When will the PSLE “sacred cow” be killed? MP Denise Phua asks for it again, Ng Chee Meng says no

Suggestion to remove it has been moo-ted since, like, forever.

By Joshua Lee | March 7, 2018

In 2018, we can be sure of three things: climate change, the rise of artificial intelligence, and how the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will remain one of the biggest life hurdles Singaporeans will have to pass.

This supposed Primary 1 bonus question proves we’d all fail PSLE if we took it now

So can we do away with this “sacred cow”?

That was Member of Parliament Denise Phua’s question during the Committee of Supply debate on March 5, 2018.

Merely re-arranging chairs on the deck

Citing how the PSLE puts immense stress on teachers, students, and parents even though there have been tweaks to the examination system, Phua called for a serious re-examination of whether the PSLE system is outdated.

“Could it be that it is insufficient to simply tweak the system through changes such as PSLE banding instead of T-scores; by allowing subject combinations instead of removing the labels of Express, NA and NT and Special Schools? Are we merely re-arranging the chairs on the deck and not making deep enough changes? In this age of disruptions, do we dare proactively disrupt our current education systems by slaying some of the sacred cows that we inherited from the proverbial 3rd Industrial Revolution when we are already in the 4th?”

Phua also recounted how a mainstream educator once told her that while teachers are willing to teach differently in classes today, the process of preparing students for the monster that is PSLE leaves them with little or no time to do anything else.

Listen to Phua’s speech below (starting from 5:53).

Not the first time

It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time Phua sought the slaying of this sacred cow.

Last year, she urged the government to scrap the PSLE and start a 10-year through-train model.

Mothership.sg parliamentary speech awards: Day 3

Removing PSLE only transfers stress

In response, Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said the Ministry of Education (MOE) has dialled back from an “over-emphasis on academic grades” and tweaked the PSLE scoring system (to a new one effective 2021) to better reflect a student’s growth instead of his or her standing among peers.

However, the effects of these policy changes such as subject banding will take time to be felt on the ground.

While the PSLE does not cast a child’s potential in stone, Ng said it still serves as a “useful checkpoint” to determine where a child’s strengths lie.

Yea, ‘useful checkpoints’ are what we look forward to in school. Via MOE YouTube.

Ng also added that while mitigating the stress levels of PSLE is admirable, removing it will only transfer the stress elsewhere.

“Removing the PSLE and having a 10-year through train will only transfer the stress on parents and students elsewhere, such as at the P1 registration, and make the O-Level and N-Level exams most stressful.”

Watch Ng’s speech from 0:42:

PSLE created in 1960 to standardise sec school entrance exams

The sacred cow that is PSLE was created in 1960 to provide a standardised entrance examination for primary school graduates.

Previously, different language-stream schools held different school-leaving examinations for their students. With the PSLE, students from all schools, regardless of language streams, were given a common certification and an equal opportunity to pursue secondary education.

In 1980, following an education reform (the New Education System) led by then-education minister Goh Keng Swee, the PSLE was then used to stream students into the Special, Express, or Normal tracks to allow students to learn at different paces.

While its original intent was admirable, the PSLE as we now know it produced a litany of undesirable outcomes — the stress on parents and students, as well as the social stigma of streaming, for instance.

But is the PSLE so sacred that it cannot be done away with?

Looking back, there have been many other sacred cows that proved to be, well, not-so-sacred as time went by.

National Service (NS) was reduced from two years and six months to two years in 2004 thanks to technological advances.

Dialect television programming made a comeback recently on Mediacorp’s Channel 8, ending a blanket ban that was enforced in 1981.

Ministerial salaries, an issue that has been debated for so long, took a cut after the 2011 general election. More recently, despite a review recommendation to raise their pay, the government in this year’s Committee of Supply debates announced its decision to impose a five-year freeze.

Only time will tell if the PSLE makes its way to the slaughterhouse one day.

Top image via MOE YouTube.

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