PSLE not a good guide to success in life's race
One of my father's mantras when I was a boy was to warn me that if I did not study hard, I might end up as a bus driver.
It did not really work. The thought of driving a big, shiny bus, roaming where you will without a care in the world, did not seem all that unappealing to my young mind.
Some years later, however, when I pronounced that I wanted to be an airplane pilot, my parents sighed in relief, I am told. They were glad that their attempts to spur their children on academically seemed to have paid off.
Going by the dramatic developments of the past week, with Singapore's first strike in decades led by some bus drivers over pay and living conditions, I suppose I should be thankful for their efforts.
Yet, when I cast my mind back to my primary school days, I seem to suffer selective amnesia. I simply cannot remember how I did in the Primary School Leaving Examination.
Amid the national kerfuffle over this precious number, I don't seem to know how I fared then. Try as I may to rack my brain, it just does not come. I have tried asking my parents. I have checked with my friends. But no luck.
A helpful colleague told me that perhaps the reason for this might be that I never was told the number.
Back in those days when I sat the Primary 6 exam, you simply picked a few secondary schools, took the tests, and waited to be told which school you were assigned to.
As I was from St Michael's Primary, I naturally chose St Joseph's Institution as my top choice, along with several others close to the flat in Toa Payoh where we lived.
I was not the most diligent of pupils at that age, and what I recall most about my time in primary school was the football games my friends and I enjoyed - before and after class, during recess and just about any other time we could find to kick a ball about the huge school field.
I got into SJI. So did most of my friends, although we were split up into different classes. Some went to 1A1, others 1A9.
It did not bother us too much, since we could still meet in school during the day, and make trips together to check out the new-found attractions around us in Bras Basah Road, if you see what I mean.
It all seems light years away when you contrast it with the situation today, when the PSLE has taken on such significance that no less than the Prime Minister has had to come out to urge parents not to view it as the be-all and end-all for their children.
How did this happen?
Ironically, part of the reason for this was an attempt by the authorities to ease exam stress for some of our secondary school students, by allowing them to skip the O-level examinations and go directly on to taking their A levels.
In one of those unintended policy outcomes, the upshot of this was to make a place on the so-called "through-train" in one of the better-regarded secondary schools highly sought after. Once you were on board, you were set up for the fast track to junior college, university, maybe a scholarship, a good job, and a blissful life ever after, or so many imagine.
Those who didn't saw doors shutting rapidly in their paths. Naturally, parents worried for their charges, and anxieties built up. Indeed, one parent declared to me recently, in all seriousness, that failure to make the cut at age 12 would mean her child's life would be "ruined forever". The going would just get tougher by the year in Singapore's relentless rat race, she insisted.
Calls to scrap or review the PSLE are therefore popular with many.
But the implications of doing so are not likely to be as well-received. Removing the PSLE will mean that the selection process for secondary school will become more opaque and less meritocratic. Competition for access to the most sought-after schools will begin earlier, perhaps going all the way to Primary 1, with parents striving to get their precious ones into a school of their choice, based on their past or present connections or contributions to the school.
Getting into a school of choice at age six would then be the ticket for a through-train to an affiliated secondary school, junior college and beyond.
You can almost see it coming: the murmuring on the ground that so and so got into a top school because of his surname or connections, the colour of his skin, or how big a cheque his father could write.
Even the less radical suggestion - that the PSLE be retained but with results presented as broad bands instead of being so finely calibrated, so that schools could take in a wider range of students - while inherently sensible, is not likely to come without side-effects, intended or otherwise.
While such an approach would make for a more inclusive environment in some top schools - something that most would hail - let us not pretend that places in these schools are unlimited. For every child taken in because of some non-academic attribute, another who has done better in his exams will have to be left out. His parents are not likely to be placated by lofty appeals to the wider good.
The Education Ministry's answer to this is to try to convince parents that every school in Singapore is a good school. Most dispassionate observers - including many foreign educators - might agree. Or at the very least, they would accept that we are making progress towards this ideal every year, given the way resources and efforts have not been spared to upgrade the school system over the years.
Be that as it may, even if all schools are good ones, some will always be better - or rather, more sought after - with many parents simply going by the wisdom of crowds. As with hawkers and properties - the longer the queue, the better it must be.
Without the PSLE or some such as leveller, lesser-known schools will struggle to shine against the more established brand names.
In its effort to avoid the kind of stress-inducing comparisons that are often made among schools, the Education Ministry decided, rather too abruptly and without enough preparing of the ground, to impose a news blackout on the top pupils in this year's PSLE.
Its intentions might have been good but the outcome was a bit of a farce. When school principals start telling 12-year-olds that their exam scores are a secret and a schoolboy declares he cannot disclose how he did because "the minister says cannot say", you sense that something has gone quite wrong. Even tuition centres, which used to trumpet how they helped improve students' performances, have grown coy for fear of incurring the wrath of the good folks in Buona Vista.
Clearly, as a society, we have gone overboard with this frenzy over exam scores.
Making these results something to be whispered about - or hunted down on the Internet - only reinforces in many people's minds how seriously this is to be taken. In my view, anxiety and ignorance are never helped by a blanket of darkness. Far better to shed more light.
So, while a review of the school examination and allocation system is necessary, I believe that all the tweaking in the world will not be sufficient if the authorities do not succeed in shifting public thinking on just what we are trying to do with the schooling of our young.
The Education Ministry is going to have to embark on a national conversation of sorts to engage parents, in addition to educating their children. Many suggestions have been made on how best to move forward, from tweaking admissions and scholarship criteria to celebrating those who succeed despite the odds and in unconventional ways.
But most of all, it will have to get more parents round to the idea that an exam score at 12 is not, and cannot possibly be, a good yardstick of your chances in life.
Indeed, like the marathon that some are running this morning, those who streak ahead to the first markers don't always end up crossing the finishing line. The race will go to those who have the stamina, discipline, perseverance and character to stay the course when the going gets tough.
That, to me, is what we should be teaching our kids, at home and in our schools. And we should begin by putting an end to the notion that his or her PSLE score is something worth keeping a secret, or crowing too much about, or perhaps even remembering.