Streams, Bands, and O-Levels
As educators we are aware of the necessary challenges inherent in teaching and we face them head on in order to give our students the chance grow up to be successful human beings who are passionate about what they do. We reflect on our time spent in primary and secondary school with our own feelings of joy and dread and want our “kids” to experience much more of the former. But how we teach and how we learn continues to be fiercely debated around the globe and Singapore is no exception. I’ve had some time to delve into the organizational structure of one of the most successful education systems in the world and here is what I found out.
Every three years there is an international student assessment given to 15 year-olds in the areas of reading, science, and mathematics. PISA as it is known, is intended to provide benchmark data from which researchers and governments can dissect and explore best practices in education. The tests emphasizes applied problem-solving and were most recently given in 2018, but those results will not be available until later this year. In 2105, randomly selected “average” students in Singapore finished first in each of the three categories.
We’ve been told by representatives from the Ministry of Education that schools do not directly prepare students for PISA and that makes sense as it is only given to a random group of approximately 3,000 students every third year. Educators in secondary schools instead are intensely focussed on end of term exams and those in primary schools prepare for a high stakes test of their own.
Currently, every 6th grader takes the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE), but this has recently been a subject of parliamentary debate. Most favor continuing with the meritocratic system, but many would like to see a broader definition of it that would include non-academic measures. Exam results are used to determine how prepared primary students are for a secondary school experience. Primary students attend neighborhood schools, but results of the PSLE dictate what secondary school a student can apply to attend. Distance from home is considered, but secondary students may find themselves commuting a fair distance out of their neighborhood. This is such an important exam, that many primary students attend tutorial sessions after school and on weekends.
The test results will also place students in a group/class with others who had similar outcomes. These are referred to as bands. Each band has a numerical cutoff point and, depending on the school, the bands are grouped into one of three streams. The express stream represents the top scorers on the PSLE. The normal stream are the middle performers, and the normal technical stream are the lowest performers. Each secondary school generally has representation from all three streams on campus, but not necessarily in equal numbers.
Streams and bands are used to identified each class and each classroom. Secondary school begins with students that are 13. They would be categorized as first-year students. In addition to these, there are second, third, fourth, and fifth year students at the school I’m currently attached to.
The designation 1E1 represents express students in their first year, whereas 1E2 represents a slightly higher banded group (or section) of first year express students. The banded groups max out at four and each contain 30+ students.
The designation 2N3 identifies second year normal academic students in a high band and 4E4 would be considered academically the strongest class in the school. You will also find fifth-year students (5N1 and 5N2) here as well. They get an additional year to prepare for the most advanced end of term exam. The final stream is referred to as normal technical and designated as 2T1 and so on. Class sizes are generally smaller in these courses.
All students will take an exit exam that will qualify them for an optional post-secondary experience. Express students will take the Cambridge O-level exams. Normal (academic) students take the N-level exam and normal (technical) take a different version of the N-level. Normal (technical) students take courses primarily focussed on design, technology, and the humanities and I have heard it described as employing a “gentler learning pace” when compared to the normal (academic) and express coursework.
Options are available for students to explore multiple pathways to the career that they are interested in. If a “normal” student is especially strong in a subject area, he/she will be placed in an express class for that subject and potentially qualify to take the O-level exam in that subject area. Non-express students can also work toward qualifying to take an O-level exam. The fifth year normal (academic) sections mentioned earlier stay the additional year so that they can better prepare for the O-level test.
Options for post-secondary education are many and continuing one’s education is strongly supported by the government through subsidies and other incentives. Employment specific training is also supported and there are multiple colleges and universities where students can earn technical degrees and certificates and explore the arts.
Special education student pathways are not as defined. Being identified as SPED often comes with a stigma even greater than in the U.S. I encourage you to follow Christine Powell, my Fulbright colleague here, who is researching the system. The majority of identified special education students attend special education secondary schools and are generally not mainstreamed as in U.S. schools.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the government in Singapore is moving toward a more board-based and holistic education where students are encouraged to pursue their own interest and talent, regardless of what stream they are attached to. They are also seeking to provide more flexibility within schedules and coursework and offer more diverse courses. They spend a great deal of time and expend much effort toward building character and instilling a strong system of values. This is apparent not just in schools, but throughout Singapore.
The people in Singapore work very hard at being good citizens. Multiculturalism is supported by the government in many ways and ethnic and religious identities are respected and celebrated in schools. Every student learns at least two languages, English and mother tongue. Mother tongue is the language spoken by a parent or both parents. The most common mother tongue languages are Chinese (Mandarin), Malay, and Tamil.
Clearly Singapore has had tremendous academic success with their current educational model, but they also realize the limitations that it places on creativity, innovation, and passion-driven learning. In a future post, I’ll reflect more on these long-term goals and how this system plans to change.