Education is something close to the heart of Singaporean parents. PSLE is something so entrenched in our system that many wonder what the alternative would be.
I would have preferred outright primary to secondary through-train schools for everyone. No need for an alternative to decide how to sieve and stream students. No need for some secondary schools to be more special than others. Have 10 years to prepare them for the first major examinations at secondary 4. This concept sounds alien to us because we have been so used to an ever increasing competitive system that continously sieve out students to place them onto pathways planned for them to ‘maximise’ their learning, and to determine how resources should be appropriately allocated according to students’ abilities. Through-train from primary school is not a new concept though, as other countries have tried such a model, most notable of which is Finland. Finland had reversed an earlier policy that had streaming and elite grammar schools into one more egalitarian, and had achieved acclaimed international success with this transformation.
However, being practical, I agree that it would be too difficult to implement such a drastic change within a short time. I had conducted focus group discussion with many parents before I presented my proposal at the COS on MOE this year. Many I had interviewed could not imagine what it would be like without PSLE. A common response that came back was, “How do we determine who should go to Raffles?”
I was encouraged though, to hear a significant number of parents supportive of the idea. I was even more encouraged when a former senior MOE official told me such a proposal was submitted several years ago by a school that already has primary and secondary sections. There had always been a vast majority of its students moving from the primary section into the secondary, so the school was interested to have programmes that could prepare students for a more holistic education without the distraction of PSLE. Not surprisingly, this internal proposal was not heard by many as it was dismissed by MOE. PSLE is too sacred a cow to be sacrified. I was encouraged because it shows that there are parents, educators and established educational institutions that will support the idea. Today, I am even more encouraged that fellow MPs from across the party divide are believing in this too.
Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat had responded during COS debate that having such a scheme would transfer pressure to the preschool level and at selection for primary schools. I think we can have ways to execute this scheme without creating such a situation.
One way to thread the ground carefully is to offer the choice to parents. Those who really do not wish to have PSLE can do so. This new through-train track shall not be a short cut into existing top secondary schools. We can exclude all existing Integrated Programme (IP) schools, which currently take in the top 10% of students at PSLE. The parents who opt for this choice must now really believe in the value of the 10-year holistic development plan of such schools. They must know it is highly unlikely their child will enter the Raffles schools and other top schools without the PSLE.
Since every school is a good school, MOE should have confidence in picking a few schools to start the programme with. A quick scan will reveal that there are still a good number of schools with primary and secondary sections run by various groups that are not one of the current IP schools. We can also be bold to pick up outstanding principals of existing autonomous secondary schools that have demonstrated holistic development and allow them to offer a new primary school section. I noted several of my principal friends who had left MOE are helming international schools overseas that cover preschool to high school education, and are doing an excellent job out of it. The programme can let some existing principals rise to the challenge to helm the new 10-year schools.
We do not need to start with so many schools initially. I believe there should be enough demand to start eight such schools, two each in each of the North, South, East and West zones. We can expand the programme as we go along.
MOE currently rotates principals out of schools regularly. A principal now typically stays with a school 4-6 years. A senior MOE official once remarked to me that if you leave principals in a school too long, strange things happen sometimes. So principals are rotated regularly and a new broom sweeps clean with each change.
I believe to make this programme work, we need to identify visionary principals who believe wholeheartedly in holistic development. Have them helm these schools, and let them do so for for a longer period, say 10 years or longer. This will allow them to really build up the character of the school and anchor the programme. With the current short cycle as principal in a school, the principal may find it hard to execute long term programmes. Give the principal the space to truly define how the school should run, given the luxury of 10 years to build up the child. Allow the principal to define the values and mission of the school and to have time to articulate that to students and parents.
MOE has also implemented holistic assessment, particularly in primary schools. Without PSLE, it is the best time for them to show off how to make holistic assessment and holistic development work.
I sincerely believe we can get the first batch of such schools to work, given that we have enough good educators and capable school administrators to do the pilot. With success, we can start to expand the programme. Over time, Singaporeans will start to seriously question why we are so anxious to have our children in a rat race to ace the PSLE. Singaporeans can truly reflect on what education and what good schools should be about. Perhaps by that time, we may truly be able to slaughter the PSLE sacred cow. Till then, a safer way to implement this is to tread carefully at the initial stage by offering a realistic choice for those who do not wish to have their children sucked into an academic rat race that distorts the true value of education.