Learning to be divided by education

by hexacoto

I was explaining the Singapore education system to my friend from the States, and it turned out to be quite complicated:

For primary education (elementary school), we have a compulsory six years.

In secondary education (middle school), we have either a four-year program (Special/Express), or a four/five-year program (Normal Academic/Technical).

For post-secondary education (high school), we have either a two-year grammar school (Junior college), a three-year grammar school (Centralised Institute) or three-year vocational diploma program (Polytechnic). There is also a vocational institute known as the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

I was telling my friend about how children are subject to segregation by ability from as young as third grade. In third grade, we had to take a test to see if we could be admitted into the “Gifted” stream, comprising the top 1% of the student population. These students get to be schooled in an environment full of other “gifted” kids, where they probably develop mutant powers.  I did not make it into “Gifted,” most likely because I wasn’t very gifted. I was kind of distraught to learn that I wasn’t gifted.

In fourth grade, we had our first serious, proper national-level examination that would ‘stream’ us into various ability bands. There was EM1, for kids who were ‘smart,’ EM2, for average kids (this band had the widest spectrum), and EM3, for kids who needed assistance with their studies. Needless to say everyone strove for EM1, and EM3 kids were given the snub. Elitism ran rampant amongst students and especially parents, even to the extent that some parents wouldn’t want their EM1 kids to hang out with EM3 kids. The Singapore government probably realised how divisive such a system was, and subsumed EM3 into EM2, but everyone knows EM3 still exists, and the last few classes of EM2 are the new de facto EM3. I didn’t make it into EM1, and I was kind of distraught to learn that I wasn’t smart enough for it.

At the end of primary school, at sixth grade, students take their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which is scored out of 300. The score determines which secondary school a student can enter. More prestigious schools would have cut-offs at perhaps 250 or so, while less discriminating schools took in students at lower scores. In secondary school, there are multiple tracks. In “Special,” students take a four-year program with the option to take higher Mother Tongue or a third language. “Express” students take a four-year program without the language perks, and both “Special” and “Express” culminate in taking the ‘O’ Level examinations. There is the “Normal” track, divided into two types, “Normal (Academic)” where students take a five-year program, taking the ‘N’ Level on the fourth year, with the option for the ‘O’ Level on the fifth, and “Normal (Technical)” students take a four-year program with more technical subjects such as woodworking and finish up with the ‘N’ Level. I made it into “Express,” but I was kind of distraught to learn that I wasn’t “special.”

Finally, we get to post-secondary education, where there’s a two-year and three-year grammar school (Junior College and Centralised Institute respectively), or a three-year vocational diploma at a Polytechnic or a two-year vocational course at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). Entry into any of these post-secondary institutions require the ‘O’ or ‘N’ levels, and specifically for the JC, CI and Polytechnics, the ‘O’ levels (‘O’ levels stand for “Ordinary” levels, ‘N’ stands for “Normal”). Getting into grammar school is pretty competitive, as there are only 16 of them in the entire country of a population of 5.5 million. Many who do not go into grammar school usually go to a Polytechnic. However, the difference between grammar school and vocational institutes is that the majority of seats in university are more or less set aside for grammar school students, where perhaps 65-70% of the student body makes it into university, as opposed to perhaps 10% from a polytechnic. Thus, for those who wish to end up in college, the pressure to enter a grammar school is really high, unless one is really confident of being on top of the cohort in polytechnic. Even then, to get to enter college a year earlier is certainly a boon for those set on entering college.

But even within grammar schools and polytechnics, they are not ranked equally. We have what is informally known as ‘elite’ junior colleges and ‘neighbourhood’ junior colleges, where the junior colleges with more stringent entry requirements tend to produce more stellar students who get to go farther and further.

‘Elite’ junior colleges tend to have resources to prepare their students prepare for further education anywhere, even overseas, while most ‘neighbourhood’ junior college students are more or less expected to stay local. Not that local universities are any bad, but when you’re talking about the reaching the limits of Oxbridge and the Ivies, most ‘neighbourhood’ JC students would never even dream of such endeavours.

I only made it into a ‘neighbourhood’ JC, having come from a ‘neighbourhood’ secondary school as well, and today, there is no distress — I have come to hold it as a badge of honour.

Despite my odds of never having been ‘gifted,’ ‘special,’ or ‘elite,’ I have been able to, through dogged determination, been able to hold ranks with those who have achieved those labels.