The Octant Explains: Singaporean Education (Normal Level)
story | Harrison Linder and Amanda Leong
photo | Singapore Ministry of Education
Any student studying at Yale-NUS College lives in Singapore for at least four years. Four years may seem like a long time, but our busy schedules make it hard to find time to engage with Singapore. Our new recurring series, The Octant Explains, aims to give a quick breakdown of local issues, institutions and culture so that international students can better navigate life here in Singapore.
Singapore’s academic success is undeniable. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Singapore consistently ranks among the best in the Program for International Assessment ranking.
The culture of achievement in the Singaporean education system significantly contributes to the island’s academic success. Students at every level — Primary, Secondary, and pre-University — undergo standardized assessments that determine the school they will go to in the future, and to an extent the material quality of their future life.
This article is a general overview and is only meant to give a basic understanding of the structure of the Singaporean education system. Certain schools and educational tracks may be omitted for brevity. The nuances and current issues surrounding the Singaporean education system will be discussed in the sequel to this piece.
After attending kindergarten for two years, Singaporean students enter primary school at age 7 and engage in a curriculum consisting of English, Mathematics, Health Education, Social Studies, Science, and a Mother Tongue Language.
The first moment of differentiation comes for most students at age 9 with the exam for the “Gifted Education Program” (GEP), which only admits one percent of the students who take the test.
At age 12, all students, including those enrolled in the GEP, must take the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE). The PSLE is an incredibly high stakes exam, as it can preclude students from academic tracks that more easily lead to university.
The PSLE is by far the most notorious exam in Singapore. Many of its critics believe that it is psychologically harmful to differentiate students based on intelligence at such a young age.
How PSLE scores are calculated is unclear, but it is common knowledge among locals that there are cutoffs for what type of educational track one can go on with a certain score.
The Ministry of Education recently restructured the scoring system, but up until then the “T-score” system was used.
Students with PSLE scores below 150 points are usually only eligible for the Normal (Technical) track in secondary school, which focuses on preparing students for the workforce in technical jobs.
Students with scores below 188 are usually only eligible for the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) tracks, whereas those scoring above are eligible for the Express track. Those on the Normal (Academic) track study for the ‘N’ Level exams which they take at around age 16. If they do well enough on that exam, they will have the choice to take the ‘O’ Level exams. Meanwhile, students on the Express track take the ‘O’ Level exams without having to go through the ‘N’ Level exams first. A student’s ‘O’ Level results determine what kind of Junior College or Polytechnic they can enroll in.
If a student’s score is around 250 and above on the PSLE, they are eligible for the “Integrated Programme” (IP). The IP allows students within the top tenth percentile of PSLE scores the opportunity to skip the ‘O’ Level exams. The assumption behind the IP is that top performers are on track to university; testing them again is unnecessary.
IP students are guaranteed spots in the Junior Colleges (JC) affiliated with their secondary school. Some secondary schools and JCs are even located on the same campuses, and go by the same names.
While most secondary schools are academics based, there are a handful of schools that focus on cultivating talents beyond academics. For example, the School of the Arts focuses on cultivating students’ artistic talents alongside academic achievement. There is also the Singapore Sports School and NUS High School which also aim to cultivate students’ particular talents for sports and STEM skills respectively.
JC, Poly, and ITE
At JC, students prepare for ‘A’ Level or International Baccalaureate (IB) assessments, which is what students are mainly evaluated on during college admissions.
Polytechnic students may also apply to university, but admission of Polytechnic students to Singaporean universities is rare. Most Polytechnic graduates go on to join the workforce, and some go to overseas colleges.
Many students on the Normal Technical or Normal Academic track go on to Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education after ‘N’ Levels, but there are also a variety of other educational programs in and outside of Singapore available to them.
Running parallel to the public education system are international schools. Most foreigners living in Singapore send their children to these schools, in part due to limited places in public schools for foreign students. These schools often offer the IB curriculum, or the high school system common in a particular school’s mother country. For example, British international schools offer the British ‘A’ levels.
Entry into university is largely based on a student’s pre-university performance. For those students coming from Junior College, admission to public universities in Singapore is largely based on ‘A’ Level or IB results. As such, the stakes for these exams are also very high.
Students from alternative school systems, such as those from polytechnics, can also apply for university courses. However, these students typically do not go through a national or centralized exam.
In Singapore, tuition refers to paid academic tutoring. Tuition is a huge industry in Singapore and takes in over one billion dollars every year. The industry is mixed between individual tutors who are often older students looking to make a some money by tutoring children in subjects that they excel in and large-scale tuition centers whose businesses can be valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. A Straits Times piece in 2017 suggested that this “tuition culture” would persist in Singapore as long as “high-stakes national examinations” that encourage competition exist.
We hope that with the basic information in this piece, you will now be able to start a conversation with your Singaporean friends about education in Singapore without getting confused. To get an in-depth analysis of the quirks and controversies of the Singaporean education system, be sure to read the article coming next week.
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