks to promote holistic education and provide students an opportunity to demonstrate a more diverse range of achievements and talents".
I agree with a mother who complained that the scheme made no sense to her after her sports-loving daughter failed to land a place in an IP school last year.
She argued: "The PSLE already advantages academically strong pupils and the Government then starts a special scheme that will allow a small number of students to be assessed on their other talents.
"But what happens is that it becomes yet another scheme that favours the academically bright kids."
Parents like her are right to ask why children in the GEP should compete for places through this scheme when, by all accounts, they would do well enough in the PSLE to get into the secondary schools of their choice.
In 2012, MOE released figures showing that 40 per cent of those admitted to these schools via DSA would not have got in on their PSLE scores. But flip the figure around and it means that 60 per cent would have got into these schools based on their PSLE results.
The ministry also said schools taking part in the scheme are allowed to admit students on the basis of their academic and non-academic strengths.
I am not saying that top schools should not aim to attract the academically brightest - just that they already do that through their high entry scores, which exceed 250.
So, they should use the DSA to admit those talented in other areas, be it in the sports or arts.
MOE should relook the DSA scheme and stop letting schools use academic criteria as the basis to admit students under this scheme.
Instead, it should insist that the schools' admission criteria for the DSA meet the core objective of the programme - to recognise a diverse range of talents in non-academic areas.
It should not, emphatically not, be an extra avenue for schools to be "kiasu" (afraid to lose) and "chope" the bright students first.
This article was first published on March 31, 2016.
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