By Liew Wei Li, Director-General of Education
Photo from Ministry of Education, Singapore
It is three weeks into the new school term, and the June holidays are likely to be a pleasant memory in the recollections of many families. For some households though, the June holidays may have had a little less holiday cheer.
As an educator for more than 25 years, I have heard of parents taking time off work and students taking up extra coaching during the school holidays in the year of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) – making it almost a whole-family affair. In fact, intensive revision for some students starts earlier than June.
For many parents, the anxiety is contagious. When you hear of how some parents support their children, you may feel conscious or troubled that you have not done as much. I myself have two children, and despite being an educator who is familiar with the design of examinations and the support schools and teachers provide to our students, I am still not immune. Frankly, that is why I exited the parent WhatsApp group chats for both my children.
In terms of national examinations, the PSLE seems to attract the most stress. Oddly enough, the GCE N, O and A level examinations are more difficult whether we judge by examination demand, percentage of higher-order questions or grades. Perhaps it has to do with the secondary schools we hope our children will be able to progress to, or that the PSLE papers are more accessible to us as parents. It could also be that our children are still at an age where many parents, myself included, are still learning to let go.
In 2021, our society was all abuzz when it was reported that some children returned home crying about the “Helen and Ivan” question after the PSLE Mathematics paper. At the heart of the matter, no parent ever wishes for their child to become disappointed while in the pursuit of their goals. As parents, we wish to multiply our children’s joys, whilst protecting them from adversities and hurt. Yet we cannot shield them from all the difficulties and setbacks that they may face in life. Tests and examinations, just like sports or arts competitions, are some early opportunities for us to teach our children about courage, and having the resilience and determination, to work towards our goals.
To journey with our children, I put on my educator’s hat to help us understand the purpose of examinations, and how they are designed. Take heart. No teacher nor exam-setter ever sets out to inflict stress.
Explaining Examinations: The PSLE standards are kept consistent through the years.
While in recent years, specific mathematics problems have been the centre of public discussion and debate, such questions are actually few and far between within the examination. It is important to remember that the overall standard of any examination paper is determined by the mix of questions as a whole, and not by just the “Helen and Ivan” question for that year.
In Singapore, the PSLE is kept at a consistent standard of difficulty across the years. This standard is maintained by capping the proportion of questions that are classified as “challenging” at 15% each year. What this means is that there will only be a few challenging questions set each year, making up about 15 marks of the paper.
Hence, the PSLE is designed to cater to students of different abilities. The majority of questions are accessible to most students, with a small number of questions allowing stronger students to demonstrate their mastery of the subject.
Explaining Examinations: The PSLE provides information on how much our children have learnt.
As a checkpoint at the end of primary school, the PSLE provides us with a snapshot of learning—to take stock of where the child is, in terms of learning, and what their individual strengths and weaknesses are.
It is worthwhile to remember that with the new PSLE Achievement Level (AL) scoring system, every child’s AL is truly a reflection of their own mastery of the subject. There is no bell curve, and no quotas imposed on the number of students for each AL band. In fact, because the majority of students find the PSLE standards manageable, their scores are often distributed towards the higher end, with almost 50% of students achieving 75 marks or more (AL4 or better) across all PSLE subjects.
Cohort performance aside, at the end of the day, every parent wants our child to have options. The PSLE results provide crucial information on the kind of educational choices that are suitable for our children, based on their current abilities. They help us guide our children to make appropriate secondary school and subject-level choices.
Pursue Progress, not Perfection
The PSLE is both a common and personal experience for many. Some may even go so far as to say that journeying with their children through the PSLE, and receiving their results with them, is a rite of passage for many Singaporean parents.
I have gone through the PSLE twice as a parent myself. One of my children struggled with learning Mathematics. She wanted to learn by herself and I respected her wish and determination. One day while doing her maths revision, she broke down and cried. I hugged her and said that no matter her grades, we would always love her unconditionally. Her positive attitude and diligence towards learning was good enough. I took her for a walk to get her favourite yoghurt, and left off the revision exercise until she was ready to pick it up again.
I am glad that her PSLE score guided us to schools that were paced right for her. It was her wonderful mathematics teacher in secondary school that helped her overcome her fear of the subject and even gave her the confidence to take Additional Mathematics in upper secondary. When we praise and encourage our children for the effort they put in, our children may start to see that learning and progress are more important than grades or achieving the perfect result.
With the implementation of Full Subject-Based Banding in secondary schools from 2024, and the expansion of multiple post-sec pathways, there will be many more opportunities for each student to grow and blossom at their own pace, throughout their education journey.
The PSLE is an important checkpoint, but we cannot let it consume us. If we attach too much significance to the examination, it will grow to become a trial of frightening disproportions, and our children will be daunted and afraid.
Ultimately, when schools, teachers, and parents, role model the right perspectives and attitudes towards such milestones, our children will learn to build the resilience they need to face challenges in the future. Every setback is a learning opportunity; every mistake a second chance we give to ourselves. Our children’s long-term growth matters more than the short-term results. Let us spur them on to be better versions of themselves—versions that you and I can be proud of.
This article was first carried on the Linkedin page of the Director-General of Education Ms Liew Wei Li