National Day Rally 2013: Wider bands for PSLE grading, changes to P1 school admission

PM Lee announced that T-scores may be scrapped in favour of letter grades for a 'wider banding' and to reduce over competition. (AFP)

[UPDATED 19 Aug, 6:15pm: Adding more details on P1 registration scheme]

Starting from next year, the Ministry of Education will reserve 40 places in every primary school for applicants in phase 2B and 2C of the Primary One Registration Exercise. 

This means that in addition to the number of vacancies left over after phase 2A2, another mandatory 40 places will be split equally between phases 2B and 2C.

The follow-up announcement comes after Prime Minister Lee said in his National Day Rally speech that Singapore's education system is set to undergo several changes to become a more open, holistic and less over-competitive one.

He cited a need to make entry into Singapore's schools more open, so that admission will not be limited to a "closed, self-perpetuating elite".

"We must recalibrate to keep the education system open and focus our efforts on things which matter more than exam grades in the long run," said Lee.

He acknowledged concerns from Singaporeans that the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) have become excessively competitive and a cause of huge stress to young students and their parents.

"I knew that people went on leave for the PSLE," said Lee, giving the example of a mother who quit her job for a year to prepare her daughter for the PSLE exams.

"(The PSLE) becomes not just a report of the student's performance in primary school, but an exam many parents believe determines a large part of a student's future... it's not just the student taking the PSLE, but the entire family!"

The first change: there will be "wider bands" for PSLE grades as in the case of GCSE ‘O’ and ‘A’ examinations.

This, said PM Lee, will “reduce excessive competition to chase that last point”, as admission into secondary schools can currently hang in the balance over just one or two extra aggregate marks.

"This is a distinction that is meaningless, and too defined to make," said Lee, to applause from those at the rally.

"An A*(grade) is an A* and that's it."

However, he was quick to add that these changes will take place gradually over the course of years, and that those who will be taking the PSLE soon “need not panic”.

This announcement was met with mixed reactions from parents, with some feeling that this system would lack transparency.

"If the bands are so general, then how would I know how to choose schools for my sons? Will the aggregate points still be shown on the results slip? I think that this new scheme needs to be explained more clearly," said Mr C S Tan, 38, who has two children aged 7 and 9.

Teachers, however, felt that a wider banding would take a lot of stress off their students.

"I have kids who cry and become depressed over a two-point difference, up until the day they receive the results they are still upset with themselves over not being able to answer one question, or not performing as well as they can," said primary school teacher Audrey Lim, 26, who teaches in a top primary school in the East.

"It's heartbreaking to see 12-year-olds looking so stressed and worried. I feel that this sends the right message to overzealous parents."

Broader admissions under DSA scheme

Besides the PSLE, the Direct School Admission (DSA) admission category into secondary schools will also be broadened.

The DSA scheme, which started in 2004, traditionally offers early placement to primary school pupils in recognition of their talents in sports, arts and technology.

Outstanding students with special leadership qualities, good character and resilience will also be considered for admission through the DSA.

PM Lee added that top secondary schools will work towards actively seeking out such students and primary schools will be encouraged to nominate students for these places.

Secondary school students will also soon be able to enjoy more flexibility in their subject choices.

PM Lee said that MOE is working towards allowing Secondary 1 students in all streams to take a subject at a higher level if they had done well in that subject during their PSLE.

This, he said, would allow students to build on their strengths and learn each subject at a pace appropriate to them.

Places to be reserved for P1 general admission scheme

Anxious parents of soon-to-be Primary 1 children also received special mention.

PM Lee announced that every primary school in Singapore will now be required to set aside at least 40 places, or between 10 and 15 per cent of their enrollment, for children with no prior connection to the school.

"At least the school will become open (to admitting all children), it will never become completely closed," said Lee.

Citing the drastic example of one mother moving home four times in order to improve her child’s chances at getting into a school of her choice, Lee said that while it was important to preserve school traditions through alumni and sibling admissions, “we don't want primary schools to be closed institutions”.

Mother-of-three Hazel Ang, 37, welcomed the changes. Her daughter Jolyn, who turns 6 this year, will start Primary 1 in 2014, and her admission into a primary school had previously been a source of stress for Ang and her husband.

"The competition is so crazy that there are just not enough places, full stop – I'm really worried that my daughter will have to attend a primary school far away because of lack of places," said Ang, who lives in Bedok South.

"This is definitely a step in the right direction, hopefully the number of reserved spaces will also increase. If not, I need to start volunteering soon to secure a spot."

More inclusive educational opportunities

Earlier, in his Malay speech, Lee also announced that Edusave accounts, originally only for students studying in mainstream schools, will be extended to all home-schooled students and those studying in madrasahs or abroad. These are students aged between 7 and 16.

In addition, existing financial assistance and bursary schemes for top secondary schools will also be enhanced substantially to allow all who qualify to also afford the same education.

“We have to make sure that top schools stay open to talents from all backgrounds and produce graduates who become assets to our society who are connected to Singapore and the community they belong to. That is the right way for us to go,” he said.

National Day Rally speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong held at ITE College Central.