The Dive | Is Singapore’s education system enough to prepare students for the future?

By January 18, 2020Current, The Dive

TL;DR – Or perhaps more can be done.

The Dive is our new weekend feature where we bring you in-depth news, interesting insights and different perspectives on the latest trends or issues that matter.

“How do you judge a child? On a piece of paper?”

– Calvin Soh, on education and grades in an increasingly exponential age

With 24,409 students across the nation who received their O-Level results earlier this week, there is no better time to ruminate on this.

The 2019 cohort has set a record for best showing at the national exam in the last three decades, with 85.2% of the cohort attaining five or more passes, up from 84.8% in 2018. In addition, 99.9% of the candidates who sat for the 2019 O-Levels exam passed at least one subject and 96.5% passed three or more, said the Ministry of Education and the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board in a joint press release. 

Splashed across the newspapers were stories of triumph.

Despite missing school on doctor’s orders after being diagnosed with leukaemia in January 2018, student Lian Jie Qi was elated to find out that he had scored six distinctions out of eight subjects for his O-level exams.

Student Sherry Lim Xuan Ying, who was diagnosed with idiopathic intracranial hypertension last year, managed to score seven distinctions although she had to miss most classes due to illness.

Finances might have been tight for Aqil Nasran Shah Nizam Shah‘s family couldn’t afford to pay for his tuition, however, that did not stop the Xinmin Secondary School student from attaining his O-level results of 13 points for English and four other subjects.

Indeed, the mettle and willpower of these students should be celebrated, but nothing is said about those who did not do well or as well as they hoped. Is it the end for them?

What’s next after the O-levels?

There are various options which students can take after receiving their O-level results.

For students did well enough in their O-levels, most would enrol themselves into a junior college where they would go through a two-year programme (or three-year programme for Millennia Institute) before sitting for A-levels.

Next up would be one of the most popular options after O-levels, which is to enrol into a polytechnic. Students who are interested in pursuing a more practice-oriented pathway may apply for full-time diploma courses at the various polytechnics. 

For students who do not meet the minimum entry requirements for polytechnics, they may also opt to take a diploma course from a private institution.

Alternatively, students who didn’t do well enough to qualify for either junior college or polytechnic may also enrol into the two-year Higher Nitec course at the Institute of Technical Education. Albeit a longer route, students can still progress from there into polytechnic course and a local university thereafter. 

Students with a keen interest in the arts can also choose to attend one of the tertiary arts schools to further their potential. The main ones that  are offering arts-related courses in Singapore are LASALLE College of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), and School of the Arts (SOTA).

READ MORE:  The Cambridge Analytica scandal in a nutshell and is your Facebook data part of the breach?

Statistics in recent years have shown that more and more students who are eligible for junior college have enrolled in polytechnics instead. This owes to the fact that the diploma pathway has become more attractive, offering courses that prepare students for careers in emerging industries and fields where demand for workers is high. 

Hence, more secondary school-leaving-age cohort are now choosing the three-year polytechnic route over the two-year junior college route.

Life Beyond Grades 

An initiative, aptly titled Life Beyond Grades, was started by a group of parents to shift mindsets about the over-focus on academic achievements. They aimed to broaden the society’s seemingly narrow definition of success while embracing the multiple pathways that children can take toward success. 

While the movement has had its detractors, it plays up the successes of people who have taken unconventional routes. We also spoke to some Singaporeans who have proved that life is more than just grades. 

Ex-EM3 student launches 3 startups, helps others find jobs

Anders, 35, used to be an EM3 primary school student who struggled with classes. He describes his younger self as someone who is “unable to focus in class, had a short attention span and was easily provoked.” 

In secondary school, he was streamed under Normal (Technical) and after which he proceeded to ITE East (MacPherson) to study Info-Communication.

Contrary to what Jack Neo put it in his movie “I Not Stupid”, ITE wasn’t the end for Anders. 

Instead, he felt he benefited a lot from attending ITE:

“ITE has a good support system. Lecturers and staff are generally more patient and spend a lot more time to get to know you. The curriculum focuses on specific skillsets leading to local/overseas internship opportunities.

“You had more freedom, in terms of break time; you can travel out for meal, explore more options. There were lots of CCAs to participate in too.”

Today, the SMU graduate is a co-founder of several startups, including his latest baby, Inclus, a social business that seeks to provide employment support opportunities for people with special needs.

I messed up my GCE O levels but it’s okay

It doesn’t matter even if he’d score a “high score” of 32 for his O-levels, Smith, 35, is a living proof that each and every one of us is more than just school results.

With his diploma in Computer Engineering, Smith started his first job in an industry which he was not even formally trained in. Albeit badly underpaid in terms of money, Smith said he was compensated with valuable knowledge and he was also able to build a positive reputation within the industry.

READ MORE:  Japanese YouTuber chokes to death on live broadcast while doing the “Onigiri Challenge”

Over the years and through his different working experiences, Smith has met respectable people from different fields and has learned a lot of each and every one of them.

He firmly believes that success does not come easy and his hopes and aspirations for his son is to be brave and dare to make dreams happen.

Changes to the education system 

There have been some major changes to the Singapore education system throughout the years. The MOE hopes to adapt the measures so that children can have many pathways to develop their strengths, fulfill their potential, and be best prepared for the jobs and opportunities for the future.

Here are some of the key changes that have been made to the education system:

No more exams and weighted tests for Primary 1 and Primary 2

Primary 1 and 2 students will no longer sit for major exams as of last year. Tests and assessments conducted will also not be counted to form any overall mark or grade.

No mid-year examinations for Primary 3, Primary 5, Secondary 1 and Secondary 3

As of last year, mid-year examinations for Secondary 1 students have been removed. Mid-year examinations for Primary 3, Primary 5 and Secondary 3 students will also be removed over the next two years. Mid-year examinations for this group of students will be completely removed by 2021.

The removal of mid-year examinations will allow this group of students to have adequate time and space to adjust to the increased curriculum demands in their transition year.

In addition, schools should conduct no more than one weighted assessment per subject, per school term for all levels starting from Primary 3 to Secondary 4 and Secondary 5 – other than mid-year and year-end examinations, at levels where this is applicable.

Report books in schools will no longer show certain academic indicators

With effect from last year, student’s report book will also no longer record the following academic indicators:

  • Position in class
  • Position in standard
  • Progress report
  • Percentile scores for each subject 
  • Total marks
  • All marks will be rounded up to whole numbers
  • No underlining of fail scores

The changes aim to help students to focus on their learning progress and discourage excessive peer comparisons.

Changes to criteria for Edusave Awards

In the past, bursaries for primary and secondary students used to be presented only to top scorers in school. These awards range from $200 to $300.

However, from 2019 onwards, these awards will be awarded to Primary 1 to Primary 3 students who show positive attitudes towards learning.


There have been changes in the Singapore education system, but perhaps more can be done

Unlike the typical Singaporean parents who tend to be obsessed with academic excellence, former advertising high flyer Calvin Soh decided that focusing more on being future-ready and having skill sets suitable for the exponential age would be the priority for his children.

90 minutes with Calvin Soh and I was #mindblown: Growth mindset and exponential age

When asked what’s his take on the education system in Singapore, the father of two feels that while there have been changes in the education system, there is a lot more that can be done.

READ MORE:  Hit-and-run by ComfortDelGro's CityCab at Redhill

“Yes, compared to last time, the education system is moving faster than it has ever been. But how about when it is compared to the rest of the world? It is not evolving fast enough.”

What he thinks is lacking in the education system in Singapore is creativity. For instance, in Singapore, compositions are judged on spelling and grammar, and not how creative it is. In Calvin’s opinion, this has unfortunately stifled some form of creativity and skill sets needed for some roles in Singapore. 

Therefore, to prepare his children for a future of “I don’t know” in the fast-changing world, he takes it into his own hands in helping his children to develop a varied set of skills that will enable them to succeed on the global stage. 

But surely, learning doesn’t end with a degree or certification. In fact, a “lifelong learning” mindset should be embraced, with individuals intrinsically motivated in their pursuit of knowledge and skills.

In this present-day age of rapidly changing technologies and disruptions, perhaps to continuously unlearn and relearn throughout our lives is the only way in which we can prepare ourselves for an exponential future. 

Read more personal stories from Singaporeans who proved that life is more than just grades

1. Ex-EM3 student launches 3 startups, helps others find jobs
This is a story about a Singaporean man who did badly in school during his younger days. Today, he is a co-founder of several startups, including his latest baby, Inclus, a social business that seeks to provide employment support opportunities for people with special needs.

2. I messed up my GCE O-levels but it’s okay
This is a story about a Singaporean man who messed up his O levels with an L1R5 “high score” of 32. That, however, did not deter him from making the most out of his life. He believes that the route to success is more than just about studying hard and there are many other ways and options around it.

3. 90 minutes with Calvin Soh and I was #mindblown: Growth mindset and exponential age
This is a story about a Singaporean parent who decided that life skills would be the priority for his children over academic excellence.


Don't be selfish... Click here to share this on Facebook!

If you like what you read, follow us on Facebook to get the latest updates.

Gabrielle Teo

Author Gabrielle Teo

I read lots, and I also spend an indecent amount of time trying to get my mostly unpopular opinions published. Oh, I argue a lot with fellow Singaporeans who complain incessantly about Singapore too.

More posts by Gabrielle Teo

Leave a Reply