Who said primary school in Singapore is stressful?

What if we didn’t have so many exams?

Earlier in the week, I finally sat down to add the dates of the ten different primary school exams which my 8 year old daughter has upcoming. It made me reflect, is this truly necessary?   I had a half-wicked thought – what if I didn’t diarise the dates.  What if I didn’t remind her about the exams, and we treated it just like a normal school day.  Would my daughter’s performance be any different, and more importantly, would her attitude to learning and life be any better?  Are we placing more emphasis on grades or the learning being them?

Well maybe the Singapore Ministry of Education was listening to my inner thoughts (and for sure God heard my prayer for direction), because this morning, they announced a cancellation of all exams for Grades 3 and 4. Is this a laugh, cry, or sigh moment?

Living in an economically developed Asian country, I really shouldn’t be surprised that exams exist – there’s a great cultural significance placed on learning.  Yet, my enduring hope for our children in their education is that that they are happy, healthy, resilient, and grateful for the opportunity to learn.    In fact, to be these four things,  I’ve come to the conclusion that it is almost mutually exclusive of being in the top 5% of any Singaporean school’s student cohort.  I feel it’s near impossible to achieve this level of perfection without compromising on either sleep, recreation, or family time.   Of course, everyone has different priorities and expectations, which explains why the competition is so very tough.  For my kids, therefore, the expectation is that they will do their personal best, and outdo only themselves.  Forget the rat race.

Does tuition have to be the norm?

We’ve been big supporters of a simple education, in a no-name neighbourhood school.  Its been a satisfying and joyful journey to date… indeed a stress-free one.  We have largely carefree evenings, with low-to-no homework, and weekends kept free for family fun and unwinding, without the need to rush between extra tuition classes. We’d love to have more weekend playdates, but it seems most other respectable families are indeed in “tuition” at that time.  Tuition is one of those topics which always rears its head.  For example, when we meet new families (yes, that used to be possible once, pre-COVID), usually an early ice-breaker between the parents is “what tuition (or academic enrichment) does your child do?”.    

When I respond with a nonchalant shrug, there is usually a look of shock from the other party.   It always requires me to further explain that it’s not that we don’t care, but I’d rather save my money they learn Spanish, or map reading than repeating something supposedly taught already in school.  Opting out of academic tuition is, unfortunately, the exception to the norm, and a sometimes frowned upon alternative.  But I’m hopeful the tides are turning. 

The recent banning in China of after school and weekend tuition is an interesting government initiative (err intervention?) to improve quality of life.  I don’t think the same legislative approach would work here (there will always be some children who need extra academic support outside of school, and they may have families who cannot support this learning).  But, I hope parents can realise the unnecessarily vicious cycle that over tuition can create, and the corollary of this being an adverse impact on mental health.

Reminder to self: Replace our FOMO with FIMO ….. Fear of Missing Out, with Faith In Missing Out (as coined by Angie Yeow, in her great parenting book Growing Hearts).

Faith In Missing Out (FIMO) Artwork by Angie Yeow, from Growing Hearts

Would doing less help us achieve more?

I believe in the importance of early-stage literacy and math skills, along with bilingual education.  Singapore school system offers us all of this, and more   But beyond school, there are many other important aspects to life that cannot be taught in a formal classroom.  Moreover, if we don’t nurture these intangibles at home (or make space for it to happen organically), that’s an opportunity lost.  What is a childhood without play and mess, and unstructured times for being bored?  Yes, we need more boredom.  Letting the mind wander is an important lever in mental health for all of us.    According to much research, including here boredom itself can give a child an inner quiet, where they can then focus on self-awareness and imagination.    People would pay for that type of brain enrichment, right?  But it’s free, and ours for taking!   

There’s a great TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson on “Do schools kill creativity?”.   This talk is not even in a Singaporean context.  I hesitate to think the “process of academic inflation” discussed in the TED Talk is further magnified in our beautiful island state.  Here, it’s the norm that even a child getting 85% test scores, will be forced into tuition just so they can get to 90%.  The latest blog post by May at A Million Little Echoes, asks the question “Who is the culprit for today’s standard in primary school?”.  Her answer is that we need to be brave enough to say “I want to sit out of this race” and maybe a difference will be made. We’re not in the race. 

Yet it’s dawning on me that even with a deliberate disregard on my part for conforming to the norms of tuition and academic enrichment, we eventually won’t be able to avoid the exams of the Singapore schooling system (and the concept of failure at these exams feels like it too would have a lasting mental impact, unfortunately).  I know the system has been improved markedly over the years, with a shift away from stressful examinations, but I’m still miffed at the concept of ever needing to sit ten exams/orals at year-end, for an eight-year-old! 

The key redeeming factor I could see about the exams is that four of the upcoming planned ten exams were for Chinese, which thankfully is my daughter’s favourite subject (which highlights the point that, yes, it’s very possible for a child from a non-Chinese speaking family to thrive and enjoy Chinese, especially if they aren’t scarred from years of inane group tuition.  We’ve found plenty of wonderful, short, one-on-one classes and fun non-academic small group classes like coding, chess, Minecraft, debating etc carried out in Chinese, which can excite a real interest in the language and its practical uses).

Is it helpful to compare?

I sometimes wonder how will the care-free primary school life which I let my daughter lead place her on exams compared to other students from let’s say more affluent/kiasu schools?  Schools where tuition, over-teaching and massive amounts of homework are the norm?  My daughter’s much loved P3 form teacher mentioned earlier this year to the class that “I’ve never known a child from this school who has received a place in the GEP (Gifted Education Programme), so the GEP exam results don’t really matter”.   Is that defeatist or pragmatic?  I still cannot decide.  How can it be, that in an entire primary school cohort there are never any kids in the top 1% of their year level? It’s statistically impossible if all schools are equal.  Or maybe it’s the students, not the schools, who are not equal?  Either way, for my (certainly not-academically-gifted-by-any-account) P3 child, what I’d like to be sure of is that she is mentally resilient, grounded, caring, and ready for the world, regardless of any exams or comparisons.    

So back to my original epiphany: if we were to have a season of exams, would I highlight the dates of the exams on our fridge?  What would I tell my daughter about preparing for them?  What expectations do we set around them?    Is an exam simply like a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, which is much needed to give meaning to the year of study?  Is it like a piano or Taekwondo exam, where it’s a fun thing to do, and after you pass, you’ll have a great sense of achievement that you truly deserve to move on to the next level?  If we can use this opportunity of the exam period to showcase (a very limited aspect) of how much we’ve learnt over the last year, that’s a milestone to celebrate.

And now, with exams cancelled, should I be telling her they’re cancelled? Or we remain in blissful ignorance of that too? I’m sure she’ll find out soon enough from the teachers, so I’ll leave that to them to communicate. I’ve in fact already heard of some (more elite…_) schools where despite exams officially cancelled by the MOE, parents have already received memos that the children will still be having “alternative assessments” or “practice examinations” on these same dates instead. Talk about following the letter of the law, but not the spirit! Where do these principals get their principles? LOL! Or are they only pandering to the parents’ concerns?

Give our best to the world

Whether exams or no exams, in good times or bad, this post by Growing Hearts is a nice reminder to all parents.   “Don’t just study for the sake of PSLE. Study because we want to give our best, because God has given us a healthy and strong body, mind and spirit to work with.“  

Wishing all parents peace during this potentially trying time.  For those who have just completed PSLE: Congratulations on the achievement, and may you and your child (and your nosey wider family…)  be at peace with whatever the result may be, and the doors it opens.

For those who are about to start exams: Do remember that this season of being a student won’t last forever, and your child(ren) need to know much much more than just how to study.  

For those who are disappointed about cancellation of upcoming exams because you’ve been preparing so hard for them, or enraged now because the end-of-year report card will rely on results from previous in-class assessments where your child may not have been so prepared, please remember that a subject score is neither an indicator of your child’s self-worth nor an indicator of their future.   To score well on self worth and future-proofing, it requires YOU as the parent, with the textbooks closed and your heart open.

Consider using this time which may now be spared from revising textbooks, to revising priorities with your child, and appreciating them for who they are. Instead of reviewing Chinese characters, do a character review with your child. Win the race in life, not the grade on the scorecard.

I would love to hear from you!

For your family, what’s making primary school stressful? How can this system be improved together, for the sake of our children?

If you got to the end, and found this useful, maybe there are other things on my blog which you will also enjoy! Most of my blog is about how a child from a non-Chinese speaking family can learn to love and be literate in Chinese, without excessive tuition! It’s a passion project, just sharing for the sake of helping others in the journey too. Some of my post popular earlier posts are:

2 thoughts on “Who said primary school in Singapore is stressful?

  1. What a heartfelt post Emma! So many issues surfaced here. I agree with so many of the valuable points made!
    With this exams cancelled, we are relieved but I can understand the feelings of some parents whose kids may need exams to give them a bit more push? Some children do need a major exam to study and have a practice of how major exams would be like. Some kids really do not know how to sit for a major exam like the protocols and the full papers. Therefore, I actually prefer an exam for the sake of training the kids to experience how an ‘official’ exam feels like. However, our parents’ attitude is the key to such an exams base performance. When done with as you said ‘ the right spirit’, it will benefit all. The reverse is true.

    With strong family support and security like yours, your children are truly blessed with or without exams! Just so Wonderful!!!
    For the other side where an overemphasis on the worth of exams takes precedence over the child’s worth and self confidence, we need to really learn to reprioritise🙏.

    I LOVE Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted talk on that topic! And Yes to FIMO! Faith In Missing Out! Let’s keep spurring one another on towards love and good deeds dear Emma! It is a privilege and honour to be mentioned by you and I am so encouraged by your deep love for authentic learning and for God! Take heart, we are already on the winning side with Christ! And we will slowly but surely get there as He renews us day by day, year by year! You are truly an inspiration ❤️💪👏🙌 Praise God from whom all blessings flow! Happy Children’s Day to your lovely kids too! Your daughter’s too cute with her rainbow outfit !!😘😍

    1. Delighted that you wrote! Your words are always so wise and thoughtful. Actually, my kids would have NO idea on exam protocol or even how to study for them. Then again, I hope they don’t need to learn that too soon either. My first ever exam was when I was 16 (good giveaway that I’m not Singaporean).

      We’ll continue making the most of the good things which the pandemic brings to childhoods, and trusting in God’s perfect plan.

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