The expansion of the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme is problematic, because: first, attempting to assess resilience, character, and leadership qualities is frankly ludicrous; and second, the extension could lead to more intense competition, and deepen socio-economic inequalities. Over the week, much has been said about the impossibility of doing the former. One’s values and civic responsibility cannot be measured, and making comparisons vis-à-vis one’s counterparts is senseless. Interviews too can be gamed. Echoing American author Alfie Kohn’s landmark piece, “Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’”, Miss Sandra Davie (“Beware Pitfalls of Direct Admissions”, Aug. 25) explains that children should not grow up expecting cash or rewards for good behaviour. “It can send all the wrong signals”.
In the words of my friend: 12 is too young to take a very important academic examination, but apparently old enough to determine one’s character.
While the DSA was intended to reduce the anxiety associated with the primary school leaving examination, it would appear that the scheme could have had an opposite effect. At the application and selection stages, applicants are put through selection tests, camps, skill trials, and interviews. That is double the high-stakes assessment. It should come as no surprise that parents could pressure their young ones to perform, and the kid therefore spends the second half of their primary six lives preparing and stressing.
And not all families can afford to prepare and stress their child – at least financially. Since we want the DSA process to include non-academic accomplishments, parents with deeper pockets send their children to multiple enrichment sessions and training classes in the arts, music, or sports. The more we “standardise” or make an assessment system more “holistic”, the check-list lengthens for the zealous parents. Conflicting dates notwithstanding, the students from the more well-to-do households can maximise their chances by applying to multiple institutions. The application fees themselves (without financial aid) could also prove to be barriers to entry.
Then, what happens to the schoolchildren who cannot do the same? Is the primary school co-curricular system rigorous enough to allow the schoolchildren to develop their passions outside the classroom?
Because the DSA process is not centralised, very little details are known. I am certainly not advocating for the Ministry of Education (MOE) to take over (for schools can exercise discretion), but am contending that the release of more detailed figures and statistics from the (top) secondary schools could allow the administrators to evaluate the DSA more critically. And if we find that the admissions programme caters to the needs of the wealthier ones, will the DSA still be worth its expansion and existence? I doubt so.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.