School Streaming Should Not Exist in the First Place

To an outsider looking in, Singapore is a country of smart people. According to the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the country’s primary four and secondary two students led the world in mathematics and science scores. But apart from the performance at standardized tests, there is a vast difference between the educational experiences of the different children in Singapore based on the resources that their parents have at their disposal.

This diversity in academic experiences has created a class, or even worse, caste-system in Singapore’s education system. This system labels the Special and Express streams people as highly-intelligent achievers, while Normal stream students fall at the bottom of the pile. Even though the terminology for the various streams may be tweaked periodically, there is no escaping the fact that streaming in Singapore is a highly prevalent mode of sorting our children.

Worse still, if you come from a high Socio-Economic Status (SES) household, you can buy your way out of mainstream education and into an international school for around SGD 2,000 a month. These have smaller class sizes and allow students who may not perform well in large mainstream classes to thrive but they are restricted to those who can afford the fees.

I recall a primary school mate whose Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-score was less than 190. Her father, who is one of Singapore’s wealthiest men, sent her to an International School where she blossomed and made her way to New York University. I quickly realised the benefit of coming from a rich household means that one is able to take advantage of opportunities in good international schools and prestigious Universities that are simply not available to poorer students. According to a report titled, Broader, Bolder Approach To Education by the American Economic Policy Institute in 2017, extensive research has conclusively demonstrated that children’s social class is one of the most significant predictors, if not the single most significant predictor, of their educational success. This is unfortunately fast becoming the case in Singapore.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the impact of streaming on the children themselves. A Channel News Asia documentary series titled ‘Regardless Of Class’ sparked an online furore after social media users took issue with the remarks made by an Integrated Programme pupil who said that it “may not be very viable in terms of closing the class divide” for students of different streams to be in the same class.

I feel streaming students according to their PSLE AL or T-score is not a realistic solution to reducing school dropout rates. Although streaming did reduce the drop-out rate significantly from 30 percent to less than one percent, it was acknowledged in the words of its inventor, then Minister of Education Goh Keng Swee as “a beastly thing to do”. Introduced in 1981 as a means of reducing school dropout rates and to improve Singapore’s literacy levels, streaming has instead institutionalised social inequality, created negative stereotypes, class tensions and snobbish attitudes. Says former People’s Action Party Member of Parliament Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, “And when we start creating prestigious labels such as superschools, Special and Express streams, no Singaporean wants to be caught with the merely ‘Normal’ label. Moreover, we seem to be too enamored over streaming when the West is having second thoughts over the system.” Dr Tan then went on to quote former PM Lee Kuan Yew to suggest that like public housing, public education should include a mix of abilities “to discourage intellectual snobbery which I think is far worse than social snobbery.”

For the majority of us who have gone through school streaming, we might recall coming across peers making snobbish snide remarks aimed at their counterparts who were perceived as “less academically endowed” by the Ministry Of Education’s rigid criteria.

Furthermore, streaming is not only emotionally damaging to a learner’s self-esteem but it is also intellectually damaging. Students placed in lower-ability streams too early have very limited opportunities to develop their strengths and interests. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, an education lecturer at the University of South Australia, Jamie Sission, says: “Streaming limits opportunities for learners that later affect their opportunities in life… It is difficult to determine at a young age what someone is capable of achieving later in life.”

Here is why I think school streaming is a failure:

What started as a means to discourage learners from dropping out turned into a “caste system” where society values an individual based on the stream that he/she is placed into. By classifying children according to their PSLE AL or T-score and determining access to opportunities such as some co-curricular activities, olympiads and other challenging intellectual pursuits, streaming is essentially a caste system.

Furthermore, a teacher’s negative perception of pupils can impact their educational outcomes and future. A study published in The Curriculum Journal, Singaporean teachers by an Associate Dean at the National Institute of Education was revealingly entitled “‘I assume they don't think!’: teachers’ perceptions of Normal Technical students in Singapore”

The Curriculum Journal article illustrates the structural limitations that make teachers of normal (technical) students less likely to engage in cross-pedagogical consultation with other teachers. The time and energy differentials together with the low expectations of teachers which are inevitable structural and psychological effects of streaming entrench the inequalities in the system. One of the teacher respondent’s in the study was quoted as saying “Normally, the students will probably be working. They work to earn a living. So you talk to them about saving money. They are more like surviving on a budget. They have more expenditure than what they earn every month.”

Research has found that separating learners into classes based on their perceived ability is both ineffective and detrimental to pupils’ education. Says University of Canterbury Professor Garry Hornby: “Kids in the lower-ability streams tended to give up and stop believing they could achieve.”

Streaming makes learners in the Normal Streams think that they are not smart – and this creates problems as the students’ internalise this idea within themselves. As the English Academic, David Hargreaves observes,

“labelling a specific group of students and sending them to a particular stream or band is a way of branding.”

As a result of this labelling, some students – particularly those in the “lower” streams – will go all out to find ways to regain their feelings of self-worth, sometimes even resorting to delinquency and youth crime.

In the words of Associate Professor Irene Ng, from the Social Work Department at the National University of Singapore, “There’s research that shows that when you assign a label to somebody, the person will behave according to that way, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So for example, if we teach students in the lower ability streams to a low level because we think that is the level, then students could react to it, and give you back what you think you want.”

It is no secret that the “N” levels are considered easy to pass compared to the “O” levels. Students from the normal stream who qualify to sit for the “O” levels are, however, not prepared for the exams that they are expected to sit for in the short period of time they are in secondary five.

Students are expected to cram secondary three and four Express stream materials in under ten months (or less); while students in the Express stream have two whole years to prepare for the examinations.

This defeats the purpose of having a five-year stream with the intention of allowing slow students to learn at their own pace so they can do well for the “O” levels. It is not surprising that around 40 percent of secondary five students are reportedly unable to go on to the polytechnics. Although the current proposal to let students do different subjects at different levels goes some way towards addressing this concern, while the Special and IP streams remain elite and out of reach for the majority of Singaporeans, the segregation will continue.

It is time for the Ministry Of Education to put an end to all forms of streaming and let all students prepare and sit for the “O” levels including those from the Integrated Programs (IPs). At the end of the day, learners should have the liberty to decide for themselves if they would like to proceed on to Pre-University, the polytechnic or the Institute of Technical Education – depending on their interests and areas of inclination. Education is not just about passing tests or exams, a large part of it is learning how to interact with our fellow citizens who come in all shapes and sizes to build a better world for the future.

Joyce TanJoyce Tan is a PR and communications professional. She joined the Young Democrats recently. 

You can read the full SDP's education policy paper, "Educating for Creativity and Equality: An Agenda For Transformation" here.