Friday 21 February 2020
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todayonline - 13 days ago

The Big Read in short: With subject-based banding, stigma be gone?

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the impact of subject-based banding in secondary schools including on reducing the stigma associated with streaming. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here. SINGAPORE — When Jocelyn Chia scored an aggregate of 181 for her Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), she left the school hall, result slip in hand, feeling disappointed. The annual national examination taken by students at the end of their primary school education determines the stream and secondary school they move on to. “I was aiming for the Express stream and I had expected to do better,” said the 16-year-old of her PSLE results four years ago. However, within a year after starting her secondary school education, Jocelyn found herself taking up two subjects — mother tongue and mathematics — at the Express level. The opportunity to do these subjects at a higher level despite being streamed into the Normal (Academic) course has allowed her to feel better about herself. “I don’t feel so bad being in N(A) anymore because I am still taking Express subjects,” said Jocelyn, who is currently a Secondary 4 N(A) stream student at Clementi Town Secondary School. FROM STREAMING TO SUBJECT-BASED BANDING Since 2014, the opportunity for Normal stream students like Jocelyn to take certain subjects at higher levels has become a reality — starting as a pilot in a dozen secondary schools, before being rolled out to all secondary schools across the island two years ago. As of this year, the subjects offered will be extended to the humanities at 25 pilot schools. This means that Sec 2 N(A) students in these schools who have performed well in literature, history or geography in Sec 1 may take these subjects at an Express level. The latest changes are part of the transition towards full subject-based banding, which will be implemented across secondary schools by 2024, when the decades-old streaming system will be scrapped. In full subject-based banding, subjects will be taught at three levels — General 1 (G1), G2 and G3. The three levels will roughly correspond to today’s Normal (Technical), N(A) and Express streams respectively. Students can take a range of G1, G2 and G3 subjects based on their abilities. They will then sit for a common examination in Sec 4 and graduate with a common secondary school certificate that is co-branded by Singapore and Cambridge. This will kick in for Sec 4 students from 2027. The other aspect of full subject-based banding is mixed-stream form classes, where students are drawn from a mix of Express, N(A) and N(T) streams. This is a departure from the current format of having students of the same streams in the same form class. Currently, 4,000 Sec 1 students are part of mixed-stream form classes that are being piloted in 15 secondary schools. Another 13 schools will introduce mixed-stream form classes by 2021, with the rest of the secondary schools here following suit in 2024. Students from Ping Yi Secondary School attending a class. Ping Yi Secondary School is one of the 28 pilot schools that will be implementing aspects of Full Subject-Based Banding (Full SBB) from 2020. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY In response to TODAY’s queries, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said that since subject-based banding was introduced in 2018, about 60 per cent of Sec 1 N(T) students and 40 per cent of Sec 1 N(A) students took up subjects at a higher level. Of these, about 6 per cent proceeded to take up more subjects at a demanding level in Sec 2. This does not include those who are laterally transferred to a more academically demanding course. MOE added that schools look at each student’s abilities carefully before offering them the opportunity to take up higher level subjects. They are also mindful that students need time to adjust to the demands of these subjects, the ministry added. As a result, only a small number of students stopped taking up one or more subjects at a more demanding level when they progress to Sec 2, said MOE. TODAY spoke to several secondary school students here and found that those who took subjects at a more demanding level were confident about holding their own against peers from “higher” streams. It also gave them an opportunity to shed the negative labels associated with their streams. Aldrick Au, a Sec 3 student from Evergreen Secondary School said that some of his friends’ parents had been disappointed when they ended up in the N(T) stream. N(T) students are stereotyped to be less academically-inclined than their peers and are sometimes assumed to be less disciplined. However, having the opportunity to take subjects at a higher level helped his friends prove to their parents that they were academically capable too. “That’s why I think subject-based banding is quite a good thing,” said Aldrick,15, who is in the N(T) stream but takes English and Science at N(A) level. “People won’t judge you for being a Normal (Technical) student. They won’t keep looking down on you.” MANAGING CLASS DYNAMICS The benefits of subject-based banding are clear for eligible Normal stream students taking on subjects at a higher level. But what about their classmates from the Express stream? Pei Hwa Secondary School’s teacher, Ms Lee Sixian, noted that having students from the Normal stream in their classes would instill humility in Express students. “When they realise someone can be stronger than them in a subject like English, it opens up the eyes of these students who think they are better at everything. They realise there are people in other streams who have strengths and weaknesses in different things,” said the 27-year-old who teaches geography and English. Still, some educators felt that teaching students from different streams within the same class also means that they have to put in more effort in ensuring that everybody can keep up with the pace of the class. They spoke of the need for “differentiated teaching” to suit the different pace and abilities of students in a class. This could mean more guiding questions during class time or in worksheets to help students along. Other techniques employed by teachers involve increasing group work in classes so that students who are faster can help the others along. For some teachers, however, one problem lies in managing the class dynamics. An English teacher who declined to be named as she was not authorised to speak with the media said it was challenging to teach a class of mixed-stream students. The teacher, who has been teaching English to mixed-stream classes at N(A) level for the last two years, said that classes could be hampered by the way students from the different streams interacted with each other. She said: “When you go in as a subject teacher, you don’t have much time to do bonding activities with the class and you have to get on with lessons. The students are very cliquish and difficult to break, so I have to do a lot of cooperative activities to make the students of different streams mingle.” The move towards full subject-based banding is part of the Government’s efforts to overcome some drawbacks of school streaming, such as pinning negative labels on students. Photo: TODAY file photo History teacher Ms Ranice Tan Pan Ying, 28, from Pei Hwa Secondary School has one student from N(A) sitting in with other students from the Express stream in her history class. To help the N(A) student integrate better, she has the student seated in class next to her friends from her co-curricular activity and checks in regularly with the student to make sure she is keeping up with lessons. MOVING AWAY FROM LABELS Principals and teachers alike say they are optimistic about the attempt to remove labels and the stigma associated with different streams. With form classes set to have students from different streams as well, the schools piloting full subject-based banding are confident that it will boost social mixing among those from various educational backgrounds. However, Associate Professor Jason Tan Eng Thye, from the policy, curriculum and leadership department at the National Institute of Education, noted that should societal mindset and attitudes remain unchanged, subject-based banding could still result in stigma on students based on the bands they take. While the move to sort out students according to bands of G1, G2 and G3 is not “as rigid as streaming”, Assoc Prof Tan said that labelling of students could still take place. “Our society, unfortunately, still attaches more prestige to what they perceive as more academically demanding courses or programmes,” said Assoc Prof Tan. “It remains an uphill battle to change societal attitudes in that respect, so that taking less academically demanding bands aren’t seen as inferior,” he added. Ms Jennifer, an English teacher who declined to give her full name as she was not authorised to speak with the media, is more optimistic. She believes that society is gradually grasping the intent of subject-based banding, and that the current generation of young parents may be less quick to label students according to their academic abilities. In full subject-based banding, subjects will be taught at three levels — General 1 (G1), G2 and G3. The three levels will roughly correspond to today’s N(T), N(A) and Express streams respectively. Students can take a range of G1, G2 and G3 subjects based on their abilities. Photo: TODAY file photo Under the new system where students take a combination of G1, G2 and G3 subjects, it will also be harder to stigmatise a child, she said. “People will no longer have a handle to label kids because every child has a unique suite of G1, G2 and G3 bands over many subjects,” she added. However, in order to eradicate labelling, subject-based banding must be accompanied with other measures rolled out by MOE — such as the removal of mid-year examinations for Sec 1 and Sec 3 students. Taken together, these moves emphasise the building of values among students, instead of just memorising facts and regurgitating them during exams.


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