Subject-based banding for good?

By Jee Leong Koh

On 5 March 2019, Singapore’s Ministry of Education announced that it will scrap streaming in secondary schools in 2024 and replace it with subject-based banding. Singapore Unbound supports the abolition of streaming, which has undermined and stigmatized students by labeling them as Express, Normal (Academic), and Normal (Technical). The belated change to subject-based banding, or tracking as it is called in the USA, is an improvement, but it does not go very far in addressing the inequities in the educational system.

Subject-based banding will, in fact, reinforce the false idea that the current system is based on meritocracy. Even with the change, schools will still be measuring student performance based on different student starting points and unequal access to resources (families, schools, and communities). There is no acknowledgement of prevailing social and economic injustices in society, as piercingly described in the study This Is What Inequality Looks Like by sociologist Teo You Yenn.

There must be a re-examination of the way that primary schools evaluate student potential and achievement. If some students enter Primary One already knowing how to read and write in English, and some students don’t, the latter will find it hard, if not impossible, ever to “catch up.” Since all subjects are taught in English, the handicap is severe. Subject-based banding will only lend a thin veneer of legitimacy to different paths through the educational system.

One important way in which the Ministry of Education can begin addressing the problem of inequity is to take on full responsibility for pre-school education to ensure a more level playing field. Right now, pre-school education in Singapore is a patchwork of private operations—some highly expensive, some clearly inadequate—and kindergartens run by the Ministry. By 2023 the Ministry plans to have 50 such kindergartens, providing for a fifth of five- and six-year olds. This is too little and too slow. The Ministry has the wherewithal to do much better by families in Singapore.

On a different tack, subject-based banding is perhaps suitable for the acquisition of technical and scientific knowledge (though even that is arguable), but it is inimical to the study of the humanities. Some subjects in secondary schools, such as literature and history, should be taught in mixed-ability classes. These classes benefit from the different perspectives of students from different backgrounds. Students learn to appreciate a diversity of viewpoints and understand the necessity for interpretation. Such classes also ameliorate the harmful effects of any kind of grouping based ostensibly on “ability.” They teach students the values of democratic citizenship better than any civics class.

We should not look to schools, however, as the panacea to all social ills. Schools are naturally, and some would argue, rightly, conservative institutions. They reflect our society; seldom do they revolutionize it. If Singapore schools treat education in a narrowly instrumental and highly competitive manner, they merely reflect society’s instrumentalism and competition. The change must be cultural. Otherwise, any change in the educational system will be warped from its good intentions by its implementation and reception. Sadly, it is hard to see any such cultural change on the horizon.

This was reproduced with permission from editors of TR Emeritus.


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