What to do after ‘A’ levels?

‘A’ levels results release day is today.

I am sure all parents will be very excited about this day. While our school does not have any graduating ‘A’ level students this year, we are excited for the current ‘A’ level batch. Some of them were my students whom I taught when I still worked for the Ministry of Education. I was a former ‘A’ level student and an educator who has seen many of my students go to university. I thought I would put in my two cents about the choices after ‘A’ levels.

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Selecting A Secondary School

Unlike my time, students nowadays have two clear advantages – they know their PSLE grades and secondary schools also publish their historical cut-off mark. At least students know if they have a chance of getting accepted.

I remember when I had to choose my secondary school more than 20 years ago. I did not know my Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results before I submitted the form. My school teachers were also not very helpful in guiding me. All I remember was that since I studied in a primary school that was affiliated with a secondary school, I put it as the first choice. I had absolutely no idea if I was able to get in. I breathed a sigh of relief when I was successful.

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PISA tells only half the story

First of all, congratulations to Singapore for doing well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests which is run by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) every three years. In the 2012 test, Singapore ranked very near the top. We ranked second place in mathematics, and third in both reading and science.

This results do show that the Singapore education system has been largely successful. PISA results also tally with other international educational tests. To me, this shows that most Singapore students have strong fundamentals in reading (English), mathematics and science.

However, some people are critical of PISA. For example, the top performing education system in PISA is Shanghai, China. Shanghai is course not reflective of the entire Chinese education system. Shanghai’s wealth is generally twice of other cities in China, and the Shanghai parents do participate heavily in the private education sector. On the other hand, United States did badly in PISA. However, individual American states like Massachusetts was only outperformed by only three education systems, and Connecticut by four. It might really not be fair to compare cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore to entire countries like the United States. Despite these criticism, I am not putting down PISA. As a comparative study, I think it is lacking. It does have its merits in measuring competency in reading, mathematics and science.

What I think PISA has not been able to measure is the real life skills necessary for success in the future. It is merely a test of reading, subject mastery (in two subjects only) and simple inferences. They are not able to measure more complex skills like problem solving, creative thinking and collaborative skills. Even the Singapore Ministry of Education agrees. MOE’s Deputy Director-General for Education Loh Khah Gek said, “But there are still limitations to such tests, in that there may be specific skills and competencies that cannot be tested in this way — skills like cross cultural understanding, the ability to connect with people, the ability to collaborate with others.” She later emphasised that these are the skills that really matter.

So, while Singapore students have a firm foundation to work on, they still need to learn and strengthen these skills. It is indeed something schools and parents need to think about when they are deciding on the direction of their children’s education.

How to choose an English language school

Wait! Don’t go away yet. I know what you are all thinking. An enrichment centre trying to give tips on how to choose one. Wouldn’t this post be totally biased? Don’t worry, I am going to be objective here. I am going to offer a series of questions you need to ask yourself when choosing a centre. This is an unbiased view as a parent myself.

Teachers

The quality of teachers is also an important criteria. Do the teachers have the required qualifications? It would be great if they possess degrees beyond the minimum required. Ask the teachers to show you their certificates. Also, does the teacher interact well with their students? Always choose a passionate and caring teacher.

Quality of Programme / Materials

You might want to ask the centre about their teaching methodology. Is the programme systematic and follow tested pedagogy? Do they have proper lesson plans? Are their materials all commonly found in assessment books in Popular bookstore? Needless to say, centres that show they know what they are doing, and have their own materials are preferred.

Learning Environment

Take a look at the learning environment. Is the entire centre very cramped. Are there other facilities available like a study area? Or are computers available to the students? Even how well the owners maintain the centre shows how much pride they have in the school and how much effort they will put in to ensure that students learn.

Track Record

A good track record might be an important consideration. Certainly, no centre will tell you that their students keep failing. But take care to look at the track record closely. Does the school select students? Some schools only allow the best students to join. Of course these centres produce great results. Also, look out for centres with huge student intakes but few students who do well. It might mean that their star students are only a few.

Cost

In a country that is very expensive, cost is certainly a factor. Of course, the general advice is to enrol in a centre that you can afford. But take note that while some centres charge very cheaply for their lessons, they tend to have many students in one class. Also, are they not confident that their programme works and need to charge low fees to attract students? Therefore, it is probably the best to go for a centre that has the best value for the fees it is charging.

Location

Location is an important criteria as well. Is the centre near your home? Is it easily accessible by public transport? However, do consider other criteria as well. A great centre that is not too far away might be worth the trip rather than a lousy centre that is just a stone’s throw away.

Review Process

Other than the progress report from school, how do parents know that their children are improving? It is important for centres to give some sort of feedback to the parents. Can parents view the materials, worksheets and assignments given to the children? Any additional reports giving more feedback to children would be great.

Teacher/Student Ratio

What is the teacher/student ration? There are some centres that squeeze 18 or even more children in a classroom. In this situation, you might as well just rely on MOE schools only. After all, their teacher/student ratio is not too far off.

Timing

Does the timing of the class if your child’s schedule? If it does, then great. If it does not, I will still look at other more important criteria like quality of teachers and programme. If the school is really good, I will reschedule to fit the school’s lesson timings.

Terms and Conditions

We all know that schedules change. People fall sick and schools plan events that coincide with lessons. How flexible is the school in changing classes? Do they need a Medical Certificate before changing? Will they be willing to pro-rate the course fees? You might want to take this into account.

Conclusion

Before I end this post, I would like to share a personal story of mine. I was looking for a martial arts school for my son. We found one. They had highly qualified teachers and they seem to have a great programme. However, I did not like the cost of the programme. It was structured in such a way I would not get value for my money. The criteria that killed the deal was the terms and conditions. It was so restrictive that I felt all the school wanted to do was to take all my money upfront and make it impossible to get the money back if I needed to withdraw my son for any reason.

Certainly there is a lot of consideration when looking at which centre to enrol. Choose the one that ticks most of your boxes and do look out for the terms and conditions if you ever need to switch a school.

National Day Rally 2013

It has been nearly a month since the National Day Rally 2013. I am sure that everybody has heard and read about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcements. In addition, the Ministry of Education has followed up by giving some additional information regarding these announcements.

Let’s do a quick summary of the main changes and what do we think of these changes in RG Channel Future School.

Extended Edusave Accounts

From 2014 onwards, all children of ages 7-16 of Singapore citizens between the ages will receive Edusave contributions. This includes students who are in Madrasahs, privately funded schools, home-schooled or residing overseas.

This is definitely good news for children who are not studying in mainstream schools. While there are still some questions, like what educational opportunities are MOE going to allow to be funded, this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Broader admissions under the Direct School Admissions (DSA)

The number of students that can be admitted under the Direct School Admissions (DSA) scheme will broaden. The original aim of the scheme was to allow students with special talents in sports, arts or technology to be admitted in secondary schools. Students with leadership skills or show good character could also be admitted.

The good thing about this scheme is that it allows students who might not be academically excellent but have a special talent, to enter good secondary schools. Extending this scheme seems to make sense in stressing that success in education is not just based on academics.

However, there are two caveats.

First, is a system problem. How does one measure character or leadership? Can we give a grade to a student’s leadership skills? How can we even compare the character between two students? The processes schools go through to select their students will have to be thought out carefully.

Secondly, a note of caution to parents who push their children to these schools. I have seen many examples of students that take part in the scheme only to discover that they struggle academically in school. A minority of these even get retained. So parents need to ensure that their child is ready to enter a school where the majority of the students have generally scored higher PSLE scores.

Removal of the T-score in PSLE

In the future, PSLE students would not know their PSLE T-score. They would only know the banding of their subjects, just like the O and A levels.

While some teachers and parents interviewed by the media praised this measure as reducing stress, I do not think it is effective in reducing stress to the general school population. While it is true that with this change, students need not to be so obsessed in chasing the one mark which could make a difference in their T-score, it does not change the fundamental reasons why there is stress. The real reason of stress is competition to enter brand name secondary schools. As long as this competition is not removed, there will be stress.

Reserved places for P1 Admission

Another change is that every primary school in Singapore will now be required to set aside at least 40 places, or between 10 and 15 per cent of their enrolment, for children with no prior connection to the school. Subsequently, MOE announced that the places will go to Phases 2B and 2C.

These changes don’t seem to have any impact in many schools. Of course that being said, many schools don’t have lots of parents trying to get in. Some of the more popular schools will be affected as there will probably be less spaces in the earlier phases. However, these students who did not get in the earlier phases might join in in 2B and 2C instead. Therefore, while there is a higher possibility that children with no connection with the school might be able to enter, it is not a guarantee.

In conclusion, the government has tweaked certain policies to make it seem somewhat fairer, like the reserved spaces for P1 Admission. However, alumni still get priority. Some changes are great and the government should be given credit for them. The Extended Edusave accounts and the increased number of DSA places are great schemes. So is the removal of T-score in PSLE. It does not remove stress completely, but it does reduce it. Removing stress completely is silly and unrealistic, if you ask me.

The government has made good steps in its education policies. The government can do more and we will address this issue in our future blog post.

Online Educational Resources

You will agree that the digital world is rapidly becoming important in the lives of our children. The Internet is also full of educational resource for parents. You can explore the following websites to look for resources for your children.

YouTube Education

Find it at: http://www.youtube.com/education/

There are thousands of videos from all over the world, teaching different subjects and topics. The videos there are actually of high quality and you can at one look decide which video is good based on the number of likes versus the number of dislikes.

Apple iTunes University

Find it at: http://www.apple.com/education/itunes-u/

The only unfortunate news about this excellent resource is that it is only available for apple customers. Students can play video or audio lectures and take notes that are synchronized with the lecture. They can read books and view presentations. See a list of all the assignments for the course and check them off as they’re completed. It also integrates with iBooks for a great user experience.

Twitter

Find it at: http://www.twitter.com/

You must be shocked to see twitter in this list. Isn’t Twitter a place where youths just shoot off their thoughts? There is a huge sharing community of teachers, educators and students on Twitter, sharing resources, strategies and tips. How do you get access to this? We are going to provide some hashtags to aid your search – #engchat, #books, #grammar, #litchat, #teachingenglish, #amwriting, #writing, and #writetip.

Enjoy yourselves and if you do find more resources, do share with each other.

Primary One Registration

It is going to be Primary One registration in a month’s time. Is your child due to be registered into Primary One this year and you are still confused over the phases? Let me try to help parents to clear up their doubts. The following table lists each phase:

Primary One Registration

Phase 1:
For a child who has a sibling studying in the primary school of choice
Phase 2A(1):
For a child whose parent is a former student of the primary school and who has joined the alumni association as a member not later than 30 June 2011ORFor a child whose parent is a member of the School Advisory / Management Committee
Phase 2A(2):
For a child whose parent or sibling has studied in the primary school of choiceORFor a child whose parent is a staff member of the primary school of choice
Phase 2B:
For a child whose parent has joined the primary school as a parent volunteer not later than 1 Jul 2011 and has given at least 40 hours of voluntary service to the school by 30 Jun 2012ORFor a child whose parent is a member endorsed by the church/clan directly connected with the primary schoolORFor a child whose parent is endorsed as an active community leader
Phase 2C:
For all children who are eligible for Primary One in the following year and are not yet registered in a primary school
Phase 2C Supplementary:
For a child who is not yet registered in a school after Phase 2C

All the above are the phases for children who are Singapore citizens and Singapore Permanent Residents. However, if there are more students then vacancies in each individual phase (for example, there 40 vacancies for Phase 2B, but there are 50 applicants), students will be enrolled based on the priorities as stated below:

  1. Singapore Citizen living <1km
  2. Singapore Citizen living between 1-2km
  3. Singapore Citizen living >2km
  4. Permanent Citizen living <1km
  5. Permanent Citizen living between 1-2km
  6. Permanent Citizen living >2km

Primary One Registration

In other words, Singapore citizens living less than 1 km will fill up all the places, followed by Singapore citizens living between 1-2 km and so on and so forth. It is very possible that Permanent Citizens might not even get a chance!

It might also be possible that after enrolling all applicants in the earlier priority, the remaining applicants cannot fit into the number of vacancies in the current priority. For example, there are 6 vacancies left, but there are 8 applicants who are Permanent Citizens living less than 1 km away from the school. In cases like this, since they have the same priority, a ballot will take place.

How does one know if the school is less than 1km or more? Go to the OneMap SchoolQuery Service managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to look for information.

Finally, there is Phase 3 which are meant for children who did not get into any school based on the earlier phases. Children who are foreigners are also in this phase. If parents want to read up more information, please go to MOE’s Admissions webpage for more information.

Best of luck for your Primary One registration!

Social Mobility – How does it affect us?

Recently, the news has been abuzz with how education brings about social mobility. According to Dr. Ng Eng Hen, the Minister for Education, “If we look at those who lived in 1- to 3-room HDB flats at Primary 1, we find that 1 in 5 of these students score in the top-third in the PSLE and the same proportion, 1 in 5, score within the top one-third of every O- and A-Level cohort . Almost half eventually progress to our universities and polytechnics. More importantly, these outcomes have remained unchanged since the 80s.” Therefore, he argues that the poor students in Singapore have been given a chance to climb up the social ladder through education.

However, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minster for Finance, admits that with each cohort, the opportunity of moving up the social ladder becomes more difficult, especially those from poorer families. That was precisely because there was a great degree of social mobility in the past.

Straits Times journalist, Li Xue Ying also points out the difficulties the students from the lower socio-economic backgrounds face. She says, “Dr Ng had noted that ensuring social mobility “cannot mean equal outcomes, because students are inherently different”, but can it be that those from low-income families are consistently “inherently different” to such an extent?”

Regardless, it cannot be denied that social mobility has been achieved in the past. And it is still happening now. But why is it slowing down? And what can parents do about it?

Dr Irene Ng YH, an Assistant Professor at the NUS, seems to have the answer. She wrote in to the papers sharing that Singapore‘s intergenerational mobility is similar to that of the United States. The main reason, she suggests, is that countries with varied education systems tend to have low mobility. What are the implications for Singapore? Singapore seems to have moved from a universal system with a standardised curriculum to one where there are differentially priced schools offering varied curricula recently. And that might be one reason why social mobility has slowed down.

While I believe that are many factors that influence social mobility, let us explore if Dr Ng makes sense. In the past, the government had a more or less standardised curriculum. All the different language medium schools were nationalised. Even the supposedly different Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools took the ‘O’ Levels. However, in 1987, something changed. Some of the better schools were converted into independent schools. These schools enjoy autonomy in staff deployment and salaries, finance, management and curriculum, while continuing to enjoy substantial government financial support. In 2004, some of these schools started to offer the Integrated Programme (IP), a scheme which allows the most able secondary students in Singapore to bypass “O” levels and take “A” levels, International Baccalaureate or an equivalent examination directly at the age of 18 after six years of secondary education. By 2013, 18 secondary schools / junior colleges will be offering the IP. Therefore, it’s true that Singapore has moved away from standardised testing to a varied education system.

What’s the impact of this? Firstly, these elite schools will have less spaces for the ordinary students who did well for the ‘O’ levels because their intake is already made up of students from the IP. In other words, the importance of ‘O’ levels has been diminished. Secondly, the importance of the Primary Six Leaving Examinations (PSLE) has increased drastically. This is because it is even more important to enter these schools immediately after PSLE to do their IP programmes.

At RG Channel, we are not sure if the idea of taking International Baccalaureate is the best idea. Ultimately, it depends on the parents. But to be sure, the importance of PSLE has increased.