Streaming, or the separation of students into different categories (‘streams’) is a prominent feature of the Singapore education system. Much debated upon and used as an attack on the ruling party, streaming is one of the most controversial, yet in many ways the most successful part of Singapore’s unique education system.
Streaming in itself is not an alien concept. Similar attempts to establish this system in the United States of America have met with strong opposition, as it is perceived to be undemocratic and unfair. Streaming in many other countries is not official, national policy, but rather under municipal governments or in the form of stratification of school standards (also present, in addition to streaming). Singapore, with its unique characteristics and unique needs, had led to the establishment of the streaming system in 1984 under the People’s Action Party Government. It persists today, with some medications.
The Gifted Education Stream, reserved only for the academically and intellectually gifted, will be dealt with in a separate article.
The rationale behind streaming is to allow the system to cater best to the needs of each student according to his or her academic ability, preventing a scenario where the best students are bored by a standard curriculum, and the weakest students struggle to pass. Such reasoning makes perfect sense in Singapore’s context, but why do people still object to its existence fully 22 years down the road? Let us take a closer look at the substance of these objections.
Streaming has been blamed for inducing excessive and unnecessary stress in students, who compete furiously to enter the prestigious GEP or Special streams. Vast amounts of tuition, ‘mugging’ (a term used to describe repeatedly, excessive study), and the resultant stress are part of the lives of many students in the education system. It may seem that the evils of streaming are all too obvious, but are they?
Streaming was founded on the belief that students are not born equal in terms of intellectual and academic capability. In other words, there is no reason to think that every student would score the same marks with the same amount of work. Hence, the streaming system exists to separate the students, so that the academically stronger students would be challenged by a more rigorous course, whereas weaker students are given more time and guidance in their learning. Bearing that in perspective, what is the point of a weaker student overstressing himself and making it into a stream meant for students of higher ability? He would not benefit from the more rigorous curriculum as he would simply be struggling to keep up. It is all but a burden to him, as well as the system. What lies at the heart of the stress problem is ultimately the over competitive mindset of Singaporeans. Stress and its associated causes and effects will be dealt with in a separate article.
Streaming has also been perceived as a form of social class stratification, where the GEP would go on to be leaders in whatever fields they might enter, be it government, medicine, science or anything, where the Special students would go on to earn university degrees and seek well-paid soft collar jobs, and the Express students would go on to Polytechnics and serve as associate professionals and clerical workers, and the Normal stream students would end up as technicians, hawkers, and road sweepers. While such an observation is generally true, what has drawn criticism to the streaming system is the perception that it limits the students’ potentials. Success stories featuring Normal (Technical) students eventually heading to university or becoming successful entrepreneurs often make front page in the papers, add strength to their objections.
However, it must not be forgotten that out of the thousands of those in the Normal stream in each cohort, a scant few make it to university. They are exceptions, and must be recognized as that. The streaming system is efficient – it allows the appropriate allocation of resources and adoption of the right teaching methods for the right students, and provides learning environments more suited to the individual student. From a national perspective, the benefits are but all too obvious. Whatever discontent the streaming system causes is not in its principles – but rather the private frustrations of students and their parents. Unsurprisingly, the strongest objections come from the parents of students who could not make it to the stream of their choice. Unfortunately, the competitive and proud mindset of a Singaporean seldom allows him or her to acknowledge his or her place in society, and hence this debate will continue.
It must be noted that the government has recently abolished the distinction between primary school students reading higher mother tongue and those reading normal level mother tongue. This is undoubtedly in response to public demand. While this change may be cosmetic, it is a sign that an effective policy in place for decades is unfolding in face of opposition from a selfish and unenlightened public. There are going to be dark times ahead for the education system of Singapore.