PSLE: what are we doing to our children?

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Education Minister Heng Swee Keat’s attempts to take some of the stress out of our education system have shied away from a sensitive question: Is the pressure in schools giving our kids mental problems?

Statistics on the link between school pressure and psychological problems are not out in the public domain. But helpline centres for children do give some indication.  In 2008, such centres for children received over 371 calls for help related to academic stress, compared to 54 in 2006. The helpline’s representative, Yap Lee Lan, has said that most callers were 10- and 12-year-olds.

In the same year, more than 360 students sought emotional support from the Student Care Service due to the stress of examinations, a sharp rise from the 124 cases in 2007.

If the call for help is not loud enough, look at these statistics:

The number of children warded for psychological problems at the Institute of Mental Health has gone up by 35 per cent from 2005 (259 cases) to 2010 (351 cases). Daniel Fung, a senior consultant and chief of the child and adolescent psychiatry department at IMH, was quoted then as saying more than 3,000 child outpatients (majority of whom are under 12 years old) are being treated at IMH.

IMH’s latest studies also show that 12.5 per cent of 2,139 primary school children in Singapore have symptoms of emotional and behavioural problems. 22 per cent of Singaporean children below the age of 12 have thought about killing themselves.

Both IMH doctors and counsellors have singled out academic pressure and exam stress as reasons for the drastic rise of children with psychological problems.

Singapore Democratic Party’s Chee Soon Juan also raised the issue in the party’s education policy paper early this month.

Chee told The Independent Singapore: “A lot of times, we put the blame on the parents, but I don’t think that is fair. If you have an education system whereby if you don’t get into a good school or a good stream, chances are you won’t succeed in life.”

“Let me give you an example. If you go to the neighbourhood schools, they give you brochures of polytechnics and ITEs. Where are the junior college brochures?”

And, speaking in his capacity as a psychologist, he said: “You see, children are not like adults. We know that if one door closes in your life, another door opens. But at that young age, they won’t be able to understand this. So when they mess up their exams and they cannot get into a good stream, it feels like doomsday for many of them.”

So how do we solve the problem?

He said: “You can give the children all kinds of enrichment classes but if you continue to stream the children at such a young age, the stress won’t go away. So long as you have the mindset of separating the good ones from the bad ones through PSLE, children will continue to be stressed out.”

And this comment is also reflected in Senior Minister of State (Education) Indranee Rajah’s speech earlier this week. She said that students from ITEs and polytechnics always want an academic upgrading, seeing their current pathways as less than adequate.

Yes, the real problem with PSLE is not the examination, but the hopelessness of falling through the cracks of the education system. What would you do if you end up in an ITE course?

Even at polytechnics, only a handful can make it to a university here.

If we want to solve the problems with education, we should move away from tackling the issue at the fringes, like not revealing the PSLE scores. A holistic and bold approach is needed.

That approach does not seem to be in the horizon.