Will the new PSLE scoring system change anything?

(This post by Yee Jenn Jong first appeared on his blog on 29 April 2021. It is reproduced with permission.)

So, a new period has begun. Entry to secondary schools will not be determined by T-Scores but by Achievement Levels (ALs) and the sum of ALs over the 4 subjects students will have to take for the PSLE.

Many people have written to explain the system. You can find one here from the Straits Times. MOE has also since provided the list of indicative cut-off points for secondary schools. There are enough experts analysing the system and how best to achieve the desired scores to go to the ‘best’ schools. The system looks confusing now, because it is new and people do not quite understand the implications of how it will actually affect entry into schools which will be based on actual demand for and supply of places.

Will it change the anxiety over this deemed high-stake examinations? My short answer is, NO.

No; as long as parents still believe that there are some schools more desirable than others, that there are some academic streams better for their children, there will be anxiety. Some will have good reasons to believe so and many will still go by what we instinctively think as humans – the harder to get in, the better it must be. With limited places in the desired schools, there will still be the pressure at PLSE, at the tender age of 12. For now, the new system will actually add more anxiety until people figure out what it will actually take to get to what schools. There will be no change in anxiety level unless there is a mindset change of parents, and other accompanying policy changes to other aspects of our schools and even in society.

When I was in school, we did not quite care which schools we went to. My parents, both Chinese teachers, sent my brothers and me to St. Stephen’s School, a mission school near our home because it would provide the English speaking environment we would not get at home. The late Mr Lee KY had already made it clear that English will be the main medium for business, so my parents figured that for us to succeed in Singapore, we have to be good with our English. When it came to secondary school, almost the entire cohort chose the affiliated St. Patrick;s School nearby. We just wanted to be with friends and we wanted to be in a school near our homes. Hardly anyone looked at branding of schools nor how others perceive the schools. We turned out well. The top student in the entire east of Singapore for my O level year came from St. Patrick’s. Many went on to become lawyers, doctors, dentists, successful businessmen and some went quite high in the government service. Many went on to receive scholarships for their university studies.

The most significant change ever made to our education system since independence were the reforms sparked by the Goh report in the late 1970s. Dr Goh Keng Swee, the fixer for ministries with problems, was sent to rectify the problem of low education levels and high drop-out rates. As a trained engineer and with limited resources of the country, he figured the best solution was to stream students to what suits them best so that we could produce workers for the MNCs and whatever was necessary for our economy. Harsh as the system was, it produced results. Drop out rates fell drastically. Those deemed less academic could take up the more hands-on courses. Continued reforms after that tinkered with the formula.

We started to have more experimentation – Special Assistance Plan schools specialising in the Chinese language (which of course attracted almost entirely Chinese students), gifted steam (initially at both primary and secondary levels, and later with the proliferation of independent secondary schools with their own programmes to stretch high ability students, the gifted programme was dropped for secondary schools), autonomous schools, through-train secondary to JC, and so on. Schools were resourced differently to fit their cohorts. Some schools became very well resourced, both from state funding and from a strong alumni. The contrast between the haves and have-nots became quite stark.

I thought the worst thing that happened was when we started to rank and brand schools. It was first started in 1992, published by our national newspaper Straits Times. The exercise went on for two decades, with tinkering of the criteria along the way, but nevertheless, schools were publicly honoured and of course, those left out of the published rankings were deemed not-so-good, to put it mildly in the perception of the public. There were other ways MOE started to measure schools such as PRISM (“Performance Indicators for School Management”), banding of schools instead of by absolute score (as schools started fighting hard for the extra score to the decimal points to be up the ranking). Whatever the tinkering, the layman would just rely on the list and start to push their children to be in top ranked schools, as high up the ranking as they could. Even though the listing has been stopped (thankfully), the damage of such a prolong exercise has been done. Others continue to publish their unofficial ranking of schools in the absence of that by MOE, using various criteria of their own. The most simplistic is to look at the cut-off points for admission of schools at secondary 1 and JC 1, which to me does not say very much actually. I find it quite sad that people do not look at what schools that take in lower scoring students had been able to transform or value-add to students. A JC that takes in 5-6 pointers students will obviously have to ensure that vast majority, if not all will make it to ‘good’ universities. The JCs that take in average scoring O levels students but enabling many of them to do well for university admissions should be lauded more.

A ridiculous exercise my own children had to go through in secondary 1 many years ago was that they were each given a slip by MOE stating their PSLE score and their expected score for O levels. My children did not have sterling PLSE scores. They went to neighbour schools. We told our children to chuck that paper away and not to let other people limit them by what the computer system would predict their future scores to be. All three of them turned out much better at O levels than the predictions. I still do not quite understand why MOE thought the exercise was necessary. It was perhaps that entrenched mindset that students are like factory products – after sorting out at PSLE, that would be where they were expected to be at the end of the current factory line before moving on to the next factory.

Singapore has taken the Goh’s report sorting exercise too far. Some steps had been taken in more recent years to undo the unhealthy competition and what I had termed in parliament in my maiden speech (Oct 2011) as ‘hyper-meritocracy’ (Heng Swee Kiat later used another term ‘extreme meritocracy’ but had the same meaning). Education is a lot more than just what the student achieve in academic results and what schools they attend. My wife and I had no issues with our children going to neighbour primary and secondary schools. We opted them out of the gifted education test. As concerned parents like many others, we do try to help with whatever they feel they need help in, but otherwise we let them have their own space to grow. We are thankful that they turned out well. One went through the polytechnic route while the other two went through neighbourhood JCs. All ended up eventually in our local autonomous universities and have found what they want to do in life, a very important thing to us as parents.

I had pushed many times in parliament (2015, 2014, 2013, 2012) and in the WP 2015 manifesto for through-train primary to secondary pilot schools. I would have gladly sent my children to such schools even if there was no option for them to enter a top secondary schools through this path. 10 years would be a good time for the school to development the students holistically till they were of the age to better know what would work for them. Our society has come a long way since the Goh’s report of 1978 that necessitated mass sorting out of students. We need to constantly focus on the core purpose of education – to develop each child to bring out the best in them. I end this blog with one of my favourite quote on education, for which I had also written a blog post several years ago – What should be the focus of our education?

The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate “apparently ordinary” people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people. ~K. Patricia Cross, Education Scholar

Parents – anxious as we are about how to deal with the new PSLE scoring and what schools / academic streams we want our children to be in, do remember to invest time into their development, and to encourage them even if they do not end up where you hope for them to be in. Parents hold their children’s hands for a while, and hopefully their hearts forever.



I am a passionate Singaporean who love to share my views on sociopolitics, economics, education and just about anything which I feel can improve our country and the world. I was a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament from 2011-2015 and am presently an entrepreneur in the education sector.


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