Principals & teachers are unsung heroes of MOE's subject-based banding change

Because they're the ones who will be bloodying their hands from the actual cow-slaying.

Martino Tan | March 07, 2019, 05:18 PM

By now, you must have heard of the momentous changes announced to the secondary school system earlier this week:

The Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that the three current secondary school streams — Express, Normal (Academic) or N(A), and Normal (Technical) or N(T) — will soon be no more.

In the coming four years (2020-2024), the full subject based banding (SBB) system will also be rolled out to all other secondary schools, with everyone being on board it by 2024.

Come 2024, the first batch of Secondary One students under full SBB will graduate with a yet-to-be-named common certificate co-branded by Singapore and Cambridge.

And parents, according to a Straits Times report, appear at least initially to be applauding the end of Normal and Express streaming.

They said this is a good move by MOE, with some agreeing that it has the potential to help reduce stigmatisation.

This has led to politicians of different stripes claiming credit acknowledging their respective roles in this change.

Exhibit A: Singapore Democratic Party

The SDP said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung was following its lead on this topic.

Why? Because some 25 years ago, the SDP said in a policy proposal that streaming and the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) should be abolished.

However, SDP's proposal then was to that streaming should "be done at an appropriate age after cognitive functions have more or less fully developed, not before".

So it wasn't actually lobbying for streaming to be scrapped; it was cool with doing so, but for older students.

Exhibit B: People's Action Party (PAP) MP Louis Ng

Ng's elated post, while thanking Ong and MOE for the changes, highlighted the year-long effort by him and his legislative assistant in researching his 2019 Budget speech on streaming.

Taken without all that much historical knowledge (which would be the case for most of us), a person reading his post would certainly be convinced that his heroic efforts were enough to result in the ministry's epic cow-slaying, mere days after he made his case for it.

But here are three reasons why we think the actual heroes behind this change are none other than... teachers and principals.

1. Tailoring subjects for students based on their academic abilities requires lots of planning and new arrangements.

During Ong's speech at the MOE's Committee of Supply debates, he said he visited Edgefield Secondary, a school that decided to re-organise form classes to include students from all three streams, starting from this year.

At Edgefield, each Sec One form class goes through about half their lessons together — for subjects like Character and Citizenship Education, Design and Technology, Art, Music, and Physical Education, where there is little need to customise lessons based on academic abilities.

The classes, which mix students from all three streams, are grouped according to SBB for academic subjects such as English, Mother Tongue, Mathematics and Science.

Edgefield principal Lee Peck Ping said students are organised in the ratio of 5:2:1 for Express, N(A), and N(T) streams respectively.

But organising the whole school's curriculum to cater to the students' specific learning needs and abilities is, needless to say, not at all an easy task.

The school revealed that it went through more than 100 permutations (108, to be exact) of its timetable before firming up its final version.

It also has to consider factors such as the availability of classrooms and teachers, and to ensure that students' school hours are not extended.

This also, of course, means individual timetables have to be generated for the students.

According to TODAY, generating timetables for Secondary 1 students at Edgefield Secondary School used to take 20 minutes.

The time taken this year, with SBB in play? Six hours.

Although it is still too early to tell, Ong said the feedback from Edgefield Secondary School's teachers has generally been good.

According to Ong, they noticed that students were helping each other more frequently in class, and students from the Normal streams were stepping forward to take up leadership roles in group work.

2. They're the ones who have to communicate patiently and persuasively the benefits of SBB to parents and sceptics who grew up under the streaming system.

In his Facebook post (March 5), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that MOE introduced streaming 40 years ago.

Needless to say, it would have been infinitely easier for teachers and principals to stick to the status quo of not fixing something that, well, ain't broke.

We can't help but really appreciate the sheer amount of work that's awaiting Singapore's secondary school teachers and principals — not only will they have to implement these changes in their schools within four years (2020-2024), they will also probably have to persuade and get parents on-board with the new system.

Ong hinted at some of the challenges they have already faced on the ground even at this early stage:

"[T]he principal, Mr Lee Peck Ping, told me that a handful of parents were concerned that this might slow down learning in class. Peck Ping painstakingly explained how SBB worked, what students are learning as a form class, and how classes for academic subjects were still banded based on the learning abilities of the students. Through this explanation, he managed to address the concerns of most parents.

He told me that a very small number of parents were still worried, and felt that had they known, they would not have sent their children to Edgefield Secondary."

Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng had other concerns that may be shared by some parents:

Parents' mindsets have to be open enough and allow more opportunities for students from different backgrounds and academic abilities to mix.

If parents do not change how they think about this, the implementation of this new system will definitely lead to more pressure for their kids to do well in their PSLE, making PSLE an even higher-stakes exam than it already is.

3. Lessons from the past gave MOE the confidence to remove streaming. And teachers contributed immensely to these efforts.

As Ong rightly highlighted, MOE is "able to take these steps now because of the work that was done in the past".

For instance, the SBB idea was first implemented in primary schools, where MOE first phased out streaming in the mid 2000s over four years.

EM1, EM2 and EM3 were phased out, and the ministry then customised learning at the subject level.

By 2008, the school system had a single primary school course where students could learn subjects at different standards, based on SBB.

And it was, as it often is with changes in the education system, the efforts of the primary school teachers and principals that made that initial SBB experiment work.

Next, the MOE formalised a bolder form of SBB in 12 prototype secondary schools in 2014.

N(A) and N(T) students at lower secondary levels could take English, Mother Tongue, Math, and Science at more rigorous standards, if their PSLE scores or school examination results for these subjects justified it.

The implementation of the change also came at a time when MOE had one of its most experienced Permanent Secretaries still helming the ministry.

Chan Lai Fung, 55, has been Permanent Secretary for Education since 2012, and used her time in the ministry to lead and lay the groundwork for this major change prior to her departure to the National Research Foundation come April.

But hey, we'll leave it to Ong to have the last word on the secondary school education reforms:

"This has to be our attitude when it comes to education – never complacent, always anticipating the future, figuring out what needs to change next, planning it out, and implementing at a pace that takes into account the trade-offs, complexities, and the immense impact any changes will have on our students.

We should never stay frozen for long periods, only to make sudden changes years later. So any change that can be compared to the slaughtering of any animal is probably a bad idea (our emphasis)."

While one should acknowledge the politicians' abilities to provide good suggestions, it's the diligence of the teachers and principals who made Singapore's education system a world-class system.

Top photo from Ong Ye Kung's Facebook page.