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Commentary: Kids taking PSLE next year may have a very different experience

The new scoring system for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is a chance to focus on our child’s development rather than fixate on the competition with others, says mum June Yong.

Commentary: Kids taking PSLE next year may have a very different experience

Students from Shuqun Primary School receive their PSLE results. (Photo: Ministry of Education)

SINGAPORE: Today is the day of the big reveal as Primary 6 students nationwide wait eagerly to receive their PSLE results.

As my eldest daughter will be taking the PSLE in 2021, I can almost imagine myself in the shoes of these anxious parents, waiting to see the look on their child’s faces as they emerge with their result slip.

However, her experience could be somewhat different next year when the new PSLE scoring system kicks in.

It could be a whole new ball game, where the goal is less to maximise the score to gain entry into a few choice schools, and more on finding schools that can cultivate her extracurricular interests and attract like-minded peers.

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The new PSLE scoring system my daughter will undergo uses Achievement Levels (ALs) based on a student’s individual subject scores instead of a T-score, which benchmarks a child’s performance relative to their peers.

In shifting away from the old T-score system, the move seeks to reduce “grade consciousness” and the phenomenon of chasing the last mark, by allowing each child to receive a grade reflective of his or her personal mastery of the subjects.

It would serve to remove the fine differentiation of students, with over 29 possible AL scores compared to over 200 possible T-scores.

The same can be said of schools, when more schools will have the same cut-off point (COP). Students will therefore have a wider range of schools to choose from depending on their strengths and interests, school programmes and extracurriculars.

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Students from Ang Mo Kio Primary School receive their PSLE results. (Photo: Ministry of Education)

While the changes have been welcomed, one cannot help but wonder if the hidden tiger in many parents will still make its appearance given the uncertainties of the new scoring system.

Would parents seek more tuition help to ensure their young fall securely in the upper AL bands?

Would more choose to focus on the Direct Schools Admissions (DSA) path into choice schools to escape the uncertainty of this new system altogether?

And would some focus on a school with an affiliated secondary school to ensure there is a safety net for the child?

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Even these natural considerations as parents adapt to the new and unfamiliar seem to sidestep the heart of the issue: That each child is unique and the new system allows us to focus on helping them run their own race well.


When the new grading system was announced last year, a frequently asked question that emerged was: “What happens if my child is vying with a few peers for the last spot in the school?”

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This question underscores one of the key effects of this new system: There will be more schools with the same COP, and more pupils with the same AL Score, thus making it slightly more complicated in ascertaining whether a child will get into a chosen school with certainty.

While in the old system one might try to squeeze a child into the best possible school by way of COP, the new system incentivises one to make the first choice wisely in the new regime and not leave things to chance.

Students in Singapore receive their PSLE results.

After all, if students with the same points are vying a secondary school spot, MOE has highlighted that choice order of school could be the tie-breaker.

But where even this clarification has caused some stress, I find it ironic that parents want a lesser emphasis on grades in the pursuit of education, but get more concerned when the AL helps to achieve this – all because this is new territory.

It serves to highlight the fact that getting into a good secondary school still remains the obsession of many.

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 My daughter has shown a keen interest in visual art since an early age, so we are actually considering the DSA route, where she can apply for direct admission into various schools that offer art DSA.

Since Phase 2 began, she has been working with an art enrichment school to conceptualise and create artworks across a variety of medium and subjects – a few of which will eventually make up her art portfolio.

The list of art DSA schools include School of the Arts (SOTA), National Junior College, St Joseph’s Institution, CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh) and Zhonghua Secondary School.

Some also offer the Art Elective Programme, which allows students with an artistic potential to pursue art studies throughout their four years of secondary education.

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While DSA was already on our minds even before the scoring changes were announced, the reduced focus on grades in the new regime will hopefully serve to reinforce the notion that honing our kids’ talents and interests is far more important than chasing after scores endlessly.

I have also emphasised to my daughter that we are not only aiming for a “big name” school like SOTA, but will also try for other mainstream schools in the vicinity that offer a solid art programme.

Students from Ang Mo Kio Primary School receive their PSLE results in 2019. (File photo: Ministry of Education)

We will also try to visit various schools’ open houses to find out more about each school’s culture and values.

This is not to say that grades and a school’s reputation are not important. But we must peel away those surface layers and allow parents and children to go deeper into the secondary school decision-making process beyond fixating on the economic prospects of school selection.

Without the baggage of chasing after a brand name, my daughter will hopefully learn to look beyond the name and COP, and settle on a school based on her values, grades and interests.

Such an approach, I realise, takes an intentional holding back of my desires as a parent, while giving her some room to express her own thoughts and feelings, a skillset that will put her in better stead to deal with an uncertain world of disruption.

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Apart from supporting her in her interests, we also hope to help her stay in her own lane.

An own-lane mentality means having a good grasp of her strengths, being free from unhealthy comparison with her peers, and focusing on improving her own game (whether academic or extracurricular).

She would arguably be able to do all these things under the old PSLE T-score system with the right environment and nurturing at home as well as in school.

But in the new system, where the final score is based on a student’s actual score free from the bell curve, the opportunity to reframe academic performance and cultivate an own-lane mentality is ripe for the taking.

Mdm Azlina with a pupil when the PSLE results were released. (Photo: Teck Whye Primary School)

Rather than wait for changes to the education system to shift mindsets, such a mentality ought to and can be cultivated today in a few ways.

First, parents and educators can emphasise progress and effort rather than results alone, to inculcate a growth mindset, which predisposes one towards running their own race, instead of looking on at others and making unhealthy comparisons.

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Second, in responding to our children’s setbacks, parents can adopt greater compassion, helping them to see these as a learning opportunities rather than as assaults on their identity and self-worth.

For example, instead of saying: “So-and-so is excellent in her Chinese compositions, why can’t you be more like her?” I would try to give specific feedback: “You started your piece well and used good phrases throughout, but you made mistakes on some common words so one possible way to improve is to build up your vocabulary bank of high frequency words.”

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By encouraging the own-lane mentality, and practising it ourselves, we can raise children who are free from the encumbrances of having to measure up to one’s peers or of living up to others’ expectations.

They will then possess a natural drive for learning and achieving on their own terms, seeking to do well not simply to please others or to look good, but to attain their own goals in life.

June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl