The Ministry of Education recently forbade acceptance of appeals from students whose Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scores did not meet the secondary schools' cut-off points.
But current Primary 6 students have one last option: Direct School Admissions (DSA), a scheme that recognises excellence in sports, arts or academics. In his response to the question on the effectiveness of DSA, then MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC Alvin Yeo said in Parliament in 2012: "In general, schools can decide on their DSA admission criteria, as long as they are merit-based and transparent."
Ms Jackeline Carter, 51, says PSLE "entry scores to top schools via DSA used to be as low as 200".
The founder of J-Carter for Public Speaking introduced a DSA prep programme for the application process after an increasing number of parents approached her for help. The DSA's "flexibility" with scores, however, may be a disservice.
A recent article circulating online revealed that all but one from a 10-student Raffles Institution (RI) Secondary 4 class fell short of junior college entry following the O-level results release on Jan 11.
Some of the boys, who reportedly got into RI via DSA for sports, were told to "attain a minimum score of 200 (at PSLE) and clear a general aptitude test". For students who didn't apply via DSA, the entry prerequisite stood at 259 points.
Raffles Girls' School student Lakshana Kumar also shares her struggles with adapting to a top school after successfully entering via DSA.
In a blog post, Lakshana says she "expected to adjust easily" until she failed mathematics, a subject she was strong at in primary school. But parents still invest in courses and training to help their children qualify for top schools.
Fabian Williams Coaching Concepts (FWCC) director Fabian William, 38, says: "I have parents asking me to make their child the next 200m sprint champion in order to get into top schools via DSA."
One-on-one sessions with FWCC coaches range from $150 to $300 for a session of up to 60 minutes.
Group training of between four and 24 students cost between $120 and $180 per month for unlimited sessions in the athletics-based programme.
For a triathlon-based group programme, it ranges between $180 and $300 per month for unlimited sessions.
Mr William, who grooms youth sportsmen, adds: "It is not impossible to do that but the journey will be unsparing for the child, and I am the one who has to try to sleep at night knowing I condone the torturous preparation for a 12-year-old."
He notes that a number of schools are repeatedly named when parents enquire about training at FWCC.
"They all have intentions of making it into big-name schools like Hwa Chong Institution, Anglo-Chinese School, Raffles Institution and Cedar Girls' Secondary School," he says.
"One parent approached us, insisting that his child had potential to become a 100m sprint champion and asked us to prepare him so he can get into a 'credible' secondary school via DSA.
"Out of curiosity, I asked the parent how he deduced that the child had the potential to be a sprint champion.
"He replied, 'Because I could have been a good sprinter in my time.'"
Ms Carter is also seeing growth at her centre.
She says: "They used to approach me in April ahead of DSA exercise but now, I see parents come as early as November the year before. "At the moment, five of my 17 students are in Primary 5."
Her 20-week programmes aim to prepare primary school children for DSA application including interview and persuasion skills, putting together a portfolio and how to write a personal statement.
Ms Carter, who says her success rate is 80 per cent, adds: "The slots are filling up quickly. Parents of Primary 4 pupils are also asking me if they can send their children for DSA prep now.
"I foresee it getting tougher for schools. DSA seems like it's going to be more popular, especially after MOE's new ruling on appeals."
But not all parents are banking on DSA.
Madam Candice Wong, whose daughter is in Primary 6, refuses to take the DSA route.
She says: "My daughter has represented her school in floorball for the last two years. While she is one of the best players, I refuse to push her to apply through DSA just so she can get into a top school.
"It is not that I don't believe in her but at the end of the day, if I push her to get into a top school, I am not the one who will struggle.
"I can provide her with all the help possible but she will be the one to bear the brunt of the stress every single day for four years.
"Why would I do that to her?"
No plain sailing but she succeeds through hard work
Her O-level result slip read 12 for six subjects - nowhere near the cut-off point for the school of her choice.
Even with bonus points, she was not eligible for Victoria Junior College (VJC).
But Miss Noreen Mohammad, 23, still made it. She attended the school from 2009 to 2010.
She used her achievements in sailing through the Direct School Admissions (DSA) option.
Miss Noreen says: "I think my time in VJC helped lay the foundations for who I am today."
Not only was she allowed to further her passion with sailing at VJC, she could also pursue her interest in drama with the Theatre Studies programme that the school offered.
VJC has constantly remained a top-tier college, consistently ranking among the top five here. Miss Noreen admits that this stressed her.
She felt disappointed in her O-level results because she badly wanted to get into VJC.
Miss Noreen says: "I wanted to prove to myself that I could get in without DSA. I knew I had to work harder once school started.
"I was quite worried that I was biting off more than I could chew."
Her pillars of support were her classmates, friends and sailing teammates who were also mostly DSA students. They supported one another in class as well as out at sea.
She says: "There was a sailing corner in school, where we would go to study whenever we had breaks between classes."
During her two years in VJC, the sailing team topped the A Division in 2009 and Miss Noreen won the national 420 class boat race in 2010.
She did well in her A levels and went on to study communications at Nanyang Technological University.
Last year, she graduated with honours and is currently working in advertising.
Miss Noreen has no regrets about her alternate path.
"It might have been a different route but I got just as much, if not more, from the whole experience," she says.
When asked if she has any words of wisdom for potential DSA students, she says: "Go for it. Don't be complacent. Work hard and good things will follow."
Discipline & sacrifice help bowler keep up
Direct school admission via bowling got Lakshana Kumar into Raffles Girls' School (RGS) four years ago.
But in the first year, she struggled to adjust to the school system.
Yet when her mother suggested that she switch schools, the 16-year-old, who will be sitting her O-level exams this year, refused.
Lakshana says in a blog post: "I did not want to waste all the hard work it had taken to get into this school. I had excelled in primary school and I did not want secondary school to defeat me."
She admits that she had thought she could "cope easily as my PSLE score was very close to the cut-off point for the school".
Lakshana's aggregate was in the lower 250 while RGS' cut-off was about 260.
She says: "But I soon felt that the teachers were teaching too fast and I could not seem to understand what was going on in class.
"I was finding it extremely difficult to balance everything.
"I had CCA three times a week and each session was two hours. I had private training lasting 2½ hours once a week and I had three-hour third language class every Friday.
"I spent weekends trying to complete my homework."
Lakshana struggled to find the time to study or revise.
When she failed maths, her strongest subject in primary school, she realised that she really "needed help with my studies".
So came the drastic changes: She took tuition for maths, physics and mother tongue.
No TV for two months, no rest over the weekends, lots of preparation before lessons and doubling up on efforts after school hours.
Her grades finally improved, especially for maths.
She says: "The answer to achieving any goal is 'discipline'. This is what I learnt from my experience.
"You must be willing to sacrifice things you like even if you do not want to."
This article was first published on Jan 24, 2016.
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