Singapore’s Secondary School Streaming System: the EJ-RGS perspective

Written by: Aiko Yeo (RGS), Ashley Koh (21-A1), Ashley Wee (21-U1), Carissa Aletha Liem (21-I1), Nicolle Yeo (RGS) 

Designed by: Leanne Soh Li En (21-E6)

“Every school is a good school.” We all want to believe this common local saying. Yet, it would be remiss to say that everyone’s experience in the education system is exactly the same, especially when it comes to how students in different schools are perceived. 

To give you some context, students are typically placed into the Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams, once they enter the secondary school of their choice. Around 30% are sorted into either of the Normal streams, while the other 70% are in the Express stream. This process results in the incoming cohort divided into 3 distinct groups, with little opportunity to interact and mingle between each stream. In 2004, the distance was further widened by the creation of the Integrated Programme (IP), a 6-year plan which allows some students in the Express Stream to transition directly from secondary school to junior college, bypassing the nationwide O-Levels or N-Levels. 

At first glance, this seemed to be an effective sorting system for Singaporean students, with the justification being that students of similar academic abilities and skill-sets would be able to learn at the same pace and help each other improve. However, is this really the case?

When we examine the expectations imposed on students, as well as the resources that are readily available to them, there appears to be a great disparity between the 3 categories. Undeniably, each stream also comes with its own stereotypes and social stigma about the students within. 

As students from the O-Level/IP streams, we believe it is not our place to discuss the views and experiences of the N(A) and N(T) students. Hence, our article will focus on the effects of the current streaming system on O-Level versus IP students, and what the future of education looks like with subject-based banding. 

To provide a more balanced perspective, we first conducted a survey amongst our schoolmates, which began with the all-important question: Does the streaming system in Singapore negatively impact students? Surprisingly, the responses were split down the line, showing that the situation may not be as clear-cut as we think. 

Fig 1. Pie Chart of Results from Question: Does the streaming system affect students in Singapore negatively? 

One respondent shared, “I think streaming has allowed students to be more specialised in their learning, and education to be customised and fitted around the student’s own capabilities.” While they acknowledge that streaming is not a bed of roses as it “widens the gap between elite and neighbourhood schools”, the respondent nonetheless believes that streaming allows students to develop their interests at a suitable pace to optimise the overall learning process.

However, another respondent confesses that IP students face immense pressure to succeed. They believe that some students disproportionately focus on academics and success or lament the stresses that come with the ultra-competitive academic scene in IP schools. This respondent believes that some students may go so far as to “step on others to get what they want” under the guise of being “determined” to succeed.

Subsequently, we decided to examine the respondents’ own opinions towards those in the other stream from a scale of “I can’t stand them at all” to “They’re great!”.

The largest proportion of respondents said that they felt very happy with the students from other streams, A whopping 64% of respondents rated students from a different stream positively, echoing the sentiment that students from a different stream are “100% great”.

Fig 2. Table of results from question: “On a scale of one to ten, how do you feel about students from a different stream as you?” 

16% of students, however, professed their view of students in a different stream of them as closer to “I can’t stand them at all”. There seems to be little consensus among Eunoians and Rafflesians, ranging from disdain, ambivalence to enthusiasm. Still, the fact that there is a split in opinions among the respondents just goes to show that stigma and prejudice still exist as a result of the current streaming system.

So, what has the government done to try and dissolve the stigma and divisions that may arise from this system? Well, they have almost entirely revamped the PSLE system. A new development in the government’s education policy is the move away from streaming and towards full subject-based specialisation. From 2024, the government aims to completely do away with the antiquated Normal and Express streams . Instead, students will be assigned subjects of different difficulties at the beginning of Secondary 1 based on their PSLE results. From Secondary 1 onwards, the difficulty of the subject the student takes is no longer determined by PSLE results, rather by their abilities based on the previous year’s results.

Now, the PSLE scoring system will be more similar to the system used for O-and A-Level grading and less emphasis will be put on how well students do compared to their other peers. This new system is said/promises to allow students to progress and advance at their own pace. Instead of their options  for subjects being limited by those they were offered at the start of Secondary 1, students would be able to advance through different levels of different subjects, depending on their individual abilities. Moreover, if they are unable to cope with their subjects and prefer to take it on a less challenging level, schools would also be able to come up with an arrangement that is suitable for the student. This will hopefully help to eradicate society’s narrow focus on academics and promote a more holistic approach to education. 

However, even as Normal and Express streams cease to exist, the Integrated Programme continues on. The “elite” subsection of the Express stream, oftentimes reserved for students perceived as the “smartest” of their batch, has seemingly been saved from the restructuring and near-overhaul of our Secondary education system. How do IP students feel about this?

In general, students remain rather hesitant about this new change. One respondent believes that the revamped streaming model merely changes the face of streaming without eradicating one of the key problems many see in streaming: the prejudices. Subject-based banding is just another way to categorise those who the system sees as “smarter” and those who they see as “not as smart”, leading to the alienation of students who are taking fewer subjects, as well as taking all of them at lower difficulties. The worst-case scenario? “If students from different subject bands never mix, students in the highest band would develop a superiority complex over the person in the lowest band”, perhaps even carrying these views into adult and working life.

Another respondent was more optimistic, remarking that subject-based banding allows students to “capitalise on their strengths and work on their weaknesses.” She was still not 100% confident in this measure, however, adding that “ if competition among students remains high, this updated means of streaming may very well put more pressure on students to take courses of higher difficulties to “not lose out in any opportunities in further education”. This view echoes that of secondary students opting to the Junior College stream: to take a subject at the H1 or H2 level? To this respondent, subject-based banding may not only promote the all-too-familiar mentality of “it’s always better to take the triple Science combination”, but also add to the prejudice that students who do not take these subjects at the highest possible level are “not smart”. 

In this article, we have examined the current streaming system. From the research as well as the responses we’ve collated, it seems that there is a big problem of social stigma built into the current streaming system itself. In addition, this contributes to various problems, such as pressures and stresses on the IP students, and insecurities as well as low self-esteem for those in the O level stream. As such, change must happen. 

In fact, many sections of our society acknowledge this, including the government, which is why the new streaming system has sprung up. Perhaps the current streaming system, in your eyes, has worked for decades and we should not change what is not broken. Or perhaps you feel that the current system is broken, and that it is imperative that we implement changes to this system. Whichever camp you belong to, streaming, in whatever form it’s presented to us in, is here to stay.  While some students might feel that the solutions offered are far from perfect, the government can only do so much, because ultimately, it is up to us to change our own perceptions and opinions of those different from us. Only when we start changing our mindsets can the problems associated with streaming be minimised. Only then can we start to create the Singapore education system we want. 

Author: The Origin*

With great power comes great responsibility.

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