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EDUCATION: "The basic reason why there is so much pressure on PSLE is..."

Posted on Sep 26, 2012 8:12 PM Updated: Oct 1, 2012 6:29 PM

(UPDATED WITH TRANSCRIPT) The first part of PM Lee's answer to question #8 in the poll: Having a childhood is good in theory, but how do we reduce the reliance on exams? For example, do we need the PSLE? 

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Q:Having a childhood is good in theory, but how we do reduce the reliance on exams? For example, do we need the PSLE?

A: There are many questions there. I think having a childhood is good, not just in theory but it is good. And we do want our kids to grow up and enjoy the experience of growing up. When they go to school, they have to study hard and we encourage our students, our kids to study hard in school. There has to be a certain amount of pressure because if you're just lazing through and picking up things in your own way, which at one stage was the fad in modern-style education, especially in Britain in the '60s and '70s, you will find that you don't grow up learning very much. And if you have to learn more, you have to put in the effort. So that's necessary.

Do we need many many exams? Probably not. Can we do with less? I think we can. Already the schools are doing with no test, no exams in primary 1 and primary 2. But unfortunately some parents are unhappy with that. They want their kids to have exams. They say: "I want to know how my kids are doing." And I think they have a point: they want to know how well their kids are doing. And the teachers have to be able to assess the kid and to render a report to the parents, even if they don't have exams. And that can be done but it's a lot of effort. You have to sit with the kid, you have to interact with him. In effect, you are trying to assess him without having a formal piece of paper. And then at the end you must put that down in a description, not a grade, to the parent. And we can do that but it will be a lot more effort.

For other levels, I think you must maintain a balance. You don't want this to be a cram school but you do want this to be a serious school maintaining high standards. And our schools actually do maintain high standards. And therefore when it comes to international comparisons, whether it's Timss or Pisa, all these comparisons with other countries on Science, Maths, English language skills, we do well. Not just the top students but across the board we do well. And I think that is something to be pleased about, that in fact we are doing a service to our children. You have to put in the sweat now because it will stand you in good stead for a long time.

The PSLE, is a difficult problem. I don't think you can do away with it. I think you need it for two purposes. One is to know that the kid having finished primary school has reached a certain level. In other words, to assess the kid that he has attained the standard which we expect of him. And the second is you need some way to post people to secondary schools because the kids will apply to different secondary schools and we need some way for the secondary schools to choose the kids and the kids to choose the secondary schools. The PSLE is not the only way. Now we have the direct school admissions. And I think that's an important scheme to free up the system. And it's not just in one direction, but free up the system so that if we have different skills, those skills can be taken into account. We want to have schools which are outstanding in different ways. You have the art school, which I think has turned out to be very successful. We have NUS Maths & Science School, we have the Sports School, which is turning out good students, good sports performance, as well as academically. And I think that that's the way we want to go.

But you still need for other students a way to arbitrate, who is to go into which school and I think some exam like the PSLE if necessary. Does it have to be exactly the way the PSLE is now done? I don't think so but how to change it? That, we have to consider very carefully because any change means parents want, students want a lot of notice, parents want a lot of notice and we should not upset or unsettle kids who are headed in that way in, in the direction and need enough time to adjust to any new schemes. The basic problems or the basic reason why there is so much pressure on PSLE is because people take secondary school admission so very seriously.

If I don't get into that school, then my kid has no chance in life. And I think that is not correct because there are many points in life where you have to prove yourself, where you prove, demonstrate what you can do and you don't have to get into the right school and thereafter think that you're on an escalator because if you take even JC , for example, top schools or the most popular schools, RJC, RI, Hwa Chong, their admissions come from many, many different secondary schools. And the secondary school admissions - RI, Hwa Chong Institute also come from many primary schools. So really it's your own ability, the effort which you have put it, the dedication of your teachers and then you demonstrate what you're able to do at that stage in life. And thereafter, well, you've got to demonstrate what you're going to do at the next stage in life. And by the time you're 30 years old, what you did in primary school and your PSLE results aren't going to count for very much if you're looking for a job or trying to make a career. Help is important at that point but there are many other points where you can make good in life. It has to be. I mean the other way to run the system, if you do the Japanese way or some people say in some Chinese universities too, it's very competitive to get into the university. And once you get in, you're sure to pass. You just swan along and you get, you're stamped for life. You know, either Todai or Tsinghua or whatever. And then, well, your future is made. I don't think Singapore is like that. And we shouldn't become like that.

Q: PM, you seem to be suggesting there is a need to review PSLE and the effects that it's having on parents and students. Is that correct?

A: I think that we should look at it to see, we should look to see how we can reduce this over-pressure we have on a single examination and a single grade. I'm not sure what the solution is, I think it will take us some time to think about it. We're not in a hurry to make any changes but I don't think it is good that you, that we start being neuralgic about the PSLE very, very early in the child's life. In fact, some people want to make sure that they get into the correct kindergarten so that they are ready for PSLE.