School Streaming Should Not Exist in the First Place

To an outsider looking in, Singapore is a country of smart people. According to the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the country’s primary four and secondary two students led the world in mathematics and science scores. But apart from the performance at standardized tests, there is a vast difference between the educational experiences of the different children in Singapore based on the resources that their parents have at their disposal.

This diversity in academic experiences has created a class, or even worse, caste-system in Singapore’s education system. This system labels the Special and Express streams people as highly-intelligent achievers, while Normal stream students fall at the bottom of the pile. Even though the terminology for the various streams may be tweaked periodically, there is no escaping the fact that streaming in Singapore is a highly prevalent mode of sorting our children.

Worse still, if you come from a high Socio-Economic Status (SES) household, you can buy your way out of mainstream education and into an international school for around SGD 2,000 a month. These have smaller class sizes and allow students who may not perform well in large mainstream classes to thrive but they are restricted to those who can afford the fees.

I recall a primary school mate whose Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-score was less than 190. Her father, who is one of Singapore’s wealthiest men, sent her to an International School where she blossomed and made her way to New York University. I quickly realised the benefit of coming from a rich household means that one is able to take advantage of opportunities in good international schools and prestigious Universities that are simply not available to poorer students. According to a report titled, Broader, Bolder Approach To Education by the American Economic Policy Institute in 2017, extensive research has conclusively demonstrated that children’s social class is one of the most significant predictors, if not the single most significant predictor, of their educational success. This is unfortunately fast becoming the case in Singapore.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the impact of streaming on the children themselves. A Channel News Asia documentary series titled ‘Regardless Of Class’ sparked an online furore after social media users took issue with the remarks made by an Integrated Programme pupil who said that it “may not be very viable in terms of closing the class divide” for students of different streams to be in the same class.

I feel streaming students according to their PSLE AL or T-score is not a realistic solution to reducing school dropout rates. Although streaming did reduce the drop-out rate significantly from 30 percent to less than one percent, it was acknowledged in the words of its inventor, then Minister of Education Goh Keng Swee as “a beastly thing to do”. Introduced in 1981 as a means of reducing school dropout rates and to improve Singapore’s literacy levels, streaming has instead institutionalised social inequality, created negative stereotypes, class tensions and snobbish attitudes. Says former People’s Action Party Member of Parliament Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, “And when we start creating prestigious labels such as superschools, Special and Express streams, no Singaporean wants to be caught with the merely ‘Normal’ label. Moreover, we seem to be too enamored over streaming when the West is having second thoughts over the system.” Dr Tan then went on to quote former PM Lee Kuan Yew to suggest that like public housing, public education should include a mix of abilities “to discourage intellectual snobbery which I think is far worse than social snobbery.”

For the majority of us who have gone through school streaming, we might recall coming across peers making snobbish snide remarks aimed at their counterparts who were perceived as “less academically endowed” by the Ministry Of Education’s rigid criteria.

Furthermore, streaming is not only emotionally damaging to a learner’s self-esteem but it is also intellectually damaging. Students placed in lower-ability streams too early have very limited opportunities to develop their strengths and interests. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, an education lecturer at the University of South Australia, Jamie Sission, says: “Streaming limits opportunities for learners that later affect their opportunities in life… It is difficult to determine at a young age what someone is capable of achieving later in life.”

Here is why I think school streaming is a failure:

  • Streaming created its own class divides and prejudices

What started as a means to discourage learners from dropping out turned into a “caste system” where society values an individual based on the stream that he/she is placed into. By classifying children according to their PSLE AL or T-score and determining access to opportunities such as some co-curricular activities, olympiads and other challenging intellectual pursuits, streaming is essentially a caste system.

Furthermore, a teacher’s negative perception of pupils can impact their educational outcomes and future. A study published in The Curriculum Journal, Singaporean teachers by an Associate Dean at the National Institute of Education was revealingly entitled “‘I assume they don’t think!’: teachers’ perceptions of Normal Technical students in Singapore”

The Curriculum Journal article illustrates the structural limitations that make teachers of normal (technical) students less likely to engage in cross-pedagogical consultation with other teachers. The time and energy differentials together with the low expectations of teachers which are inevitable structural and psychological effects of streaming entrench the inequalities in the system. One of the teacher respondent’s in the study was quoted as saying “Normally, the students will probably be working. They work to earn a living. So you talk to them about saving money. They are more like surviving on a budget. They have more expenditure than what they earn every month.”

Students in Normal streams believe they are “not smart”

Research has found that separating learners into classes based on their perceived ability is both ineffective and detrimental to pupils’ education. Says University of Canterbury Professor Garry Hornby: “Kids in the lower-ability streams tended to give up and stop believing they could achieve.”

Streaming makes learners in the Normal Streams think that they are not smart – and this creates problems as the students’ internalise this idea within themselves. As the English Academic, David Hargreaves observes,

“labelling a specific group of students and sending them to a particular stream or band is a way of branding.”

As a result of this labelling, some students – particularly those in the “lower” streams – will go all out to find ways to regain their feelings of self-worth, sometimes even resorting to delinquency and youth crime.

In the words of Associate Professor Irene Ng, from the Social Work Department at the National University of Singapore, “There’s research that shows that when you assign a label to somebody, the person will behave according to that way, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So for example, if we teach students in the lower ability streams to a low level because we think that is the level, then students could react to it, and give you back what you think you want.”

  • In practical terms, the curriculum for students in the five-year stream is not designed for “O” levels

It is no secret that the “N” levels are considered easy to pass compared to the “O” levels. Students from the normal stream who qualify to sit for the “O” levels are, however, not prepared for the exams that they are expected to sit for in the short period of time they are in secondary five.

Students are expected to cram secondary three and four Express stream materials in under ten months (or less); while students in the Express stream have two whole years to prepare for the examinations.

This defeats the purpose of having a five-year stream with the intention of allowing slow students to learn at their own pace so they can do well for the “O” levels. It is not surprising that around 40 percent of secondary five students are reportedly unable to go on to the polytechnics. Although the current proposal to let students do different subjects at different levels goes some way towards addressing this concern, while the Special and IP streams remain elite and out of reach for the majority of Singaporeans, the segregation will continue.

It is time for the Ministry Of Education to put an end to all forms of streaming and let all students prepare and sit for the “O” levels including those from the Integrated Programs (IPs). At the end of the day, learners should have the liberty to decide for themselves if they would like to proceed on to Pre-University, the polytechnic or the Institute of Technical Education – depending on their interests and areas of inclination. Education is not just about passing tests or exams, a large part of it is learning how to interact with our fellow citizens who come in all shapes and sizes to build a better world for the future.

 

Joyce Tan

Joyce Tan


Joyce Tan is a PR and communications professional. She joined the Young Democrats recently.

 

 

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18 Responses to “School Streaming Should Not Exist in the First Place”

  • kay kiang OYK:

    Self indulgent. New broom sweeps clean. Kay kiang. Ong Ah Kung.

    So now how Mr Ong? You are not some unknown man, you are the education ministar you know. So clever, now do something and address these parents’ suggestion and legit concerns.

    You are the one who started all this thingz about revamping education one hor! Hahahahaha!

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  • Rabble-rouser:

    What is it with young people these days? First, it was Roy Ngerng, now Joyce Tan Et al. Good article but frankly much too long for an average reader to go through. And too much analytics instead of one or two simple truths. And the causes-&-effect were already revealing itself to the audience!

    Simply, [Academic] Streaming were failing because the Learning Methodology are incompatible with today’s Knowledge Economy. Classroom education, textbook reliance, rote studying & passive learning, etc – we’re in a disruptive eco-system but why is the PAP are still doubling down on Meritocracy, on Academic Streaming & on Elite Schools?

    S’pore (the PAP) should have reform the Educational Mechanism some two decades earlier, implemented a broad based focus [ie. discard Meritocracy & Streaming process] on technology & on computer coding; reconfigured on STEM subjects. But instead, they doubled down after they implemented the Independent Schools concept & created, reinforced the Elitist movement. And since, S’pore had lost over two decades of Momentum which had become more evident as we progressed forward.

    Look at how laggard S’pore is behind on the Smartphone revolution; notwithstanding the forthcoming “new dawn” of AI & “Smart” machine learning know-how. The SGX is in a free-fall populated by old economy stocks like Banks, Stodgy GLCs, Brick ‘N Mortar companies & Zombie shares, etc. Share trading in the US is done primarily over computers using Algo over high speed frequency trading mechanism, SGX, erh! their [human] Remisiers mechanism earning less than a toilet cleaner on some days.

    Anyone with a financial brain & clear economic knowledge of cost-benefit analyses can see that Education mechanism in S’pore were a wasted effort process. Good examples were the pressure-cooker mechanism, the inordinate Amount of time required for studying; parents investments on supplementary education; the high failure rate hurdle due to Meritocracy Policy which is a disguised education quota, etc.

    PAP’s educational mechanism was engineered for a high waste of human capital! You go figure out the reasons why?

    The other thing was the outcome from Educational Investments ie. the extremely poor job creation eco-mechanism in S’pore. Why spent so much money on the education process (including overseas education) when the best your graduate children could do in S’pore were either gig work or Grab driving? The smarter parents told their children, “Don’t come back!”

    What I wrote – simple & effective “to the point”! Yes or No?

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  • patriot of TUMASIK:

    Basically, it is the Students and the Teachers NOT the School but at times their Peers may play a part in their PERFORMANCE…I should know I came from a neighbourhood primary and a NON-elite secondary school…but many of my classmates went on to be Professors, Lawyers, Doctors and CEO of PLCs

    It is the Singers NOT the song that makes a HIT!!!

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  • Great Asia:

    We need technicians and car mechanics. The streaming system serves this purpose.

    Didn’t the feudal lord tell you this?

    Ha ha ha!

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  • never trust pap:

    1st, pap says cannot eat degree. which government in the world holds back its own people so that more aliens FTs PRs can lowball PMET wages? pap.

    2nd, pap says car lite. which government minister is bus mrt? name one. none. all of them cars. even retired ones mercedes at the minimum.

    3rd, pap propaganda machinery no end saying NUS NTU SMU world ranking. yet where does pap send its clan members? NUS NTU SMU? no. they all go overseas.

    what is the point? the point is, believe pap, die fast fast.

    when parents tell louldly kid is in NUS NTU SMU, we ask, can you afford overseas and if you can, why let your precious kid from kindergarten to University be under pap BS?

    even for high entry barrier courses like law and medicine, more and more financially able parents begin to realize the pap BS and send their kids overseas. sure. the barriers exist in terms of internship and such. but are the kids world Spore only? ffff no. it is the whole wide world. so being squeezed only into pap BS mould makes a bright kid into a kiasi kiasu timid kid who during GE time prefers to go holiday as excuse than to vote OPPO and declare so. if this the kind of kid we want, brainwashed by pap BS from kindergarten to University?

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  • TruBlu:

    Streaming?
    Ya,better them kids to India,buy a couple Masters n a Phd.
    Then come back as FAKE AH NEHS N GET TREATED LIKE gems of FT(Fake Talents).
    WHY STRESS YOUR KIDS N $tre$$ yourselves?

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  • Realistically:

    Like ANY of the verbosity from the SDP, this write-up by its new member, Joyce Tan, is just too simplistic and one-sided.

    Judging by the heading that Streaming should not exist in the FIRST place simply failed to acknowledge the better of the outcome which is visible: that it is recognised as a 1st World country, despite its high GINI ratio and the high wealth gap.

    Can the SDP/Joyce Tan argue counter-factually that if Streaming had been abolished from day 1, that Singapore would be able to achieve the same economic standards of living & development – never mind about the multi-million $ pay of undeserving Ministers?

    Granted that the economical model has changed and that there should be adjustment to the education policies, but getting rid of streaming does not necessarily better prepare our young from a better future. The onus is for SDP/Joyce Tan, if she wants to be taken seriously unlike the person described as too clever by half, she should SUBSTANTIATE her views with concrete examples of countries without streaming being able to prepare to meet the changing economic needs of the respective countries with the Singapore economic characteristics.

    As for the mention of a rich Singapore father being able to send his progeny to NYU, Joyce Tan must hv missed out on the news that US prosecutors are after those parents who essentially bought places in the preferred Uni’s and those corrupt admission tutors.

    By and large, a rather rhetorical and simplistic piece characteristic of the lack of substance of the SDP. Any wonder why the SDP has not made a single seat in Parliament re: the failure of Chee Soon Juan at the Bukit Batok SMC by-election.

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  • Social Engineering:

    Elitists, people who are obsessed with eugenics and economists will use streaming as a tool to optimize use of resources, betting their money and putting in the most resources onto the so call winners, rounding up these talents recruiting them from young as servile beholdened papies lemmings.
    The goal is to form a well oiled loyal machinery to serve the familee. Absolute power is necessary to get the familee very rich.

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  • I Know:

    If LKY, a dyslexic, had been born in the 1990s, he would have gone the Normal > ITE route. His own grandchildren attended international schools here.

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  • Harder Truths:

    Ms Tan

    Begging your pardon. You have misunderstood the problem completely. You words come out of the bash-the-streaming textbook. To be taken seriously you need to provide your own ideas and solutions. Or else no one will take you seriously.

    The problem is this – in any environment you cannot avoid grouping of similar mentalities. It is part of who we are as humans. Children are no different – they will instinctively group into like personalities and backgrounds. As they are still maturing these traits will develop according to their individual and social groups.

    Putting everyone in the same group is not a good idea. It is not inclusiveness – it actually creates a core class of personalities in that group. The remainder – who are to different – will be left out. There is no simple way to tackle this as this behaviour is inherent in our genes.

    Steaming , on the other hand – is based purely on a child’s ability to carry out certain functions and does not depend on any social grouping. This forced grouping can be anti-anti-social and detrimental to a child’s developing maturity.

    My view is you have not made a distinction as to how groups can be most effective to a child’s development. Removing groups entirely have the same effect as putting a child in a wrong group such as streaming in schools.

    So that is why I am not a fan of these policies you seem to produce -the basis of which appear to be poorly understood, and oppose what we have just for the sake of attracting votes. But they do not seem to be well thought out or have a basis in the real world most people outside $G live in.

    So unless the opposition starts thinking for itself, the policies that are supposed to work will fail just as spectacularly as the ones in place.

    Do your homework and remember that not everything has a simple solution.

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  • Pioneer:

    Our educational system is now flooded with so called Teachers from third world countries starting with preschool.

    Preschool staff is now truly ROJAK.

    What’s the point of being top in maths and science? If they become leaders they are just robots like our MPs. The rest are sheep.

    So what’s the use of being top in Science and Maths?

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  • Realistically:

    I posted the below last night:

    Like ANY of the verbosity from the SDP, this write-up by its new member, Joyce Tan, is just too simplistic and one-sided.

    Judging by the heading that Streaming should not exist in the FIRST place simply failed to acknowledge the better of the outcome which is visible: that it is recognised as a 1st World country, despite its high GINI ratio and the high wealth gap.

    Can the SDP/Joyce Tan argue counter-factually that if Streaming had been abolished from day 1, that Singapore would be able to achieve the same economic standards of living & development – never mind about the multi-million $ pay of undeserving Ministers?

    Granted that the economical model has changed and that there should be adjustment to the education policies, but getting rid of streaming does not necessarily better prepare our young from a better future. The onus is for SDP/Joyce Tan, if she wants to be taken seriously unlike the person described as too clever by half, she should SUBSTANTIATE her views with concrete examples of countries without streaming being able to prepare to meet the changing economic needs of the respective countries with the Singapore economic characteristics.

    As for the mention of a rich Singapore father being able to send his progeny to NYU, Joyce Tan must hv missed out on the news that US prosecutors are after those parents who essentially bought places in the preferred Uni’s and those corrupt admission tutors.

    By and large, a rather rhetorical and simplistic piece characteristic of the lack of substance of the SDP. Any wonder why the SDP has not made a single seat in Parliament re: the failure of Chee Soon Juan at the Bukit Batok SMC by-election.

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  • never voted pap, never will:

    I Know:
    If LKY, a dyslexic, had been born in the 1990s, he would have gone the Normal > ITE route. His own grandchildren attended international schools here.

    everyone who is on S$m gravy pretends to say lky is a genius.

    but ffff. look at his clown. look at his legacy. all in shatters. a simple matter of bad genes. so is lky really that great? surely not. all hyped up pap fake news which has come back home to roost.

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  • Brand & stifle intellects:

    Branding people and pigeon holing them into curriculum streams has been the persistent modus operandi of latter-day PAP elites. They wanted to follow the German pattern early on by introducing the vocational focus to our national education; thus ITE and the Polytechnics. But even as German university undergraduates might opt to spend some of their semesters as apprentices in industry on their way to a degree, German vocational school students are never deprived of a chance to study later on in life at university level: and German education is sponsored fully by the state. Singapore, in contrast fails to live up to the egalitarian German scholastic idealism. Singapore Inc. education is a commercial pragmatism that serves the powers that be, at the expense of genuine human development.

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  • pap S$m yes or no corruption:

    Brand & stifle intellects:
    Branding people and pigeon holing them into curriculum streams has been the persistent modus operandi of latter-day PAP elites. They wanted to follow the German pattern early on by introducing the vocational focus to our national education; thus ITE and the Polytechnics. But even as German university undergraduates might opt to spend some of their semesters as apprentices in industry on their way to a degree, German vocational school students are never deprived of a chance to study later on in life at university level: and German education is sponsored fully by the state. Singapore, in contrast fails to live up to the egalitarian German scholastic idealism. Singapore Inc. education is a commercial pragmatism that serves the powers that be, at the expense of genuine human development.

    70% sheep 100% stupid.

    aliens FTs PRs sponsored to the tune of S$1m per DAY free of charge education no need for NSF NSR.

    pap says aliens FTs PRs work in Singapore after graduation.

    so 70% sheep children don’t work in Singapore after education?

    so 70% sheep children must pay for education because they serve NSF NSR?

    where is the ffffing logic? why is 70% sheep so ffffing stupid?

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  • DNIVB:

    Streaming picks out the exam smart from the others. Spot questions sure A1.

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  • Overworked:

    Great Asia:
    We need technicians and car mechanics. The streaming system serves this purpose.

    Didn’t the feudal lord tell you this?

    Ha ha ha!

    without car mechanics and technicians, you want to rely on foreigners?

    its attitude like yours that cause the discrimination against our local blue collar workers, we should respect the dignity of labour, and empower our local workers, rather than import more and more foreigners

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  • Realistically:

    @ Overworked:
    August 21, 2019 at 2:01 pm

    “its attitude like yours that cause the discrimination against our local blue collar workers, we should respect the dignity of labour, and empower our local workers, rather than import more and more foreigners”

    No lah, it is the “attitude” of the PAPies to look down on those people u hv in mind of being “discriminated”……….evidence by Goh Chok Tong characterising those earning less than $500k per year as MEDIOCRE. Surely u dun need me to elaborate who Goh is?

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