The 2017 PSLEs (Primary School Leaving Examination) ended a couple of weeks ago. Thousands of tweens and their parents held their collective breaths and put their lives on hold for months before the main event. Finally, they are able to heave a healthy sigh of relief. In the days after, the skies opened and rain poured over this tiny island in a beautiful release. What’s left now is the nail-biting wait for exam results.
In the weeks prior to PSLE, my poor niece was in literal lockdown (as was her mum) with exam revisions, missing family gatherings and special occasions. Meanwhile, a friend of mine told me apologetically that she couldn’t meet up until after the PSLEs were over.
“I’ve been so stressed,” she messaged. “Need to wait till after PSLE.”
With a four-year-old headed to kindergarten next year, I can’t help but freak out a little whenever I hear these things. Having been away, I’ve been grateful to miss out on a lot of the stress that gets piled on parents as they plan for their kids’ education. But then again, I may be experiencing it in spades now that I apparently need to play catch-up.
Of all the mothers I’ve spoken to, whether their kids are now aged two, six, 10, or 25, many (all well-meaning, I might add) have ultimately provided the same advice/warning in their own way: You need to send her for Chinese class, like, YESTERDAY.
I’ve looked up schools that promise to equip my child with primary 2-level Chinese vocabulary before she’s even stepped foot into primary school. I’m told that schools are covering primary 5 level math at primary 3. We’ve read about kids giving up on life because of examination stress.
Rather early on, I faced the harsh reality of our school system, having been rejected from my secondary school of choice. It was pretty awful, feeling like a failure at the age of 12. When I successfully appealed to get in, my mother and I were sent to the principal’s office and sat down like errant children as she told us in no uncertain terms that I would not have gotten in if strings hadn’t been pulled.
It seems I had a grandaunt on the board at the time, and practically my whole family of women—aunts, mum and both of my sisters—were old girls (no pressure). That was a pretty rotten thing to do, shaming a 12-year-old kid and her mum on the first day of school. That experience permanently affected my self-esteem. Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy school very much. And to think I’m one of the privileged who was given every opportunity.
Am I the only one who sees something wrong in the way things are? The thing is, no, I’m really not. In fact, most parents I’ve talked to about the education system are either unhappy with its current form or downright detest it. We would discuss the cons among ourselves, but ultimately feel helpless to effect change. We whinge and then we sigh and then we say “Aiyah, what to do? Bo pian leh?“. So we do the only thing we know—clamber onto the hamster wheel along with every other sad sack and provide whatever extras we can manage so our kids can survive/do well in the school system.
Unfortunately, not all parents have the resources to do so. The preschools and enrichment centres that claim to provide these extras, for instance, are often priced out of reach for many, so much so that the pleasant tale of meritocracy and equal opportunity rings hollow. The playing field isn’t level and we should have the grace to admit it.
Meanwhile, those kids fortunate enough to have all the bells and whistles often end up sacrificing their childhood, spending their holidays and weekends on enrichment and tuition. There is a well-known Chinese idiom that says that one ought to take the bitter first so as to enjoy the sweet later. I guess the question for those parents to grapple with is this: Is the sacrifice worth the reward?
Yes, so our system isn’t perfect. But it is so much better than others and we should stop complaining and really be grateful. A familiar justification to end any attempt at challenging the status quo. Which, to be honest, usually throws me for a loop. As Mumbles and I were having a conversation about the contents of this post, he expressed my sentiments quite effectively, so I may as well just quote him.
“Wanting a better or even perfect system is quintessentially Singaporean and it is surprising that those who will spout that line are usually the first to boast about Singapore being the best,” he said.
“Perhaps just being better than everyone else in exam scores does not necessarily mean we are doing what’s best for our kids. The same applies to housing, cost of living, transport system, political system, etc. It is important to be grateful for what we have but also important to avoid delusions of grandeur.”
The current education system was put in place by the old guard because maybe it was what we needed at the time. Times were difficult, and it served its purpose. But the world has changed since then. Heck, Singapore has arguably transformed more dramatically in the last 50 years than any other nation.
But parents now want more for their kids than just to do well in school and get a good job. Employers today also demand skill sets that go way beyond good test taking. And that requires a different kind of education system. A system that encourages learning for the sake of learning rather than how many marks we get on tests (after tests, after tests).
Rather than just letting the kinks in the system be, why not think about how lucky we are to now be in a position to iron them out? The Finnish, for instance, have small student-to-teacher ratios, have less homework and only have one mandatory standardized test at the end of high school. They do not stream their students or rank their schools. They also have quality universal preschool and daycare.
Yet Finnish students perform exceptionally well in the standardized test meted out by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) when compared with other students worldwide. (While Finland’s PISA scores remain high, it should be noted that they have dropped consistently in recent years. I’ve added a link to this article, which I think provides a decent overview on the possible causes.)
As a parent, I fully accept that my kid’s education is my responsibility, but I believe that within that purview is the right to demand improvements to a flawed, outdated system. In a world that is constantly evolving, it is important, necessary even, for institutions and systems to also evolve.
Personally, I’d love to see us install a system that would emphasise a balance between study and play. Where my child could go to the neighbourhood school across from home without any worry that as parents, we are shortchanging her future. Where, at the age of 12, my child need not see herself as a failure simply because she has a different approach to learning. Where my kid gets to embrace learning without any fear that she will be left behind by a system that penalises late bloomers.
Sign me up, please.