Budget 2019 debate: Subject-Based Banding to replace streaming in secondary schools by 2024

In 2014, SBB was adopted in 12 pilot secondary schools.
Secondary 1 students in the 2024 batch will undergo Subject-Based Banding (SBB), which will see them taking higher and lower levels subjects based on their ability and strengths. (PHOTO: Reuters)

From 2024, secondary school students will no longer be streamed into Normal and Express classes, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Tuesday (5 March).

Secondary 1 students in the 2024 batch will instead undergo Subject-Based Banding (SBB), which will see them taking higher and lower levels subjects based on their ability and strengths, he announced during the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Committee of Supply debate in Parliament.

“Our plan is that, by 2024, all students enrolling into Secondary 1 will go through a four-year curriculum, for all subject bands,” said the 49-year-old.

Subjects such as maths, history and literature will be taught at G1, G2 or G3 levels, with “G” standing for “General”. When these students reach Secondary 4 in 2027, they will take a common examination and graduate with a common secondary school certificate.

“It will list the subjects completed and the standard band of each subject. Singapore and Cambridge will co-brand this new certificate, as both are strong international brand names in education, which will enhance the recognition and value of the certificate,” Ong added.

“With full subject-based banding implemented, form classes re-organised across the board, and a combined secondary education certificate, we would have effectively merged Express, Normal (A) and Normal (Technical) streams into a single course.

“The Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams, and their labels, will therefore be phased out.”

A major policy shift

The announcement is the culmination of a policy that was first formalised in 2014 when SBB was adopted in 12 pilot secondary schools. This allowed Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) students to take English, Mother Tongue Languages (MTL), Maths and Science at a higher standard.

Ong said the results of the pilot scheme have been “encouraging”, with about half of the Normal (Academic) students in these schools taking up subjects at the Express level. Some 25 per cent took one Express level subject, while another 11 per cent took two subjects, he added.

“To illustrate, for the national examinations in 2018, 25 per cent of Secondary 4 Normal (Academic) students who took O-level English got A1 or A2, compared to 24 per cent for Express students. For O-level Maths, 26 per cent of Normal (Academic) students got A1 or A2, compared to 50 per cent for Express students. For O-level Combined Science, it was 33 per cent for N(A), compared to 34 per cent for Express students,” said Ong.

“The Normal stream students have held their own.”

Beginning next year, about 25 pilot secondary schools will implement Full SBB. This will allow lower secondary school students to study more subjects such as geography, history and literature at a higher standard.

“We will also allow students of one stream the flexibility to take a subject offered in another stream,” said Ong.

Reshaping schools’ ‘social environment’

The Full SBB will also enable schools to “reshape the social environment in schools to benefit their students”.

Ong cited the example of Boon Lay Secondary, which previously had a problem with absenteeism and late-coming among its students.

Noticing that students were more engaged when it came to co-curricular activities (CCAs), the school’s principal re-organised form classes by CCA groups. While they would attend morning assembly in their CCA groups, students would break into different SBB classes for academic lessons.

“Almost immediately, late-coming and absenteeism rates plunged,” said Ong in describing the school’s “unprecedented” move.

How streaming came about

Ong also explained that streaming was implemented during the “efficiency-driven” phase of the education system in the 1980s and 1990s, when the government was concerned about the high primary school dropout rate.

“Through streaming, we customised education according to the learning rates of our students. It has successfully reduced school attrition rates from about a one-third of every cohort in the 1970s to less than 1 per cent today,” said Ong.

But he also acknowledged the downsides of streaming, such as a margin of error and the “certain stigmas” that it places upon students.

“Implementing Full SBB will be a multi-year transition. We should not underestimate the challenge of this move.

“There are major operational challenges, such as time-tabling. Schools will need time to learn, adapt and innovate,” said Ong.

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