Thursday, November 1, 2012

PSLE - What do parents want?

"Many parents welcome idea of reviewing PSLE scoring" says the front page of yesterday's Home Section of the Straits Times.  What is there to review?  What do these parents want?  I read on and it became apparent to me.

Parents want to get their kids into Raffles Institution (RI), Singapore's No. 1 school.  I have written a little about how great this school is and how impartial it is in its selection of students and how it operates solely on merit and how it has placed Singapore on the world's map of education and how the head of Oxford praises it and how it has been dubbed the "Ivy League machine" by the Wall Street Journal.  Please click here if you want to read this.

Who doesn't want his kid to enter such an enormously prestigious school?  But, alas, for most of us, this school is great because it's meritocratic and because it's meritocratic, its places are quite naturally reserved only for the best and brightest in the whole nation.

Meritocracy dictates that the top school must necessarily be for top students only. After reading the article in the Straits Times, I gather that most parents want their kids to enter this top school even if their kids aren't among the top students.  They even suggest that the cut-off PSLE points for RI be reduced to 240 which is shockingly low!

Let's face it - if our kids can't make it to RI, there is only one reason.  Our kids didn't do well enough to enter the school.  Or to put it another way, there are other students who did better than our kids and they have taken up the places in the top school.  Let's say RI does reduce its cut-off score to 240.  There's no way RI can take in every boy with a score of 240 and above.  The school isn't big enough.  RI will have to give its places to the best among those with 240 and above and we're back to square one, aren't we?  Your kid with 240 isn't getting in.  So what do you suggest?  Your kid with a score of 240 is allowed into RI and a kid with a score in the mid 260's (which is the traditional cut-off score for RI) is turned away?  Come on, parents, surely you can't be that unjust and selfish?  Even if you are that unjust and selfish, what guideline should there be to ensure that it's YOUR kid with a mediocre score who should be allowed into RI and not somebody else's kid.  Bear in mind that when it comes to mediocre scores, there is a huge number of students we're talking about.  That's how the bell curve works.

As long as we want to be fair, there's no way you can lower the cut-off score to 240.  The cut-off score for RI differs from year to year.  It depends on available places in the school and the number of applicants it has for each year.  Basically, RI just takes in those with the best possible scores.  It's not just RI.  Other schools do that too, or at least they should.  It's just that the top students would have gone to RI and so the other schools will have no choice but to take in students with poorer grades.  This is how meritocracy works.  There's no other way out.  Some schools  have a feeder school system which means that they give priority to students from their affiliated primary schools.  RI does not have a feeder school and no priority is given to any primary school.  You enter the school on pure merit, pure and simple.

After making the ridiculous suggestion that RI should lower its cut-off score to 240, one parent even suggests that RI has become a school for children of rich parents.  This is what he says:

In the first place, what Mr Lim says is totally untrue.  The students in RI closely represent a cross-section of Singapore society.  I know that for a fact so please don't argue with me when you have only been to the school for a visit.  The notion that the PSLE only favours kids from wealthier families is a common notion but it is wrong.  I admit I used to think that way too.  When my son was in Primary 6, I knew at least 10 kids in primary 6 in the same school whose parents were lawyers and doctors.  Out of these 10, only one made it to RI.  The rest had scores which could not make the grade not just for RI but Hwa Chong too.  I know of two boys in RI whose fathers are lorry drivers.  They had PSLE scores that are much higher than the already high RI cut-off score for that year.   Being curious, I asked them if they had private tuition.  They told me they had never had a single day's private lesson because their parents couldn't afford it.  In Sec 1, when my son took to school a novel that was in the reading list of their literature lesson,  he was told that he was "rich" because some of the boys borrowed the novel from the library.  I didn't allow my son in Sec 1 to take the public bus because I felt a cab was safer and it was only later that I discovered that my son had been taking a cab from a quieter part of the school so as not to be seen as "different" from the other boys who had been taking the public transport since they were in primary school.  Anyone who says RI has become a school for rich kids really speaks from utter ignorance.

RI, like all other schools, has the Direct School Admission system and they do take in students with excellent sporting achievements or high musical talents.  So, there already are ways to get into RI if your kid excels in sports or the arts.  Again, it's all meritocracy.  When I say "excel", I really do mean excel on a very high level.  Mediocre achievements won't get you anywhere of course.

Ultimately, parents should ask themselves what it is they really want.  Do they want their kids with lower grades to displace students who do better, and if so, on what criteria? If your kid isn't really among the top, what is so bad about going to the next best school?  The time will come when your kid wants to get to the top faculty in the best university and again, he's got to be among the best if he wants the best.  You can't have it any other way.  Besides, if your kid goes to a top school that he's not suited for, what impact will that have on his self-esteem?  Parents really ought to be realistic and they should not place unfair expectations on kids.  We are all made differently and there is value in each one of us.  Let's give our kids the space they need and let's not try to force their way into schools that they aren't really ready for.  Don't make them bite off more than they can chew.

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