Education

PSLE Changes & Subject Based Banding in Secondary Schools: Will Singaporean Parents Become Less Kiasu?

psle sbb changes education reform singapore

Valerie Kor

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Singapore’s education system has always been hailed as world-class, but it’s also one of the world’s most stressful. Young children in Singapore start to gear up for the national PSLE exam years prior, and throughout their schooling life, they would be streamed according to their academic abilities.

Heck, even preschoolers have homework these days, and it doesn’t let up. A study has shown that 15-year-old students in Singapore spend more than 9 hours on homework a week, more than the global average of 5 hours.

But significant changes are afoot within the next 5 to 8 years, affecting almost all education levels in Singapore. Will they make Singaporean parents less kiasu? Will students start to have less homework? Will they encourage creative thinking and true learning among Singaporeans?

Here’s a consolidation of all the changes that are about to come, and we will explore them in detail below. 

 

Key changes in Singapore’s education system (2019 to 2028)

Level  Education changes 
P1 2019: No semestral and mid-year exams. Assessments not counted to form overall mark or grade. Teachers can still give bite-sized assessments like quizzes. 
P2
P3 Between 2020 and 2021: Mid-year exams to be removed.
P4
P5 Between 2020 and 2021: Mid-year exams to be removed.

2020: Primary 5 students will be graded based on ALs in order to get them prepared for the new PSLE grading system. 

P6 2021: PSLE T-score replaced with wider scoring bands called Achievement Level (AL), from AL1 to AL8. 

2020 to 2024: No more streaming into Normal or Express streams. Subject-based banding will be introduced in 25 schools in 2020, all secondary schools will follow by 2024.

Sec 1  2019: Mid-year exams to be removed. Aggregate scores for post O-level postings will not be reflected at the lower secondary level. 
Sec 2
Sec 3 Between 2020 and 2021: Mid-year exams to be removed.
Sec 4 2027: students will take a common examination and graduate with a common secondary school certificate co-branded by Singapore and Cambridge. 
Tertiary  2028: New admission criteria for students going to junior college, poly or ITE 

 

Primary school students will enjoy 2 test-free years 

2019 marks an important change for Primary 1 and 2 students as all weighted assessments have been removed, even the final year examination for Primary 2 students.

For kiasu parents who are thinking, “What? Then how will I know if my girl/boy is doing well in school?!” Fret not.

Teachers can still test students’ understanding through bite-sized assessments such as class work, worksheets and quizzes. 

I think it’s a welcome change as Primary 1 students can have the space and time to adjust from preschool, no matter if they come from an environment that never gives homework or one that has rigorous weekly tests. 

Hopefully, parents will not transfer the fixation from formal examinations to the bite-sized assessments, but even if they do, students can have the safety of knowing that the tests don’t define an overall grade by which they would be measured against each other. 

Since there will be no formal grades anymore, EduSave awards for Primary 1 and 2 students will be based on qualitative criteria such as curiosity, collaboration, enthusiasm and diligence. 

 

Fewer exams across the board, but especially during transition years

Apart from the Primary 1 and 2 students, students at all levels will have fewer exams. There will be no more than 1 weighted assessment per subject per school term from Primary 3 to Secondary 5. 

Soon, the “transition years”, or the “odd years” — Primary 3, Primary 5, Secondary 1 and Secondary 3 — will no longer have mid-year examinations (SA1). Secondary 1 students in 2019 already had the SA1 removed. The other levels will follow sometime between 2020 and 2021. 

Why the “odd years”? In Primary 3 and Secondary 1, new subjects are introduced. Rather than rush them to be exam-ready within a handful of months, removal of SA1 allows children to focus on digesting and learning new concepts.

That’s not to say that there won’t be mock tests and written assessments, however, they will not count towards the overall grade for the year. 

Apparently, removal of this mid-year exam will free up 3 weeks of curriculum time every 2 years (e.g. Primary 3 and Primary 4) for both students and teachers to slow down. 

 

PSLE will not be eradicated, but T-scores will be replaced by Achievement Levels 

The national examination at the end of Primary 6 (12 years old) will not be eradicated, but the grading system will be overhauled and implemented from 2021. The change has been announced since 2016, and Primary 5 students in 2020 will be graded according to this new system to get them ready for PSLE 2021.

Each of the 4 subjects English, Mathematics, Chinese and Science will be graded according to achievement levels 1 to 8. The table below shows how the levels correspond to the raw marks:

AL Raw mark range 
1 Equal or > 90 
2 85 – 89 
3 80 – 84 
4 75 – 79
5 65 – 74 
6 45 – 64 
7 20 – 44
8 < 20 

Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams will be kept for now, until 2024 when all schools will transition to subject-based banding (more on this in the next section). 

So essentially, this table below only applies to children who are taking the new PSLE in 2021 and 2022. All students who are Primary 6 in 2023 will proceed to take on subject-based banding in secondary school in 2024. 

Stream  Marks
Express  4 to 20 
Express or N(A)  21 to 22 
N(A)  23 to 24 
N(A) or N(T)  25
N(T) 26 to 30* 

*AL7 or better in both English and Mathematics. 

Unlike the T-score, there is much more flexibility in this grading system.

So, say, like no small number of Singaporeans, your mother tongue subject is a major challenge and you never seem to pass. For PSLE, you barely passed at 50/100, so you got AL6 for that subject. However, you received stellar results of over 90 marks for all other subjects, which meant that your total AL score would be 9. You go into Express stream!

Also, unlike the T-score, which is formulated based on how other students in your cohort do, the new PSLE score judges your individual performance. This is a significant change because parents no longer need to worry about their children faring worse than other children. 

As a parent, I celebrate this change because this flexibility allows my child to focus her energy on subjects she loves, rather than get tutored excessively for weak subjects to pull up her overall T-score and to keep up with others.

Of course, this huge change in grading system will have implications as to how students get posted to secondary schools. In the case where students have the same PSLE score, these other factors come into play: 

  • Citizenship
  • Order of secondary school choices 
  • Computerised balloting 

 

Subject-based banding to replace streaming in secondary school

This might just be the winning legacy of Minister Ong Ye Kung and the Ministry of Education. Earlier in March this year, the ministry has announced that between 2020 and 2024, streaming will be replaced by full subject-based banding (SBB). 

Yep, no more Normal and Express streams! 

Instead, depending on their PSLE AL score, students will have different subject eligibility. Students at the G2 band can still take specific subjects at the G3 level if they perform well. 

PSLE Score  Subject eligibility at the start of Sec 1 
26 to 30*  G1  Individual subjects may be taken at G3 level based on performance
25 G1 or G2
23 to 24  G2
21 to 22  G2 or G3 
4 to 20  G3 

*AL7 or better in both English and Mathematics. 

The detriments of streaming have been well debated.

Streaming labels students and perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophecy where children can come to believe what they’re labelled as, which does not allow for a growth mindset especially if they are they are streamed into what society perceives to be the “lower stream”. 

This is good because 12 is still a very young age when children are figuring out their strengths and weaknesses. To be labelled a certain way based on academics can lead to a sense of inferiority, or a false sense of superiority. 

Plus, there have been reports that boys tend to fare worse in academics but catch up later, so they may be at a disadvantage when it comes to secondary school streaming. 

I think SBB is really good news all around. It complements the new PSLE AL grading system nicely, where students can now focus on individual subjects rather than worry about being a good all-rounded student who is a head above their peers. 

The only thing I wondered about was: What about timetables? Won’t it be a nightmare to re-arrange whole classes into bands? 

Well, yes, but it seems some schools have already piloted mixed-form classes and have successfully utilised computer programmes to help generate permutations of individual timetables.

At Edgefield Secondary School, where classes have successfully been mixed and reorganised, it did take much longer to generate timetables, but the time spent was well worthwhile. It seems that teachers are forgetting which streams the students are from and students say there are no more rules about bonding with those of other streams.

What they are experiencing seems to be a refreshing turnaround from that of students who were interviewed in a CNA documentary titled “Regardless of Class”, where Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) students reported that students from the Express stream look down on them and they often find it hard to mingle with students from other streams. 

 

Report books will not show class positions and other academic indicators 

All the above changes to ease the competitiveness in Singapore’s education system will be for nought if not for this: from 2019, students’ report books will no longer show class and level positions, among other academic indicators.

Here’s a total list of things that will be removed: 

  • Class and level positions 
  • Class and level mean
  • Minimum and maximum marks
  • Underlining and/or colouring of failing marks
  • Pass/fail for end-of-year result
  • Mean subject grades
  • Overall total marks
  • L1R5 (English plus five relevant subjects), L1R4 , EMB3 (English, maths, best three subjects) and EMB1 for lower secondary levels

I only wished that I lived through this education system! Believe or not, two decades since primary school, I can still remember my class positions in Primary 5 and Primary 6, and even though they’re above average, it didn’t stop me from feeling like a failure when compared to people who were ahead of me.

It also gave my parents an indicator as to — well, not how I was learning — but how well I performed academically when compared to my peers.

Children and teenagers don’t need such stress. Learning can be more enjoyable if it’s a unique journey that’s not benchmarked against others.

 

Why should we care about streaming and PSLE changes?

Why are you at MoneySmart concerned about education changes? Aren’t you guys penny-pinching journalists who only care about saving money and getting the most bang for buck? 

Well, personally, I am hopeful that these significant changes will help ease the pressure among parents and children. Almost every parent in my circle wants their children to go for less tuition, but are worried that they fall behind.

In this new system, this worry should be removed, but it will probably take some time. I’m hoping that parents will encourage children to be inquisitive and go in-depth for subjects they are passionate about. With fewer exams, children should receive less homework and private tuition, driving the costs of raising a child down. We will know if this has come to pass when we see the billion-dollar tuition industry shrink in Singapore.

And no other child should ever feel like his life purpose is solely pinned on academic success and suffer a fate like this 11-year-old boy.

Call me an optimist. At a macro level, I think these major changes will also help in mending divisive fault lines along class, creating a more egalitarian society.

So, what do YOU think about PSLE changes and the removal of secondary school streaming in Singapore?

 

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Valerie Kor

Juggling editor, wife and mama duties has taught me to adopt an efficient, no-frills lifestyle that’s naturally MoneySmart. My Achilles heel is the incurable Singaporean wanderlust.