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The Education Reform – Streaming To Subject-Based Banding


Many students gear up for the PSLE by attending tuition classes tirelessly and working on P6 exam papers relentlessly. There has always been a great emphasis on the importance of PSLE, and preparations for it usually start a few years before. There are ample resources in the online space and in bookstores for students to get access to. Notably, the Mathematics PSLE paper usually gets much attention because of extremely challenging questions that even adults find difficult to solve. Fortunately, there are Primary 6 Maths questions in Singapore for students to practise on to reinforce their concepts and hone their problem-solving skills before the PSLE. To many parents, it seems that a lot is at stake with the PSLE. This mentality probably evolved from the years of streaming that Singaporean parents went through during their schooling years – the stress felt could have been unforgettable. There have been major changes to the streaming system over the past decade or two. Let’s learn about them in this article.


In the early years of Singapore’s independence, there was a pressing societal issue of great concern – many students were inclined to drop out of school prematurely due to learning difficulties. The then Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Dr. Goh Keng Swee, spearheaded a reform to the education system as a solution to this problem. The concept of streaming was then introduced in Singapore primary schools in the 1980s. The approach to sort students into separate tracks based on their academic performance represented a major overhaul of the previous one-size-fits-all system.


The streaming system evolved over time. When it was first implemented in the 1980s, students were streamed at the end of Primary 3 into three different courses, namely the normal bilingual course, extended bilingual course and monolingual course. After some years, these courses were replaced by the EM1, EM2 and EM3 streams. EM1 and EM2 streams were eventually merged in 2004.


With the streaming system, students had to face the fate of being “labelled” as an EM1, EM2 or EM3 student. The pros and cons of streaming were well-debated over the years. An argument against the streaming system is the concern that it can lead to a sense of inferiority in students who were streamed into the lower streams or a false sense of superiority in students who were streamed into the better streams. After all, a ten-year-old student is a young child who is still discovering his or her strengths and weaknesses.


This concern acted as the cornerstone of the next revamp in Singapore’s education system. In 2008, the streaming system was officially scrapped and replaced by subject-based banding. Under this revised system, a student is given the opportunity to take a combination of subjects at two levels – standard and foundation – based on their academic strength in each subject. At the end of Primary 4, the school will recommend a subject combination based on the exam results. A further adjustment, if applicable, is made at the end of Primary 5 after the school assesses a student’s ability to cope with the individual subjects. The advantages of this banding are manifold. Firstly, students taking subjects at the standard level will be able to stretch their abilities and potential in the subjects they are competent in. As we can see from resources such as Singapore P5 test paper and PSLE Science questions in Singapore, the questions are set to a suitable, and sometimes challenging, level. Secondly, students taking subjects at the foundation level will be given the space and time to reach a sufficient level of understanding in the subjects in which they require more help in.

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