School streaming: Time for a small change

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pic courtesy of ST

By Harphal Singh

Well, now I shall write my thoughts on a topic closer to the hearts of students, parents and educators – streaming. This topic has been written about and debated at length and its merits and shortcomings have been discussed in detail. I shall not go into that.

pic courtesy of ST
pic courtesy of ST

In my previous article I thanked the system then for not having the system of channeling students to a more challenging or a less challenging stream. Students then were either promoted, retained or advanced. Advanced sounds a lot nicer than express or promoted and I was glad I was always advanced.

This does not mean that we were not streamed. There was streaming done but the spirit and form was different. We were streamed into science, arts or the technical classes. The most able went to the science classes. We were streamed by the subjects we could offer at ‘O’ levels. We were streamed by classes, the ‘A’ to ‘C’ classes were for students in the Science Stream and the ‘D’ to ‘H’ classes were for the Arts and Technical Stream students. What was important was that we did not feel “streamed”. We had inter-class games and we competed with the science classes and showed ourselves to be better without making students from the science classes feel inferior.  Students from the various classes showed up in strength to support. It was a regatta and all of us felt belonged. I digress.

Before I continue, let me stress that I am not against ‘Streaming’ per se.

I am a product of the system and I understand the fact that we are always trying to tweak the system to better benefit the students. The policies introduced show this to be true. If memory serves me well, I remember that only students who had 200 points and above were placed in the Express Stream. Our Ministry of Education took feedback seriously and recognized that students on the border could be ‘wrongly’ (for want of a better word) streamed. The system was tweaked and parents whose children scored between 188 and 199 points were given the choice to place their children in either the Express or the Normal Academic Stream. I am sure many were pleased and relieved with this initiative.

In fact, I have personally seen students who have been in this range score well in the Express Stream.

Let me relate a true story. A close friend of mine, who is a doctor, and his wife, a lawyer, called me up last year for advice. Their son fell in the above band range where he could either choose to be placed in the Normal Academic Stream or the Express Stream. They wanted to place their son in the Normal Academic Stream, thinking that he will not be able to cope in the Express Stream. They recognised that our children are already too stressed in schools. I advised them against the move, giving them my reasons. They listened. The end of the year results have recently been released and the son will continue his secondary education in the Express stream.

Like I said earlier I am not going into the merits or demerits of Streaming as a system. Instead I would like to propose another tweak. After offering four subjects at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), students begin a new journey into secondary school. Here, at Secondary One, they are confronted by seven or eight subjects. At the end of the year they are tested and streamed again to Secondary 2 Express, Normal Academic or Normal Technical.

I would like to suggest that we do not stream students at Secondary One. Let me give you an example. Imagine the great feeling of relief some parents’ feel when their children make it to Secondary 1 Express and the disappointment a couple of months later only to learn that their children have been  channeled to Secondary 2 Normal Academic, a less challenging stream. Imagine the effects on the students. This same euphoria and disappointment are felt by their children. I have seen how some of these students are so demoralised that they become disciplinary problems. Sure, some do adapt well.

Give students a year to adjust to life in a Secondary School. If there is a need to channel students to another stream, let’s do it at the end of Secondary 2. Having said that, I believe we should allow streaming to a more challenging stream at the end of Secondary 1. That is to say, students streamed into Normal Technical should be moved to Normal Academic and those in the Normal Academic Stream be moved to the Express Stream.

Let’s err on the side of profit.

Harphal Singh is a retired secondary school principal