Tuesday, October 2, 2012
PSLE - let this be the final word.
There is a great deal in the newspapers and online forums about the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Some want it abolished or revamped, citing undue stress on the twelve-year-olds who sit the exam. There are a few reasonable voices that call for the PSLE to remain as the most reliable gauge that we have of a student's ability. It may not be perfect, nothing is, but it's probably the most effective qualifying exam, or placement exam, as it is sometimes aptly called, for students to gain admission to a secondary school. What's truly great about this examination is its absolute fairness and impartiality. It is a strong testimony to the government's commitment to meritocracy, fairness and equity and in no area is fair play more important to the people than in the area of education for their children. The PSLE is the government's assurance of total impartiality in this area of great importance to the people.
The PSLE is an exam that's designed to divide the student population into different categories according to their intellectual capability. There is a special group and this consists of students who are the top 3% in the exam in each year. This group is given a scholarship by the government for the next 6 years of secondary school and Junior College education. This top 3% is of course given the secondary school of their choice and honestly, who can complain about that?
As a rule of thumb these top students usually go to the No. 1 school in this country. Every Singaporean knows perfectly well which school that is. That's the school with the highest cut-off point at the qualifying PSLE. It's not surprising that this school can accelerate its teaching way above any other schools. This is also the school that places Singapore in a prominent position on the world map of academia; it's our showcase school to tell the world how effective our education is. When it comes to academic competitions, this school garners all the medals (OK, not all; it does share these Olympiad medals with another school which is a dedicated school for maths and science but that's about it). The Wall Street Journal once called this school the "Ivy League machine" because it's the single school outside of the USA that feeds the most number of students into Ivy League universities. Just last year, Prof Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford said, "Raffles is Oxford's top feeder school - RI sends more students to Oxford than any other public school within and outside of England, more than even Eton".
It's not just in academia that this school shines. In the recent Youth Olympics, this school won more medals than any other schools in the country, more medals than even the sports school in Singapore.
How did Singapore manage to create a school that can trump the rest of the world in virtually everything? Last year, when I read that Singapore came in tops in the World Schools Debating Championship in Dundee, I checked to see which schools the Singaporean participants were from and yes, last year they were all from this same school. Hey, we are not even talking about passing examinations. How does this school win every medal in one clean sweep? It all boils down to the PSLE. Singapore has stumbled upon a winning formula with this exam that acts as a filter to channel students into schools that best suit their needs according to their abilities and learning capabilities. The most effective teaching method must be one in which you group students of the same calibre together. It's very hard for a teacher to pitch the level of his lessons if you have a mixed bag in a classroom. The effectiveness of the PSLE as a gauge of a student's abilities and academic strength is confirmed many times over by the huge success of our top schools on the world stage.
Why would anybody want to do away with a system that is open, transparent, incorruptible and the most equitable measure of a student's worth and eligibility for a secondary school of his choice?
Someone suggests in today's Straits Times forum page that the schools be given some leeway to accept students who might not be good at everything. He argues that some students may be good at mathematics but they may be weak in languages and so they won't do so well in the PSLE. But that's precisely what the PSLE is for. It's to weed out students who, though good at a subject or two, exhibit weaknesses in some other subjects. The top 3% who are enrolled into the No. 1 school in the country can't afford to have lopsided strengths. There is no room for weaknesses of any kind if you want to be in the top school. Is that so unfair? Of course not. In all fairness, the top places must only be given to the best. That's not just justice, that's decency.
But the current system does cater for students who are weak in some areas and so they may not shine in the PSLE. Students who are good at mathematics and the sciences can always apply for a place in the dedicated science school which, as I have said earlier, shares with RI some of the International Olympiad medals in the sciences and mathematics. Currently, all schools consider many other areas in a student's achievement which is why we have the Direct School Admission system in all secondary schools. Students who excel in various aspects (whether academic or otherwise) are accepted into secondary schools even before they take the PSLE.
I cannot help feeling that we sometimes take a dog-in-the-manger approach. If we are certain there's no hope our children will be among the top in the PSLE and get accepted into the top schools, we might as well clamour for there to be no top schools. Let all schools open their doors to students regardless of academic achievements. It doesn't matter if we get mediocrity all round and there are no top schools to hone the abilities and talents of top students because our kids aren't among them anyway. I'm sure very few would adopt such an approach; it's an approach that will be the ruin of this country. We have achieved much with meritocracy for our guide and to throw it all away is madness.
Since I keep mentioning meritocracy, I should add this last point about Singapore's No. 1 school. Enrolment in the school is strictly based on merit and there are no back-door entrances. We all know of a particular school that's always asking for donations and students who don't meet the cut-off PSLE score are permitted into the school on payment of a large donation but that's not one of our top schools, not by a long shot. Our finest schools can't possibly go down that route and they certainly don't. Entrance into these schools such as RI and HC are strictly based on merit and the PSLE score is the final arbiter of a student's real merit. I know of a brilliant boy who is the son of a lorry driver who is given a place in this top school on the strength of his remarkable PSLE results while the son of a very important Government man was rejected, again on the basis of the PSLE results. Frankly, I know of no other country that can boast of such an unflagging commitment to meritocracy and fair play. Those who ask for the PSLE to be scrapped really don't know what they are asking for.
Today is the final day of the PSLE for this year. I wish all candidates the best of luck. And in the spirit of meritocracy, may everyone get precisely what he or she deserves, based on nothing else but pure merit.