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Is overall mark of 97 not good enough for Higher Chinese at St Hilda’s Primary School?

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The following is a letter from one of our readers who prefers to be identified as JC.

I am shocked to learn that a P2 student (the “Student”) at St Hilda’s Primary School in Singapore (the “School”) is forbidden to take the subject of Higher Chinese because the Student had only scored an overall mark of 97 for Chinese at P1 in 2016 (the “Decision”).

The School claims to have announced during the first P1 meet-the-parents session held in the first week of the 2016 school year (the “Announcement”), that only the top 25% of the P1 cohort would be eligible to take up Higher Chinese at P2 (the “Selection Approach”).

It is ironic that the Student is part of inaugural nationwide P1 cohort which will come under the new PSLE scoring system that replaces the t-score with wider scoring bands. According to the then Acting Education Minister (Schools), Mr Ng Chee Meng (“Mr Ng”), as quoted by the Straits Times article dated 8 April 2016 (the “First Article”) which is on the web page of http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/parliament-psle-scoring-system-to-be-revamped-t-score-to-be-removed-from-2021, on the reason for the change: “The main issue to address is that the way we currently score the PSLE is too precise, and differentiates our students more finely than necessary. We should therefore, in time, move away from such fine distinctions, which are not meaningful, especially at that young age.” The same said article also stated that “PSLE grading will also no longer be based on how pupils do relative to their peers, as it is now, [Mr Ng] explained, adding that the hope is that this will encourage students to focus on their own learning rather than competing to do better than their peers.”

It begs the question as to whether the Selection Approach is an example of the price which students in Singapore have to pay in order for the country to retain its number one ranking in the Programme for International Student Assessment conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as reported in another Straits Times article dated 8 January 2017 (the “Second Article”) which is on the web page of http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/dare-to-chiong. Or is another “secret sauce” to Singapore’s aforesaid top billing being the “forward-looking policies and good systems” in terms of the streaming practice exemplified by “the Selection Approach”? Under such practice, it is perhaps only natural for Mr Ng to be filled with “divine discontent” arising from “the kiasuism” of the students and their parents. After all, how can you blame them when 97 is not good enough?

Furthermore, the School had stated in its email dated 5 January 2017 that “any forms of appeal would not be considered” (the “Stance”) in response to the query by the Student’s parent on how to appeal against the Decision, despite apparently not having made the Stance known during the Announcement. Indeed, the School seems to have taken the Stance only after it had reviewed near the end of term 4 in 2016 the Chinese academic performance of those students who score an overall mark of 97 for the subject. But the Stance would, prima facie, run counter to the principle of natural justice. Moreover the actions of the School which is part of the civil service, would in general constitute administrative acts which are subject to judicial review unless such review is specifically excluded by relevant statutes. Therefore it is puzzling to say the least for the School to take the Stance.

Therefore, in my view, this incident raises a number of issues as follows.

1. Isn’t the Selection Approach applied by the Chinese department of the School an example of the “main issue” raised by Mr Ng in terms of such quota being “too precise, and differentiat[ing] our students more finely than necessary… which are not meaningful, especially at that young age”?

2. Isn’t the Selection Approach a measure “based on how pupils do relative to their peers”, which “encourage[s] students to focus on…competing to do better than their peers”?

3. Isn’t the Selection Approach contrary to the change in philosophy and practice which Mr Ng is implementing to our primary school education system?

4. Doesn’t the outcome faced by the Student who by all objective measures should be capable of studying Higher Chinese but is nonetheless denied such an opportunity, reflect what I consider to be the absurdity of the Selection Approach?

5. What meaningful purpose does the Selection Approach serve, “especially at that young age” of P1 when selection for Higher Chinese can occur at P4 as practised by the School as well?

6. What are the School’s justification(s) for implementing the Selection Approach, especially when there is, prima facie, not much difference in the resources required to teach standard Chinese vis-à-vis Higher Chinese?

7. Even if teaching Higher Chinese would require more resources, how would the School justify the Selection Approach when apparently the School is considered to be so rich that Ministry of Education (“MOE”) does not allow the School to conduct its annual fundraising carnival in 2017, as announced by the School’s principal at the start of the 2017 school year?

8. On what basis or bases (e.g. MOE policy, the School’s discretion, etc) is the School authorised to adopt the Selection Approach?

9. Is the Selection Approach sanctioned by MOE?

10. How many other schools have adopted the Selection Approach at P1?

11. On what basis or bases does the School justify the Stance?

I hope the School would address the aforesaid questions as there seems to be a divergence between Mr Ng’s talk and the School’s walk. If as per the First Article quoting Mr Ng that “[w]hile MOE can change policies and structures, ultimately, this is a personal journey for every child, parent and family”, then it is only fair that children would at least have a right to recourse should they encounter any problems with their schools in the course of their education journey.

It is time for students and their parents to heed Mr Ng’s call to ditch “kiasism” by daring to “chiong” for, in my view among other things, their rights to seek redress and improvement in the face of plainly unreasonable actions by their schools so that (a) our children can enjoy the supposed fruit of education’s mission in terms of “discover[ing] the joy of learning and preparing them for the future” as extolled by Mr Ng and (b) Singapore would not just be “an exam meritocracy [but] not a talent meritocracy” as lamented by the Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a sentiment echoed by Mr Ng in the Second Article.

If the education system and the society at large let our children suffer in silence, can we blame them for losing the joy and motivation to try harder to pursue their talent in Chinese when 97 is not good enough for Higher Chinese? This year is 97, what will it be in the years to come? 99 or perhaps beyond 100 with bonus questions for extra marks? Enough is enough!

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