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Commentary: Parents, don’t shy away from a competitive education system

The Ministry of Education's announcement of fewer tests has been applauded by many parents, but one hopes it doesn’t lead them to abdicate from their responsibilities in helping kids cope with competition, says Channel NewsAsia’s Lin Suling.

Commentary: Parents, don’t shy away from a competitive education system

File photo of a student taking the 2017 A-Level Chemistry paper. (Photo: Ruyi Wong)

SINGAPORE: Christmas came early this year for many parents.

A move towards fewer tests in schools announced by the Ministry of Education (MOE) last Friday (Sep 28) was applauded by relieved mums and dads.


Radical as it seems, MOE's announcement is not all that groundbreaking considering the concerted shift away from an emphasis on academic grades in recent years.

A roll-out of applied learning programmes across all primary schools by 2023 was announced earlier this year – heralding a greater shift towards nurturing creativity and developing a love for learning.

Although the Primary School Leaving Examination will be retained, since 2013, MOE has removed the highest and lowest aggregate scores in results slips. Scoring bands will also be widened from 2021 onwards.

At the secondary school-level, the Direct Admission Scheme, which admits students based on their other talents, was strengthened when authorities did away with the use of general academic ability tests as a criterion this year.

So changes in the system have been underway for some time. But the reactions from most parents reveal a certain psyche.

READ: Scrap PSLE? The Singapore education system is not a free lunch, a commentary

READ: With less focus on grades, is PSLE still a necessary checkpoint? A commentary


Wanting children to do well in school is a goal of every Singaporean parent down the generations, but it seems having gone through a system of streaming and frequent scholastic testing have turned many of my vintage into especially kiasu parents.

There seems to be an unhealthy arms race in parenting. When my parents raised me, being a supportive parent meant gently reminding your children to study hard or sitting with them while they do their homework.

A child doing homework. (File photo: TODAY) File photo: TODAY

These days, being a supportive parent comes packed with pretty high expectations - including early enrollment into the best pre-school and suite of enrichment classes money can buy.

Numbers is something every practical Singaporean understand. Every exam grade your child gets must feel like a test of your parenting abilities.

Fewer tests means having to deal with fewer periods of busied preparations and that must be such a relief for parents.


But will students finally be free from stress?

“The devil’s in the details of how people respond”, a friend who has three kids said. I think she’s onto something.

The Education Ministry might have reduced testing but stamping out the corrosive sources of exam stress will require a bigger mindset shift from teachers, parents and students.

If we think back, how much anxiety did not arise from the underlined marks on a failing grade in a report card, but from the memory of the burning shame we felt when teachers gave out exam scripts in class - in order of merit?

Or the look our parents gave us when we told them our grades?

So it is useful that instead of stress reduction, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has framed the announcement as a focus on what he calls “the true spirit of learning” where students can take time to enjoy school, speaking at an event on Wednesday (Oct 3).

READ: Is academic competition really necessary to be the best than we can be? A commentary

Viewed this way, fewer tests could mean parents can spend more time with their children reading, tinkering and discovering together a love for learning, instead of cramming for exams.


But in the debate on education and tests, let’s be careful not to shy away from competition altogether. Studies have shown that healthy competition can be good for a child’s development.

File photo of students at a primary school. New Primary 1 students at St Hilda's Primary School participating in class on the first day of school. (TODAY file photo)

No doubt competition can be harmful if exams become a zero-sum race and winning takes primacy over gaining knowledge, writes education expert Dr John Shindler, but if tests are viewed as a collective challenge, they can foster constructive skills of collaboration – like when students study together.

Competition also teaches children how to cope with negative emotions, confront insecurities, and develop self-esteem, according to UC Berkeley Education Director of the Greater Good Science Centre’s Vicki Zakrzewski.

Schools are putting these lessons to practice, where many recognise the caustic effects hyper-competition can have.

Many, like Serangoon Garden Secondary School and Concord Primary School have also taken action to support their students through difficult times – through gratitude programmes, sharing sessions and outdoor education aimed at building confidence and mental health – without necessarily dialing back on the importance of assessment.

Preparing for a test, and dealing with the stress and results, can also be a learning experience.


I worry parents see the announced move towards fewer tests as an easy way out – as a justified tweaking of the rules of the game instead of bravely confronting a situation when children react badly to stress.

The reality is that kids will grow up in a more volatile and uncertain world. To deal with the unpredictable challenges of disruption, they will need agility and resilience to navigate varied scenarios.

Being exposed to competition – whether in the form of regular testing or otherwise - can help them grow these needed skills.

And it is incumbent on parents and family members to build in them a robust response to pressure, instead of wishing to protect them from the stresses of life.

Let’s not forget they take their cues from us all.

READ: Protecting your kids from failure isn't helpful parenting, a commentary

(File photo: Pixabay)

Parents have dramatic influence on how their children learn, writes Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in The World. She writes:

“Parents who view themselves as education coaches … let their children make mistakes and then get right back to work. They teach them good habits. They want their children to fail while they are still children. They know that those lessons – about hard work, persistence, integrity and consequences – will serve a child for decades to come.”

How are parents helping their kids build self-reliance? Do mums and dads actively discuss with their kids their fears and uncertainties about the future?

Do parents themselves have a positive attitude about adapting to change and disruption? Or do they run away from problems – in this case from helping their kids navigate stress?


All this is not to say that we should wish for more tests to be reinstated – far from it.

But it would be worrying if as a nation, we start to favour an education system that mollycoddles Singapore's children. That would be doing them a disservice.

So in MOE’s latest move, it’s the parents, not the students, I worry about.

But I have faith that parents understand that having to face important challenges and feeling uncomfortable, even anxious, while doing so is a healthy, natural part of growing up that should not be robbed from our children.

And as a society, we must not let the removal of exams diminish the desire to be actively involved in our children’s learning journey.

Lin Suling is executive editor at Channel NewsAsia Digital News where she oversees the Commentary section.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)