SINGAPORE: Observers said education policy changes announced this year -- from the introduction of MOE kindergartens to broader grades for PSLE -- could make a good pre-school and primary education, as well as good results, more accessible to students.
But some said the excessive stress and competition that plague the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will not go away, so the time could be ripe for more daring changes.
In what one expert calls a "big step forward", the Ministry of Education (MOE) will start running kindergartens in 2014.
The first five will start classes in January, and ten more will open in the next three years. And the goal is to set a national benchmark for what a quality pre-school could be.
Dr Khoo Kim Choo, an Early Childhood Education consultant, said: "We do not have research that's done to see what is the average centre like, what's a good centre like, what the centres below standard are like, and what is the percentage of those centres. Now, it's just a general feeling."
The rationale for ministry kindergartens is to offer quality education that is affordable, especially for children from poorer families.
Another move to level up students and even out opportunities, is that all primary schools, including the popular ones, will have to set aside at least 40 places for students with no "connections", from 2014.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally speech in August, had said: "We will give every Singaporean child a chance to enter the primary school of his choice."
In another major move, the PSLE T-score will be scrapped in several years' time, to make way for broader, letter grades like for the O-levels.
It is meant to reduce excessive stress and competition to, in PM Lee's words, "chase that last point", but observers said the PSLE's high stakes are not in the examination itself, but what comes after that.
Associate Professor Kelvin Tan, from the National Institute of Education (Curriculum, Teaching & Learning), said: "I don't think the stress is so much from how scores are calculated in the PSLE.
"The underlying stress is from individual students wanting to be as competitive as possible in getting to a certain secondary school of their choice. If that supply and demand situation is not changed, then the underlying stress will still be there."
What drives competition for choice secondary schools, some said, are the high level of differentiation and their many different categories -- Normal, Express and Special streams, independent and autonomous schools, and Gifted and Integrated Programmes.
Associate Professor Irene Ng, from the Social Work Department at the National University of Singapore, said: "Whenever you have a new category, people will assign prestige or stigma to that category. And so people will all go for that prestigious group, for example the Integrated Programme. Or, people will assign a stigma to a programme that's not so popular.
“There's also 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 Normal (Technical/Academic) stream 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."
Rethinking streaming and the role of PSLE scores for secondary school postings are questions Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has said will be raised at the next national conversation.
With stress levels not winding down soon, experts said parents could be ready for more daring changes.
Associate Professor Ng said a survey of parents' responses to those questions now would be timely.
She said: "My sensing is that there's so much competition and stress in our current system, that perhaps parents are ready for change." - CNA/nd
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