Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung’s recent announcement during the 2019 Committee of Supply Debates on changes to Singapore’s secondary education has largely been lauded a positive move in addressing persistent issues with streaming, the practice of sorting students by learning capability early on. Such issues include a lack of flexibility in catering to different learning capabilities for different subjects and the stigmas and stereotypes that plague students categorized into lower academic streams.
By 2024, secondary education in Singapore will have undergone structural changes to phase out streaming in favor of Full Subject-Based Banding (FSBB). Students will take subjects at three levels of difficulty instead – G1, G2, and G3, with the last being the most difficult. The announcement followed changes across the education system in recent years, including the revamp of the Primary School Leaving Examinations scoring system, as well as reducing examinations in primary and secondary schools.
While FSBB will encourage more mixing among students who might not otherwise have interacted much in the current streaming system, stigmas may still persist even under the new scheme.
Streaming and Stigmas
Streaming was introduced during the “efficiency-driven” phase of Singapore’s education system in the 1980s to minimize the numbers who could not read and write and the attrition rate of students. It customized education for students of different learning capabilities, by effectively dividing them — streamlining them to take on subjects at pre-determined difficulty levels and combinations.
Secondary students were split into the Special, Express, and Normal streams. The Normal stream was later divided into Normal (Academic) [N(A)] and Normal (Technical) [N(T)]; the latter admitted students who would have otherwise dropped out of formal education post-primary school. Significant changes were made in the 2000s; upper secondary students were allowed to take higher-level subjects outside their streams, the banding of secondary schools was removed, and announcements of top-scorers for national examinations were stopped. These moves were intended to encourage every student’s continued hard work no matter the stream they were in, and no matter their performance on examinations.
Unfortunately, specific stigmas became attached to “lesser” streams, namely the N(A) and N(T) streams at the secondary level. Students in these streams were often perceived to be less intelligent with an unpromising future – an inevitable but detrimental outcome of examination- and result-based segregation from an early age. Many were assumed to be headed for the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), or set to go into the workforce without qualifications. The prevailing assumption was that those in the Normal streams were not well-suited for the academic emphasis of the education system but adept at a skills-based, technical education instead. These perceptions might lead young students to believe they were incapable compared to students in higher streams, which can turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Will the Policy Change Improve Stigmas?
What was lacking previously was the recognition that each student had different strengths and learning interests. Pinning their potential against a set scheme discredits not only their abilities, but also their potential for growth. In this regard, FSBB aims to achieve three objectives.
First, students in lower secondary school will be allowed to learn subjects at higher levels of difficulty if found suitable. Second, Express and N(A) students can take subjects previously only offered in the N(A) and N(T) streams. These subjects may be more technical, and in line with the Education Ministry’s recent “Learning by Doing” motion and focus on skills. Third, schools can be creative in deciding how students should be organized within their cohorts. This may be according to their co-curricular activities, or mixing students of different academic abilities in the same class. There might not even be a need for traditional classes; tertiary-style lectures and tutorials can be trialed instead.
These aims are significant as they allow education to be tailor-made, while catering to students’ different strengths and interests. They also enhance flexibility in learning and interaction, while potentially limiting stigmas associated with academically-weaker students. However, several lingering questions should be addressed.
At the micro-level of the student and school, will students from Normal streams be allowed to take up more academic subjects such as mathematics and sciences at higher levels of difficulty — even if they might not do as well? Permitting this would suggest how the education system can fully support academically weaker students to explore their interests in these subjects.
At the macro-level, there should be corresponding efforts to change the stigma associated with skills-focused institutions. Post-secondary education should be viewed as fulfilling students’ different interests and learning needs, rather than delineating them according to their educational capabilities. Most prominently, the ITE should not be seen as the terminal destination for academically weaker students, but as an institution that can mold interests and promote further qualifications in technical education across the board.
Last, FSBB might be more successful in schools with students currently from different streams. “Elite” schools would observe students taking subjects in the highest band and may offer more academic subjects. There still need to be conscious efforts for regular interaction with students from other schools, to ensure students engage with others they might not normally interact with. Educators also need to minimize comparisons among students (and even at the school administration level) of the number of higher-level subjects taken. While this may be difficult to avoid, stigma might inadvertently form against students taking less G3 subjects.
In all, policy changes supporting FSBB in the secondary education system are positive steps in the right direction and inform the need to renegotiate education in Singapore. These changes are arguably belated, and should have been implemented earlier. In this vein, stigmas synonymous with academically weaker students can only improve if comprehensive adjustments complement the changes, and cater better to different learning abilities and interests.
Nur Diyanah Anwar is a Senior Analyst with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.