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Monday, July 18, 2016

Changes & Choices: The Primary School Consideration

There was a burning question that was at the back of our mind; it had been there for awhile, since the beginning of the year, but it grew more and more pronounced as the dates grew nearer. Then about a few weeks ago, the question came to the forefront of our consciousness, as the dates of the Primary One Registration drew nearer: Should we enrol our older son Z into Primary One? 

Yes we had made the decision to homeschool our kids even before either of them arrived; and yes we have been preparing ourselves mentally and emotionally to start the application process that could get Z exempted from compulsory education. But the question was especially difficult since I had come from a wonderful school with a rich history and a strong Christian tradition. What if my sons "lose out" from experiencing the education that I had gone through? After all, it could do no harm if we just showed up at my Alma Mater during the Phase 2A stage of the Primary One Registration Process, and secured my son a place there. We could always change our minds and chosen to reject the offer later. 

Even as I write this article, my senses are rife with the deep emotional bonds I have had with my old school. Our school spirit is so strong that if any alumnus was to spontaneously stand up and to sing the school anthem in the middle of a crowded auditorium, that every other old boy in the room would also rise up and join him! It is a common identity that we share as old boys, based on many precious shared memories; and this deep "patriotism" often translates into strong networking ties among us former students, long after we had graduated from the school. 
Our older son's Classical Conversations homeschooling community.
This will be his alma mater!
The younger son learning how to make paints from natural substances.
Here he is conscientiously pounding chalk to create our own paints.
Yet there are other considerations besides "school spirit"; and one major decision was whether we wanted our children to be part of the education system that we had grown up with. And that answer was for us a unanimous "No!"

Consider the recent revamp of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). As educationalists, we were hopeful when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the system was going to be changed during a previous year's National Day Rally speech. Although we had hoped for the entire exam to be scrapped, but we felt that there was at least going to be some hope for the future of our children. However the Ministry of Education (MOE) announcement this week on the new Achievement Level (AL) system left both Sue and I feeling very disappointed.
The boys embarking on nature studies on their own accord. What better way for
kids to learn than to get them interested in their own pursuits?
While there were changes in the way students are assessed, from a peer-benchmarked system to an individually-assessed system, many of the PSLE's fundamental principles remain the same.

From our perspective as parents, and as educationalists who work with many academically weak students, we are most concerned with the narrow mark discrimination between the top bands as well as the huge mark range in the middle. 

For starters, the term "Achievement Level" is something we are not comfortable with. The PSLE revamp was intended to help foster a more holistic education system and help reduce stress among children taking the exam. How does a Level indicator bring about these changes? Especially since it portrays a myopic mindset regarding the efforts of students, diminishing their value to that of a mere number, and negating the more holistic considerations that an education brings. And what about students who do not score well in their academics? Does it mean that they have failed to "achieve" success in their education?

Considering the new system in greater detail, the narrow mark discrimination in the upper bands will result in an increased level of anxiety among parents and children, causing them to be pressured upwards towards a higher AL, especially since there is an illusory perception that it might be easier numerically to push a child from a Band 3 to a Band 2 as compared to a corresponding movement from Band 6 to Band 5. MOE's reply that the "majority" of students do well in the PSLE is also not comforting, given the many students we meet in our day-to-day work. These are not the top elite in Singapore, who lose sleep over the catastrophe that they did not make Band 1. These are the common majority, who struggle just to "pass" their exams, and to hopefully carve out a better future for themselves. We fear that the new system will not work for them, and that they will get further frustrated trying to better themselves from a Band 6 to a Band 5 and from a Band 5 to a Band 4. 

But education is not just about grades and academic achievement. I can understand the MOE's preoccupation with assessment and about channeling students from one academic stream to another. While the concept of academic meritocracy and achievement levels seems at odds with another idea that "every school is a good school", the PSLE does serve its function of streaming students into their allocated "lot" in life. In that respect, the normal curve effect of the new PSLE assessment will be effective. Top students will get into institutions of their choice. But these choices will be closed off for most of those in the lower academic strata of society, who will be banded into schools that they did not choose. That, to me, is the saddest part of the entire exercise. We seem to have headed back to the beginning of this entire PSLE rigamarole. 
Our younger son's fascination with the Venus Fly Trap first occurred during a nature hike
when he saw his first carnivorous plant. Now he is extremely interested in the mechanisms
of how plants are actually able to trap and digest insects.
Our older son will be of Primary School age next year. And as much as it is tempting to consider an option where he enters the school of my childhood, Sue and I both feel that the education system as a whole is not something we want him to be part of. 

Education should not all be about grades and assessment, and little Z would have been thrown right into such a system if he entered a mainstream school next year. 
"Mummy, can we do school?" asks the little boy. And this question has been asked on so many
different occasions;  not only at home in the afternoons,
but also during our travels overseas - in a busy shopping mall, and in our hotel room.
This is truly the essence of what a holistic approach to education should be all about!
We know that we are blessed to be able to even consider the choice of homeschooling our children, an option that not every parent is able to consider from a financial point of view; and for that we are grateful.

Since we have been given the privilege of making such a choice, we will aspire for our school to be about learning and about creativity; about exploring and about adventure. It will be about character-development and about resilience-building. And our school will be fun; for that is the premise that will drive our kids towards a stronger desire to learn; and towards having an education of a lifetime!