story | Paul Jerusalem, Guest Writer
photo | Yip Jia Qi
Earlier this month, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced that streaming in secondary schools will be replaced by subject-based banding. Having spent my secondary school years in a mainstream government school (known colloquially as “neighborhood schools”) and a couple of months prior to entering Yale-NUS College teaching students in both the Express and Normal streams, I could not be more excited about the news. This new phase of experimentation in Singapore’s education system could have promising implications for the Yale-NUS student body, which is often perceived to be elite, if not elitist.
For the uninitiated, Singapore’s public education system is defined in large part by a process commonly known as “streaming,” which involves sorting students into classes based on their academic performance.
Harrison Linder makes a commendable effort to elucidate the major streaming system in his article The Octant Explains: Singaporean Education (Normal Level).
While the current streaming system does allow students some mobility to change streams based on their performance along the way, it is ultimately the Primary School Leaving Examinations that most dramatically affects one’s experience in the educational system. This is all based on an underlying assumption that a lower aggregate score for the PSLE means you are automatically a slower learner and most of your subjects have to be taken at a slower pace.
In the autonomous government secondary school that I attended (which counts as a neighborhood school in the neighborhood-elite school binary), having good overall grades at the end of Secondary 2 meant that you were able to choose to take any combination of the following classes.
The better your overall grades were, the more choice you had. In addition to the compulsory subjects, most students with better grades took three science subjects in their full syllabi, students with middling grades took two science subjects with a humanities subject in its full syllabus, and remaining students who did not have much by way of choice took two science subjects in their partial syllabi with a pure humanities subject and a technical subject.
Students with better grades took combinations that would prime them for studies in junior colleges, whereas students with more average grades took combinations that prepared them for technical and vocational courses in polytechnics.
While I try not to be prematurely laudatory and hope that subject-based banding does not simply become a euphemistic version of streaming in which a science-heavy curriculum and a technical-heavy curriculum are on two ends of the spectrum, I think that the abolition of the streaming system is a crucial step in the right direction.
Under streaming, students are often seen not just as students in the Express or Normal stream, but as Express students and Normal students. The categories in which students get placed inevitably form another identity marker that affect their self-perception, pathologizing students who, according to the system, do not perform well enough to make the cut.
In light of college-wide conversations about class privilege and the experience of low-income and first-generation college students and their place at Yale-NUS, the Ministry of Education’s abolition of the formal streaming system is relevant to Yale-NUS, and I am hopeful that this could make our college a more diverse place than it currently is.
To be clear, students in the Normal stream are not all low-income, nor are all low-income students in the Normal stream. Yet, students in the Normal stream tend to have a lower socioeconomic status, and students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds tend to be in Integrated Programme or Gifted Education Programme schools.
International Yale-NUS students are bound to know at least one person who went to Raffles Institution, Hwa Chong Institution, or Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), simply because these schools are well-represented in Yale-NUS’ population of Singaporean students and international students who spent some of their pre-tertiary education in Singapore.
This is not necessarily the fault of our Admissions team, which puts in a genuine effort to curate a student population that is as diverse as possible using a holistic admissions process. Yet, I think there is something to be said about the fact that there is far greater diversity in terms of nationality than in terms of class and educational background.
To be sure, Yale-NUS’ applicant pool is a highly self-selecting one. Apart from the fact that liberal arts subjects tend to have greater currency among the upper middle class, it takes considerable risk-tolerance to sign up for a university course that does not guarantee as clearly a path towards employment as a law, medicine, or engineering degree does.
Yale-NUS students often joke about unemployment, but as much as banter about our career prospects is a way of deriving comfort in the face of our unclear career paths ahead, it takes a fair amount of privilege to be able to joke about it in the first place, whether it be in the form of financial stability or proximity to relatives who have graduated from liberal arts colleges, which again is linked to socioeconomic background.
Looking at the demographics of Yale-NUS’ student population, one can’t help but wonder: are students with a background in elite educational institutions somehow more deserving of the kind of education that the liberal arts promises?
Of course, the story told by our demographic statistics is less a question of who deserves this education or of fit, than a question of who wants this education. Or rather, who has access to wanting this education in the first place.
It is more common for the highest performing students in the Express stream to take a subject combination that is more science-heavy, and for students in the Normal stream to take more “practical” subjects, such as Design & Technology, Food & Nutrition, and Art.
A quick look at the education pathways offered by the public education system would show that students in the Express stream are primed towards post-secondary education in Junior College, which is a more natural pathway towards a university education than a Polytechnic route.
If what defines the liberal arts is the endeavor of learning for the sake of learning, then a Junior College education maps onto a liberal arts education more intuitively than a Polytechnic education which promotes “practice-based learning”, in which students deep-dive into an area of specialty that primes them for specific employment pathways.
If done right, the abolition of streaming could lead to equal opportunity and, in turn, greater mobility for students in the mainstream school system. Students could then have more options when it comes to choosing the subjects that they’re interested in. Depending on how the MOE implements the new post-secondary admission system, more students from less traditional backgrounds might be able to pursue a path leading towards the liberal arts.
For example, a student who would have been placed into the Normal stream because they did not do well in Math and Science in primary school would be able to pursue a more humanities-focused secondary school education without the burden of stereotype threat stemming both from their peers and teachers.
In Faith Ng’s play Normal, new English Literature teacher Sarah Hew attempts to help two struggling students, Daphne and Ashley, in whom she sees potential. The two girls are seen by the other teachers as troublemakers, but the play portrays them as having an intuition for the power relations between students in the Express and Normal streams, between students and teachers, and even between Singapore and the United Kingdom vis-a-vis our UK-based standardized testing system.
Based on my experience as an alumnus of a neighborhood school and as someone who used to teach a Normal stream class during my teaching stint prior to college, I have known students in the Normal stream to possess intellectual curiosity and perspicacious insights about the world that many of my peers in the Express stream did not have. One has less of a reason to critically question the system when one does well within it.
But “intellectual curiosity” is a phrase often reserved for those who play by the rules, not those who are deemed to be troublemakers by jaded educators.
Indeed, as Jacob Jarabejo ’21 tells me, “What is really scary about the system is that it’s insidious and you adopt an attitude that is defeatist.” While he is referring directly to the mainstream streaming system and the effect that labelling has, the same could be said about the way that the mainstream education privileges certain forms of intellectual curiosity over others, such that a critical eye is rewarded only insofar as it plays by the rules.
With the abolition of streaming, would more students gain access to an educational pathway that rewards them for their critical thought and intellectual curiosity rather than have them grow up with an aversion towards the very institution that has pathologized them throughout their years in the education system? Only time will tell.
There is no doubt that doing away with streaming has the potential to grant students with more mobility and choice. Minister Ong beautifully summarizes this with an analogy: “We will no longer have fishes swimming down three separate streams, but one broad river, with each fish negotiating its own journey.”
Hopefully, this means that the barrier to entry into Yale-NUS will become lower for those who would not otherwise have been encouraged to pursue a liberal arts education that is not focused on vocational training.
Jarabejo suggests two plausible reasons as to why students from the Normal stream are underrepresented in the Yale-NUS student population. First, the “defeatist mindset” due to stereotype threat from the current labelling might result in students thinking that they are not adequate for a school that is commonly perceived as elite or elitist.
Second, there might be the concern that they would not fit in, since the student demographic is overrepresented by elite junior colleges. Yet, Jarabejo says that he is “pretty sure that any of my friends in the Normal stream would’ve done as well.”
Granted, the underrepresentation of students from the Normal stream is a problem that is not unique to Yale-NUS. Yet, this problem is magnified at Yale-NUS, an institution with a low acceptance rate and highly selective admissions process.
When we have a student body that is more diverse not just along the lines of nationality but also along the lines of educational and socioeconomic background (both of which are not unrelated), we have a campus that is better represented by a multiplicity of world views that weren’t all developed in the comfortable halls of Bukit Timah, Bishan, or Dover. This means that we would all stand to benefit from an educational experience that we share with more people who think differently from ourselves.
In light of conversations in Singapore and all around the world about meritocracy, it might be tempting to attribute the lack of Normal stream students at Yale-NUS to the fact that there were others who were simply more competitive applicants.
Yet, as I hope this article has shown, it is not that simple. There are many factors that determine the makeup of our student body, one of which is that the current streaming system has divided us into various pathways that lead to different educational and occupational outcomes.
With the abolition of streaming, perhaps more students will be able to pursue a path that rewards them for their intellectual curiosity in a given field, unimpeded by the labelling effect that streaming had. Furthermore, the closer the MOE gets to its “Every school a good school” vision, the more socio-economically diverse our student population will be.
More importantly, the wealth of resources that we enjoy at Yale-NUS—whether it be faculty support, professional training, or international experience—will be shared more equally across the board.
Perhaps, then, the demographics of the students housed within our ivory towers will become more reflective of the real world beyond our steel gates.