Soon after I moved to Singapore in 2007, I became pregnant with my second daughter Bee. When my new friend Rose learnt of this, she exclaimed: “You’re quite lucky. You can send her to an international school. We Singaporeans have to cope with the PSLE for our children.”
A few weeks later, when my husband Jim concluded a speech for a financial services company here, a woman in the audience asked: “Mr Rogers, do you really know what you’re doing? Many of us dream of escaping the intense local education system, especially the PSLE, while your family is working actively to enter it.”
Then she hesitated, before adding: “We all think you’re mad.”
On both occasions, I was bewildered. The PSLE or Primary School Leaving Examination – a test so intense and rigorous some parents take sabbaticals from jobs to “coach” and “be there” for their children during the months leading up to it. A test that has eight out of 10 households sending their children for tuition. A test both tweens and parents dread and fear.
Not believing for a second that the pressure could be as intense as forewarned, I became a parent volunteer and moved within 1km of Nanyang Primary School for my daughter Happy, now 17, to enter the school.
In 2010, as a permanent resident (PR), Happy could gain entry, but requirements have now changed, offering Singaporeans absolute rights over PRs when applying to local schools.
Somehow, Happy, like the other 39,000 children taking the PSLE in 2015, survived. Years later, I clearly recall when she and her classmates received their T-scores. All of them sat uneasily at their desks, as tense parents waited in the doorway.
As each student approached the teacher’s desk, all paused – some longer than others – before unsealing the envelope containing that monumental score. We parents, fanning ourselves on that scorching day, immediately knew, from their euphoric or defeated expressions, whether each child had met expectations.
Although most of Happy’s classmates did well, one, J, missed the score to enter her choice school by a single point. As her face contorted while she struggled not to cry, J’s parents and the teacher consoled her, while all others looked to the floor, not wanting to amplify her miserable state.
J, by the way, would end up thriving at her third-choice school, as did Happy, who found her way to Nanyang Girls’ High.
Now, Happy’s sister Bee faces the beginning of the PSLE, with oral examinations in 11 days. Along with her cohort, she is in the last batch of children who will receive T-scores, since the Education Ministry has determined that a broader grade range will be better for the children. Thus, a one-point difference will no longer keep a child out of a school.
As a mother, I am hopeful the new scoring for the PSLE, a rung on life’s ladder for every Singaporean, will improve our children’s happiness quotient exponentially, but I am not convinced.
After surviving the Covid-19 circuit breaker, and presently living with the ongoing threat of the pandemic, many of us have experienced a hard reset on what we value in life. This appears an ideal opportunity for us to reconsider what we want education to achieve for our children, and what their childhoods should encompass.
For decades, we have believed the classroom to be the optimal space for learning. Yet, after experiencing home-based learning for an extended period, we now know learning at home worked splendidly for many students. It allowed them to learn at their own pace and ask questions privately, while encouraging independent learning.
Similarly, since 1960, we have looked to the PSLE to steer our children to the right secondary schools. But are standardised tests the best preparation for the world our children are inheriting?
With children who have benefited from the public education system, I do not want to sound ungrateful. Since I appreciate rigour, I applaud my daughters learning at a higher level than their peers in the United States.
Yet, something feels out of whack when our children have busier calendars than many parents, what with the combination of school, tuition and extra activities. By age 10 or 11, many leave home by 6.30am, return around 4pm, then head to tuition classes until dinner, with a pile of homework awaiting them before bed. Our children are rightly tired.
I do get it: Singapore is a meritocracy. PSLE serves as an equaliser, streaming children to the correct schools, allowing each one to excel at the right place for him or her. Although I have no panacea or quick fix, I firmly believe as a society, we need a wider view of what success means in our children’s lives.
At present, if they do not gain access to a secondary school via Direct School Admission for a talent, sport or specific academic subject, then the only mark used to define their ability is the PSLE score. This cannot reflect the true ethos of our 12-year-olds.
We need to expand the criteria by which we judge children. Grades from primary school could serve as an indicator of a child’s future performance. Considering those grades, as well as other achievements both in and out of the classroom, alongside the PSLE, would give educators a more holistic representation of the potential of our students bound for secondary schools.
In their lifetimes, our children will be required to increase and expand their knowledge regularly to remain relevant. No longer will most of their lives centre on a single career track. They will obtain and create jobs that do not even exist today.
They ought to be resourceful and savvy at adapting, while coping in an ever-changing world, which will be their only constant. A passion to question, problem-solve and think unconventionally will lead them to be fulfilled, so they may thrive in life, not only on exams.
As a child, Dr Angela Duckworth was told she was not particularly smart, yet at age 43, she received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. In her New York Times bestseller, Grit: The Power Of Passion And Perseverance, she advises that hard work and effort outperform natural ability in many cases.
In Singapore, we might be wise to alter our persistent praise of grades as brains, and start to glorify determination and resilience all the more.
As a Tiger Mum who pushes my daughters, expecting them to excel academically, I know first-hand how difficult it is to modify a mindset. The truth is we all understand grades do not make a person. Nonetheless, we continue to apply intense pressure upon our children.
We do this because we want what is best for them: to test well, proceed to a good school, then university, gain a good job and, ultimately, prosper in life. It is never that simple and, often, this scenario does not breed contentment. Nor is it a proven recipe for success. Of the chief executives of the Top 10 companies in the Fortune 100, only Jeff Bezos of Amazon attended an Ivy League school.
For Bee, I have encouraged her to work diligently, so she will have no regrets, no matter her score. Will I be sad if she does not get into her top school? Yes. Will I scold her? No. Will I love her any less? No. Will we deal with the fallout of a lower-than-desired score? Yes.
More than anything, we should desire peak mental health for our children, meaning we not only need to manage their expectations for the PSLE, but also our own.
Our children are a different breed from our ilk, facing an uncertain future. Learning can be their legitimate superpower. If we do not pass a love of learning on to them, then we have failed our children, even if they ace the PSLE.
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