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Abolish streaming to narrow social divide: MP Louis Ng

SINGAPORE — It is time to stop streaming in secondary schools, one Member of Parliament argued on Wednesday (Feb 27), saying that while it caters to students’ strengths, it also plays a role in hardening Singapore’s social divide.

Abolish streaming to narrow social divide: MP Louis Ng
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SINGAPORE — It is time to stop streaming in secondary schools, one Member of Parliament argued on Wednesday (Feb 27), saying that while it caters to students’ strengths, it also plays a role in hardening Singapore’s social divide.

Streaming should be replaced with subject-based banding, which keeps “the good parts of streaming while cutting out the bad parts”, said Mr Louis Ng of Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency.

Last year, the Ministry of Education (MOE) introduced subject-based banding to all secondary schools from Secondary One, allowing students from Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams to take subjects at a higher level. 

“I know that streaming is a sacred cow and this practice has existed for many decades. Members will know that I don’t like to cull animals but sir it really is time to slay this sacred cow,” said Mr Ng, who is an animal rights activist and founder of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

Mr Ng laid out his arguments against streaming:

It widens the social divide

When it was first introduced in 1980, streaming was meant to arrest the school attrition, or dropout, rate. It has since achieved that objective, Mr Ng noted.

The attrition rate now stands at less than 1 per cent, a sharp drop from the 30 to 40 per cent rate when streaming was implemented, he said.

The argument for streaming is that it allows students to learn at their own pace and helps teachers to be more focused in their teaching. But “the problem is that we are not just streaming our students based on their academic results”, he added.

“The reality is that students in the Normal streams tend to have a lower socioeconomic status than those from the Express stream.”

Mr Ng pointed out, for instance, that from 2014 to 2018, 69 per cent of secondary school students who received assistance from the Education Ministry’s financial assistance scheme came from the Normal streams.

True, there have been success stories, he noted, citing the case of a junior college economics teacher who came from the N(T) stream. But such stories are not representative of the majority of Normal stream students, he said.

There is a low chance of upward mobility between streams

It is fine if students from the Normal streams can move easily to the Express stream. But that is not the case, Mr Ng said.

Each year, 530 N(T) students transfer to the N(A) stream. Of these, 10 to 20 eventually move on to the Express stream.

“Here’s what it means: If you are a student from the Normal (Technical) stream, you have a less than 1 per cent chance of moving to the Express stream.”

The divide keeps widening as students move along their education journeys.

Over the past three years, N(T) graduates made up only 5 per cent of those who graduated from public polytechnics. They comprise just 1 per cent of those graduating from autonomous universities.

Social stigma leads to lack of confidence among students

Psychological barriers could be a key reason why students struggle to move to the Express stream, said Mr Ng, adding: “Indeed, for some students there is a strong stigma associated to being in the Normal stream.”

He cited Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s recent comments on the pitfalls and benefits of streaming, which he made in a written response to Mr Ng’s parliamentary questions on the effects of streaming.

Though Mr Ong said that streaming has resulted in better educational outcomes, he acknowledged that it has also led to students losing confidence.

"The trade-off between customisation and stigmatisation is something we need to recognise," Mr Ong had said.

Mr Ng’s proposed solution: Abolish streaming altogether

It is strange that streaming was removed from the primary school system and replaced with subject-based banding back in 2008, but still exists in secondary schools, he said.

“We have already expanded subject-based banding to all secondary schools, to benefit more students,” he noted. “So what is stopping us from abolishing streaming in secondary schools? What is stopping us from preventing this kind of social stratification?”

Citing Mr Ong’s response to his earlier parliamentary question, he noted that subject-based banding has raised students’ confidence while allowing them to learn at their own pace.

Mr Ong had also said subject-based banding has given students more opportunities to interact with those of different backgrounds and, as such, concerns about stigmatisation “have diminished”.

“Our students are not stupid and should not feel that they are, or face that kind of stigma,” Mr Ng said. “We need to make sure their future is not decided by one major exam. We need to make sure that like where we live, we don’t have social stratification in where we study.”


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