During the two OSC sessions on education (here), the common issue of streaming in primary school featured during the conversations. The present streaming mechanism is quite different from that of 5 years ago, when primary school students were divided to the EM1, EM2, and EM3 streams in Primary 5. There have been adjustments since 2008; now, they take higher, standard or foundation subjects based on their scores in the Primary 4 examinations (although anecdotally, the OSC participants reflected that stereotypes still persisted).
Most were not against the concept of streaming per se. Pragmatically in the classroom, it would be easier for an educator to handle – and design pedagogies for – a class of students with similar aptitudes or mastery of the subject. Many would conveniently cite the Finland example of no student ranking and purported egalitarianism (here), but Singapore does not enjoy the same student-to-teacher ratio (here); and even if we did ease these structural or institutional shortcomings (the student-to-teacher ratio is decreasing), there are practical benefits (without precluding the opportunities for cross-class interactions). The syllabus can be customised, and the schoolchildren and teachers would gain the most.
Nonetheless, I do agree that we have allowed labels to manifest unhealthily. Some might posit that such labels are inevitable in any system that classifies its members, but Singapore’s version of streaming in the primary schools is based on grades or results from the examinations. Insofar as we concur that one’s scholastic performance should not define who he or she as a person (idealistic, yes, but it is the general vision that the present education system is geared towards), then this separation practised in our schools – which offers greater productivity – should not be frowned upon.
The Value of Subject Banding
In other words, streaming should be a tool for optimisation, not discrimination. We should be critical of the arrangement (or more specifically, the perceptions) when parents or administrators perpetuate unjustified associations. When I was younger (and I sure hope it is not the case now), whenever some teachers addressed the cohort as a whole, he would make remarks along the lines of “(EM1 class), aren’t you supposed to be the most well-behaved?” or “(EM3 class), what a surprise, all of you are so quiet and attentive today!”
In 2008, with the removal of the antiquated EM1-2-3 system, the Ministry of Education (MOE) took streaming in a different direction. During the OSC exchanges, it was generally agreed upon that subject-based banding was a good move, because it presented streaming less insidiously, and allowed schools to deploy manpower and resources more effectually. Without discouraging inter- and intra-class interactions, students can then learn at their own pace, and strengthen interest in the subjects they may be proficient in.
In a broader sense, we have been moving beyond academic accomplishment as the sole benchmark for success, and while it seems like we might be on the right path, many concerned parents are cognisant of the shortcomings of alternative pathways, and the stiff competition for entrance into specialised institutions. Moreover, for streaming to be effective in the first place, modes of assessments should be designed intelligently, and not allow present modes of rote memorisation and regurgitation to continue. The MOE has experimented with more creative ways of assessing Primary 1 and 2 students in certain institutions (here and here), but how has it worked out? These two concerns are important, and definitely deserve commentaries of their own.