by Sharanya Pillai
ON THE perennial question of whether pre-teens are old enough for the high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), most parents here say yes, according to a new study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
But the majority also wants to ease the burden on their children, asking for smaller class sizes and a fairer distribution of resources for all schools, the study found.
Among 1,500 parents polled, comprising Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents, 57.5 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed that the PSLE should be postponed to a later age. Nearly three quarters also indicated that a track record of high PSLE scores was “essential” or “important” in choosing a good primary school.
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The results show that many parents still value the PSLE, IPS Senior Research Fellow Dr Mathews said. But there are also “aspirations for a more manageable system”, he said.
Most parents felt that the primary school curriculum should be “more manageable” and class sizes should be smaller, with 93.7 per cent of respondent agreeing or strongly agreeing with the former, and 87.7 per cent with the latter. Over half also felt that homework should be reduced.
The results highlight some contradictory perceptions that parents have, noted Dr Mathews. For instance, while many respondents were in favour of a more “holistic” education emphasising on skills and character-building, parents continue “to place substantial weight on academics”.
“The traditional system is still etched in most people… Parents still think employers would prefer paper qualifications. At least when this study was done, parents still needed a bit more warming up to the idea about the potential of SkillsFuture,” he said, referring to the G’s initiative to emphasise skills training alongside conventional education.
The current emphasis on academics may in turn create “more stress” for both parents and children, he added.
Every school a good school?
Another hot-button issue raised by the study was whether there needs to be more “equalising” among the primary schools. The respondents themselves are representative of about 180 primary schools, ranging from neighbourhood to elite schools.
Over 90 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that the G should raise funding for neighbourhood primary schools, and that the “best teachers” should be distributed to all schools.
A slim majority also thought that the G should do away with Special Assistance Plan (SAP), autonomous and independent, with slightly over half of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing with the suggestion.
The results come amid recent public discourse about whether every school can be a “good school”, a tagline used by then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in 2012. The debate over neighbourhood and elite schools reignited last month, when the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that it would be merging eight junior colleges – many of which were neighbourhood schools.
While the study did not ask parents directly if “every school is a good school”, it does indicate that most are satisfied with the quality of their child’s primary school, Dr Mathews noted.
There was strong consensus on what makes a good school, with many agreeing or strongly agreeing that the child’s school fulfils criteria like an “emphasis on discipline”, “teachers who provide good support” and “emphasis on characters and values”. More than 80 per cent also felt positive about the facilities and parent-teacher contact time in place.
Expectations vs. Reality
For Dr Mathews, the finding that struck him most was the disconnect between popular perception of Singapore’s education system, and how people on the ground actually feel about it.
“Among the things that concern me are when people say that our school system makes you wonder whether you should have children,” he said. “But if you actually look at the summed up aggregate of what parents experience, it’s not as bad as people make it out to be… Most people across the board do feel that their child’s school is good.”
“The myth that you have to volunteer to get a place in a good school doesn’t sit with the actual reality of most Singaporeans,” he said. For instance, while public discourse may seem like alumni relations are essential for getting into a good primary school, 36 per cent of parents reported facing challenges from a lack of such connections.
He added: “We don’t have a system where most Singaporeans are in such pain… Sometimes we play up the notion that most of our parents are ‘kiasu’. That may not be the case for many, at least now.”
Overall perceptions towards the education system were largely positive. Over 90 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that Singapore’s education system is the best in the world, and that most primary schools provide “high quality” education.
Similarly, more than three quarters felt that the local education system helps students attain well-paying jobs.
As stated in the study, this is likely the first “nationally representative and publicly available attempt to obtain parents’ views on a wide range of issues related to the Singapore primary school system”. Dr Mathews also revealed that IPS has shared its findings with MOE.
When contacted for comment, an MOE spokesman said that the ministry is encouraged by the results: “We are heartened that the IPS study found parents to have confidence in our education system, and are increasingly supportive of schools’ efforts to provide a holistic education for their children.
“Over the years, we have taken steps to move away from an overemphasis on academic results, such as not naming the top PSLE scorers and doing away with school rankings. Last year, we announced changes to the PSLE Scoring System, as another step to move away from an overemphasis on academic results.”
“We are encouraged that they themselves are putting more emphasis on character development, and considering broader factors when choosing schools for their children.”
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