An open letter from a former struggling student in S’pore

To be able to cope in school is really a rare blessing.

By Fasiha Nazren | October 11, 2017

Dear whoever it is who cannot fathom why students struggle in Singapore,

Yes, Singapore has earned a reputation of developing one of the best education systems in the world.

But it comes with costs.

Students are put under a lot of pressure to not fall through the academic cracks.

It has led to the rise of a several hundred million dollar shadow private tuition industry that props up public education.

And students have to contend with supplementary classes and co-curricular activities (CCA) as part of a holistic education.

If this is the sort of system that has been set up, wouldn’t it feel like a constant treadmill just to keep up?

One young student in Singapore, however, felt that if there’s anyone to blame, it’s the players and not the game.

Students are the problem

A 16-year-old student’s short missive was published in The Straits Times on Oct. 11, arguing that it is not the education system’s fault:

Not school’s fault if students can’t cope

Many of my schoolmates complain about having too many assignments, tests, co-curricular activities (CCA) and other commitments. They go to bed after 1am and sleep for just five to six hours.

But this is not my experience.

I managed to go to bed by 11pm and sleep for more than seven hours. I was able to maintain my grades and balance commitments such as thrice-weekly music lessons and twice-weekly CCA.

Schools do make adjustments to help us cope.

In my school, students can be excused from CCA if their grades are falling. The four quizzes per semester were condensed into one combined test after complaints.

Yet, students still gripe endlessly.

I believe that schools and schoolwork are not the problem. Rather, it is the students.

Perhaps students’ inability to cope has to do with poor time management and procrastination. There are also distractions from friends, games and celebrities.

Tan Yan, 16, Secondary 4 student

Ok, breathe.

While I don’t want to berate anyone for holding such a view, I hope my response in the form of this open letter will help to broaden minds.

Different commitments

Granted, a lot of students lack good time-management skills, but to say that students cannot cope because of procrastination and due to “distractions from friends, games and celebrities” is very one-dimensional.

Especially to someone like me who had a pretty rough time in secondary school.

While I’m glad that anyone coping with school just fine is privileged enough to tackle commitments such as tri-weekly music lessons and bi-weekly CCA sessions, I had to face an arguably heavier set of commitments — that are non-academic in nature.

Ever since I was in secondary four until I was in polytechnic, I had to work part-time to pay for my own phone bills and allowances, on top of juggling supplementary classes, CCA and night studies.

I’m not proud to admit it, but because of how tired I get from working after school, sometimes I would skip class the following day.

Occasionally, I was also guilty of not sleeping before 11pm, either because work ended late or I was struggling to finish my homework or revision.

And of course, I didn’t get at least seven hours of sleep because I would wake up at 5.30am to chase the first bus to school so my friends could help me with my Principles of Accounts (POA) homework, while I helped them with their English comprehension questions.

Ok, fine, maybe you can account it to my poor time management.

Others have it worse

But I consider myself lucky.

I had a schoolmate who had a more pressing responsibility of taking care of her younger siblings while her parents worked long hours to make ends meet.

While in school, my schoolmate diligently asked questions whenever she was in doubt and tried to finish her homework while in commute, so she could give her fullest attention to her younger siblings at home.

On results day, I bawled because I managed a mediocre score for my O levels.

But this friend of mine got it worse: She had to retake her examinations.

So what’s her problem?

Was she distracted by “friends, games and celebrities”, or was it simply tough to find a balance between school and responsibilities?

To suggest it is a matter of choice and prioritising superficial wants is patronising and platitudinous.

Performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students

Before this becomes an isolated sob story about my friend and I, here are some statistics.

According to a study by the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) in 2015, a Singaporean’s educational outcome is highly associated with one’s social background.

There is also an obvious performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in Singapore.

via Programme for International Students Assessment

To add on, most Singaporeans students don’t feel a sense of belonging in school and face maximum anxiety when it comes to schoolwork.

via Programme for International Students Assessment

Who is to blame?

Honestly, it depends on each individual’s circumstances.

But to readily say that students are the problem, isn’t fair either.

Maybe you’re an elite student who has a knack for juggling studies and commitments, and perhaps words from a former neighbourhood school student may not make much sense to you.

But you have to know that your sole experience with the education system should not define the norm for others.

It is more of the exception than the rule.

Instead of going on a humblebrag about your consistent grades, take a step back and put yourself in the shoes of others.

To the 16-year-old ST opinion contributor: All the best for your O level examinations.

Hopefully, you’ll go on to do greater things that can potentially help better the lives of struggling students in Singapore.

I’m sure you’re capable of that.

Here are some totally unrelated but equally interesting stories:

Apparently, there’s a headless ghost that will deliver booze to you this Halloween

5 times Singaporeans ownself scared ownself with hoaxes

I let a 20-year-old Tarot card reader inside my mind and it was nothing like I expected

Top photo adapted from file photos and screenshot from ST’s article

About Fasiha Nazren

Fasiha is only afraid of three things - cockroaches, her parents and the deafening screamos of post hardcore bands.

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