Secondary school streaming in Singapore to be abolished in 2024

Students playing an informal game of volleyball at Edgefield Secondary School in Singapore. After about four decades since it was introduced, the Education Ministry will scrap streaming in 2024 and replace it with subject-based banding. — TODAY pic
Students playing an informal game of volleyball at Edgefield Secondary School in Singapore. After about four decades since it was introduced, the Education Ministry will scrap streaming in 2024 and replace it with subject-based banding. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, March 6 — In five years’ time, there will be no such thing as an Express or Normal stream student in Singapore.

After about four decades since it was introduced, the Education Ministry (MOE) will scrap streaming in 2024 and replace it with subject-based banding.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who announced this yesterday during a debate on his ministry’s budget in Parliament, also revealed that from 2027, students will no longer sit for the GCE O-Level or N-Level examinations, but take a common national examination and certification.

This will lead to changes to post-secondary admissions, he said, but the details are still being ironed out.

The pupils who are in Primary 2 today will be the first to go through a streaming-free secondary school education.

Ong told the House: “This change will help us to customise education for students, while minimising the effect of labelling and stigmatisation. It will encourage a growth mindset amongst all our students.

“We are breaking out of a dilemma that we have been grappling with for so many years.”

When secondary streaming is removed, it will mark the end of the practice in Singapore’s education system. Primary school streaming — where students were categorised into EM1, EM2 and EM3 — was done away with in 2008.

TODAY walks you through how the changes will affect students from the time they enter secondary school and after they leave.

Entering a streaming-free secondary education

Students and parents will likely question how this move will affect secondary school admission, especially as this comes on top of an upcoming revamp of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which takes effect in 2021.

The short answer is: There will be no impact.

Based on their PSLE scores, students will be placed into three bands that correspond to the Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams.

Ong said that the MOE concluded that “it is better not to disrupt” the current secondary posting system.

“This means that secondary schools should continue to admit students across three PSLE scoring bands, even though the streams have been merged,” he added.

He also pointed out that the PSLE still “serves as a useful initial gauge” of the subject level that students are most suited for.

A subject-based banding system

There will be a new secondary school curriculum, wherein each subject will be categorised into three tiers — General 1 (G1), General 2 (G2), and General 3 (G3).

The G1 level will correspond to today’s N(T) standard, G2 to N(A) standard, and G3 to Express.

As students will be placed into three bands when they enter secondary schools, it means that a student in the band that corresponds to Express, for instance, will take up subjects at the G3 level.

Those in the second and third bands will take their subjects mostly at the G2 or G1 level.

But from the start of Secondary 1, students of the lower bands will still be able to take subjects such as English, mother tongue, math and science at higher levels, if their PSLE subject scores qualify them to do so.

For example: A student is placed in the second band which corresponds to N(A). But based on her PSLE results, she meets the qualifying score to take up math at a G3 level.

So, the student can take G3 level math, while taking all other subjects at a G2 level.

This approach continues when students move on to Sec 2 and beyond, based on their academic results in the respective subjects.

Rolling out subject-based banding fully means students will also be able to take humanities subjects — literature, geography and history — at different levels from Sec 2.

And in the future, they will be able to do so in subjects such as additional math or mobile robotics.

If a student is unable to cope with a G3 level subject at Sec 2, she can choose to take a subject at a G2 or G1 level. However, the student will be guided and given extra support first.

Grouping students differently

The abolition of streaming will mean that the concept of a “form class” will also have to change. Currently, form classes are based on students’ streams.

But as the different streams will no longer exist, schools can shape form classes based on students’ co-curricular activities, strengths in particular subjects, or project groups, the MOE said in a statement.

To prepare for the transition to a streaming-free secondary school education, the full subject-based banding will be piloted in 25 schools next year before it is progressively rolled out to all schools by 2024.

The MOE has yet to finalise the list of schools, but TODAY understands some of them will include those that participated in the very first trial of subject-based banding in 2014.

Schools that will be part of the list also include those that have started to group students not based on their streams but other factors such as the Co-Curricular Activities (CCA). One of them is Edgefield Secondary School in Punggol.

Ong alluded that there could still be scepticism over the subject-based banding system in secondary education, noting that there were similar sentiments when primary school streaming was removed and replaced with subject-based banding in 2008.

He recalled some of the sceptics' questions: “What’s the difference between streaming and subject-based banding? It’s old wine in a new bottle. You merely changed the labels of EM1, 2, 3 to new subject labels called Higher, Standard and Foundation!”

However, there is a “big difference”, he said.

“Streaming separates education into different courses, and we place students into each course. So each course is like a big jar,” said Ong.

“You can put different cookies into the jar, but when you label the jar as pineapple tarts, all the goodies in it get labelled too, accurately or inaccurately.”

But subject-based banding demolishes the jar altogether, he said.

“Essentially, we break the jar, students come out of it, take subjects of varying difficulty, based on their academic ability. Taking one or two subjects at the Foundation level does not label the child. And equally important, it encourages students to find their strengths.”

According to the MOE, there have been positive results after subject-based banding was rolled out to all secondary schools last year.

About 60 per cent of Sec 1 Normal (Technical) students and about 40 per cent of Sec 1 Normal (Academic) students took subjects at a higher level last year.

The controversy around streaming

Ong noted that streaming was introduced “during the ‘efficiency-driven’ phase of the education system in the 1980s and 1990s”, when the government was concerned about “the huge number of dropouts who could not read or write at the end of primary school”.

“We had to move away from a one-size-fits-all education system because if a student could not catch up with their lessons, they would lose interest and drop out,” he said.

Streaming customised education according to the learning rates of students and has successfully reduced school attrition rates from about a one-third of every cohort in the 1970s to less than 1 per cent today, he added.

However, he noted, there are some downsides to streaming too.

“Streaming assumed that students needed a certain pace of learning in all their subjects, whereas many students, in fact, have uneven strengths across different subjects,” he said.

More importantly, entering a stream that is considered “lower” can carry a certain stigma or be self-limiting, Ong added.

“Students can develop a mindset where they tell themselves: ‘I am only a Normal stream student, so this is as good as I can be.’”

On Monday, some Members of Parliament also highlighted the pitfalls of streaming, saying that it affects students’ self-esteem and limits their potential in areas where they have the ability to stretch themselves.

Now that streaming is being scrapped, Ong said: “So from three education streams, we will now have ‘One secondary education, many subject bands’.”

“We will no longer have fishes swimming down three separate streams, but one broad river, with each fish negotiating its own journey.” — TODAY