3 unhealthy trends plaguing education: Denise Phua

PHOTO: The Straits Times

The high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) should be scrapped to counter the country's preoccupation with academic scores - one of three unhealthy trends plaguing the education system here, Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) said yesterday. At 12, the pupils are also too young to be sorted by potential or ability, she suggested.

Ms Phua also renewed her call for the Ministry of Education (MOE) to pilot a 10-year through-train school model - with children moving from the primary to secondary level without taking a national exam at Primary 6.

Referring to the upcoming revamp of the PSLE grading system, she said: "The problem is unlikely to disappear even if we replace PSLE T-scores with banding. Students will start scoring 4As or 5As and so forth, and we are back to square one."

The obsession with academic scores is due to "years of conditioning" and because most still believe academic success is the best avenue for social mobility, she said.

But the pursuit of academic rigour has become an impairment as even academically strong students are seeking tuition; popular secondary schools are selecting students based on their PSLE cut-off points; and teachers are focusing on preparing students to take standardised tests, Ms Phua added.

"It is hard to cultivate or inculcate a love for learning when all that matters to the majority is the score from a series of high-stakes exams."

The two other negative trends are parents putting in top dollar to ensure their children's academic success; and physically segregating students of different learning abilities.

She said "parentocracy" - where children gain success due to their parents' wealth and social capital and not their own means - will "further rear its ugly head" as the stakes of academic scores become higher.

Ms Phua said it is an "open secret" that the Direct School Admission Exercise, which lets students enter secondary schools based on achievements in sports or the arts even if their PSLE scores fall below the cut-off points, benefits children from wealthier homes.

They have the means to be nurtured in specific areas from a young age, she said.

To level the playing field, Ms Phua suggested developing a software which teachers, students, and parents can share and access the best learning materials and practices.

Those who share good material and pedagogies should be rewarded, she said.

The current practice of physically segregating students when they are assessed to learn differently impedes the building of trust and empathy, said Ms Phua.

Students are now sorted into top schools or schools focusing on sports, the arts, or on supporting those who are academically weaker. They meet and interact only occasionally at events.

This practice should be examined and even scrapped, said Ms Phua. She instead suggested that the ministry pilot "education villages", which will take in students of different abilities and backgrounds.

"Let those who are academically strong learn via subject-banded classes, but design school campuses that allow diversity and vibrant social interactions for all.

"There is no better way to learn inclusion except to play, eat, interact and learn with others who are unlike yourself," she added.

Similarly, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) felt sorting secondary level students into Express and Normal streams "creates and entrenches the self-limiting belief... that they are only as good as the academic stream they are in".

She also wants the Special Assistance Plan schools to be relooked.

These schools promote the learning of the Chinese language and culture and admit students who have scored well in both the Chinese and English languages at the PSLE.

They should recruit students who made the grade but did not take the Chinese language exams at the PSLE, as this will allow for "multiracial interactions and learning", she said.

The students will instead take Chinese as a third language from Secondary 1, she added.

Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) is also worried about tuition.

He questioned the effectiveness of MOE's "teach less, learn more" approach, which had trimmed syllabuses to give students more time to learn on their own.

"Has the shift to focus on quality teaching instead of quantity teaching... merely shifted more of the learning from the classroom to the private tutors?" he asked.

Mr Png wants the ministry to study the billion-dollar tuition culture here to help educators formulate better policies.


This article was first published on Jan 28, 2016. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.