The shame of dropping out of the Integrated Programme
Former Hwa Chong Institution student Edwin Chaw is not the only one to feel the "shame" of flunking the elite Integrated Programme.
In recent years, I have come across several such "IP dropouts", as one former Raffles Institution student described himself. Like Mr Chaw, many of them carry the shame of dropping out of the elite six-year scheme for years on end.
The better known their school, the deeper their shame.
Other than Mr Chaw, the dozen or so others who discussed their experience of dropping out of the IP with me did not want to be identified. They feared it would affect their career prospects.
Several also admitted that it would upset their parents who had encouraged and prepared them through primary school to aim for the popular programme that takes in those scoring 250 points and above for the PSLE - the top 10 to 15 per cent of the cohort.
It may take scores of close to 260 to make the grade at top schools such as RI, Hwa Chong, Nanyang Girls' School and Raffles Girls' School.
A small group also enters the IP schools through achievements in non-academic areas such as sports. They generally tend to have lower aggregate scores.
Two years ago, the Ministry of Education (MOE) revealed that about 6 per cent, more than 200, can be expected to drop out before they complete the six-year programme. MOE did not say how many of them had entered the IP schools based on non-academic achievements such as sports. Overall, in 2016, about 4,000 entered the programme at Secondary 1.
The 6 per cent who fail to complete the programme leave at different points, but generally after Secondary 4. There are some who switch to the O-level track in their school itself. Some move to less prestigious junior colleges or the polytechnics. There's also a small number who end up in private institutions such as the Singapore Institute of Management.
Several, like Mr Chaw, head overseas, mostly to Australia, to take up the nine-month foundation programme which enables them to then move on to the degree programme in universities such as Melbourne University and the University of New South Wales.
Those who fail to thrive in the IP fall into two groups. One group is made up of those who had enrolled in the IP through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme based on their co-curricular achievements.
The other group comprises those with PSLE scores well above 250. Many from this group say, in hindsight, that they were simply not suited for the IP. They needed a more structured programme and needed a major exam, like the O levels, to hunker down and study.
Asked why they felt "deep shame" over dropping out, several talked about the unhealthy obsession with grades that the IP school students develop. Several said this is especially extreme at RI and Hwa Chong.
Said a former RI student who went on to study for a business degree in a private school: "At RI, everyone was aiming for As. Bs at worst. Just having Bs and Cs, when my classmates were scoring As, really eroded my confidence."
When he left in JC1 to study at the Singapore Institute of Management, he met a group of former IP students. "We would keep to our small group and never admit that we came from the IP schools, because that would just raise more questions."
Another RI student, who had got into the school through his sporting talent, said he always tried to hide the fact that he got in through DSA.
"My PSLE score was very average. In school, those of us who got in through DSA are looked down upon. If you are really excelling in your sport, then that's not so bad, but if you start doing poorly in that as well, then you are really looked down upon. That really affected me and my grades suffered even more," said the student who went to a polytechnic and then headed overseas after national service.
He added: "When I was in poly, I would tell everyone that I chose to be there and hide the fact that I did poorly in JC1."
The other thing that comes through in talking to these former IP students is their deep sense of disappointment with themselves.
Many said the IP system breeds an obsession with grades and competing with their schoolmates.
Said a student from Hwa Chong: "I still remember a friend who scored perfect As, but he immediately went to find out how many others got perfect grades like him and there were more than 200 of them, and he cried because he felt he would not win the coveted PSC scholarship that he had aimed for."
Others, though, put the blame on themselves and their parents.
"In primary school, it was drummed into me by my parents - A was not good enough. It had to be A stars if I wanted to make it to RI. I started pushing myself to the point that I blanked out before the first PSLE paper," one student said.
Another recounted how he turned down a media interview when he entered RI through the DSA. "Everyone already knew I had entered through DSA; I didn't want to reveal how low my PSLE score was compared with the 260s and 270s."
I had written previously about the reluctance on the part of IP school students who had "DSAed" into IP schools. Several agreed to be interviewed only on condition that their PSLE aggregate scores were not mentioned.
The IP started in 2004 at eight schools, including the Raffles and Hwa Chong family of schools. It was targeted at the top 10 per cent of the PSLE cohort who were clearly university-bound.
The idea was to allow these students to skip the O levels and go straight to the A levels or International Baccalaureate. This way, their learning would not be stifled by having to prepare for two major examinations in six years. Instead, the seamless secondary and junior college education would develop their intellectual curiosity and other talents.
But the scheme - called the "through-train" programme for skipping the O levels - became so popular that pupils and parents clamoured to get on board.
More schools responded by offering the IP and it gave rise to tuition centres specialising in helping top students make the cut-off score for IP schools. Several centres also launched courses to prepare students for the DSA scheme, which allows all schools, including those offering the IP, to take into account other abilities, such as in sports or the arts.
Soon, other top secondary schools which were losing their best students to the IP also jumped on the IP bandwagon. There are now 18 schools offering the programme, although the schools that joined the scheme later offer both the O-level and IP tracks from Secondary 1.
But 14 years after the programme began, policymakers and educators face the prospect of the "through-train" IP having become a runaway train.
Educators and policymakers have to ask themselves: Does it still fulfil the original objective of allowing students the space to develop intellectual curiosity and joy for learning?