Singapore is the only country in the world where being normal is stigmatised. Perhaps the government should consider putting an end to it.
Every year, four in ten students fail to make it to the polytechnics after the O levels. Of this number, half will end up entering the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) to gain vocational skills in preparation for skilled work.
Although it is still possible for ITE students to earn a place in the polytechnics after two years of vocational education, students must be within the top two per cent of their 32,000-strong cohort.
The biggest concern is the quality of education students in the Normal (Academic) stream are receiving.
It is a known fact that the N levels are easy to pass and students who qualify to sit for the O levels are under the impression that the O levels are easy because they have previously done well.
As a result, students tend to slacken on their fifth and final year.
Students are also expected to cram secondary three and four Express stream materials in under ten months. On the contrary, Express stream students have two years to prepare for the examinations.
This defeats the purpose of having a five-year stream with the intention of allowing slow students to catch up so they can do well for the O levels.
Hence it is not surprising that 40 per cent of secondary five students are unable to progress to the polytechnics.
In some but rare cases, more than half of a secondary five class fail to enter the polytechnics. This rings true for Issac Kuek, former bassist of Singaporean band Lucify. His entire North View Secondary School class failed to make the cut for the polytechnics.
“The first thing that came to my mind was…to find work at the polyclinic. Not go to ITE,” says Kuek, who now works as a freelance interior designer.
Teachers and Principals are Prone to Cognitive Bias
Part of the problem why a significant number of students fail to move up the education ladder is that the N levels itself creates stigma. The exams stereotypes people according to their academic ability and most educationalists truly believe that Normal (Academic) stream students should be taught at a low level because they feel they are not that bright.
Says David Leong, a secondary five student from Hua Yi Secondary School who scored two O level passes, “My teachers saw us as people with little or no future. They used to tell us that if you can pass, pass. Don’t give yourself too much hope because you’re a N level student.
“So they didn’t put their heart into their teaching. They even told us that certain topics in our textbooks were not important and we should just read it.” Adds Leong.
In an interview with Channel News Asia, Associate Professor Irene Ng, from the Social Work Department at the National University of Singapore, said: “Whenever you have a category, people will assign prestige or stigma to it. And so people will all go for that prestigious group, for example the Integrated Programme. Or, people will assign a stigma to a programme that’s not so popular.
“There’s also research that shows that when you assign a label to somebody, the person will behave according to that way, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So for example if we teach students in the Normal (Technical/Academic) stream to a low level because we think that is the level, then students could react to it, and give you back what you think you want.”
Needless to say, all this affects the overall quality of education for Normal (Academic) students.
Yes, it is time for the Ministry of Education to put an end to the N level exams and spend five years to prepare students for the O levels.
After all, it is the O levels that matters because it very much determines one’s future and employment prospects in a straight-laced and pragmatic society.