Top marks: Singapore's school system is world famous © AFP

Thousands of 12-year-old Singaporean children take a maths test on Friday that will help determine their choice of secondary school and, many believe, their future success in life.

The city state’s school system is world famous and Asian schools generally fare extremely well in global education league tables. But this year’s primary school leaving exams are taking place amid a charged debate about whether they put too much pressure on children.

“I have seen students who were so disappointed that they missed cut-off points by decimal points,” said Grace Tan, principal of the Learning Journey tuition centre. “At the tender age of 12, it is hard to for them to understand why they couldn’t get into the school of their choice, even after they have worked hard. This fine distinction causes unnecessary stress for these young children and their parents.”

Global comparisons of teenagers’ ability in maths, reading and science are regularly topped by Asian school systems, including Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. But, amid concerns about stress, governments are looking to reduce the demands made on children. 

This year Singapore’s government introduced changes to the marking of the PSLE exam, which includes course papers in English, science and mother tongue languages, as well as maths. From 2021, students will be marked against a set of criteria instead of ranked against each other — a practice that authorities feared encouraged unhealthy competition between children. Singapore will also emphasise outdoor play as part of PE lessons, and ask schools to stop giving children so much homework. 

“We need to free up time and space to nurture other dimensions that are just as important for our children’s development,” said education minister Ng Chee Meng as he introduced the changes. “Let them not just study the flowers but also stop to smell the flowers.”

Singapore’s ministry of education this month launched an advertising campaign reassuring struggling pupils of the virtues of learning for its own sake. In the video, a pupil who fails a test is comforted by her teacher: “You worked hard and made a big improvement — isn’t that important?” 

Singapore is not alone in rethinking its approach. South Korea has banned “advanced learning” — a common practice in which schools accelerate pupils through the curriculum. In Seoul, the municipal government will from 2017 stop primary schools from giving homework to the youngest children.

While the concept of a playful childhood has become fashionable among China’s wealthy, government initiatives to reduce pressure on students have achieved little because the education system as a whole is still highly competitive. “Kids in primary schools should be happy but now they are under great academic pressure too,” said Yang Dongping, director of 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing. “When the school tries to reduce the workload, the parents add it back on.”

Singapore’s reforms reflect the challenges the city state faces in trying to foster more creative thinking in a society that broadly encourages conformism. “Control of information and thinking and systems is central to the government, and they genuinely want to harvest the economic advantages provided by a populace that is creative and independently minded, but they want to do it without surrendering control. It is their dilemma,” said Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Adelaide.

So far, parents have welcomed the proposed changes. “I think the pressure from school for children to perform very well in written tests has become less,” said Shaaron Moh, a 35-year-old mother of two. “The old PSLE is very distinctively graded — I’m 220, you are 219, so I’m better than you by one mark. [The change] is good because they are so young.”

However, Singapore’s strict parenting style means children still face a heavy workload at home. “It’s a culture thing,” Mrs Moh said. “My parents made sure I studied very hard. My children are stressed by me,” she said, adding that she “drills” her children regularly in maths.

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby and Luna Lin in Beijing

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