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N Level Through Train Program

N Level Through Train Program

N Level Through Train Program

A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Education introduced the N level Through Train Program, allowing top N-level students to skip their secondary five and enter directly into a polytechnic to further their study. The opportunity of going to polytechnics without taking the competitive O-level examinations is alluring.

More than eighty percent of students who were accepted into the program accepted the offer. Many were rejected based on competition due to limited places. The favorable response to the introduction of the program and the enthusiasm of the applicants is a testimony of the attractiveness of the policy, because it helps alleviate one important problem faced by students in the N-level program: limited choices for higher education.


  • The Singapore education system has been known for its active streaming of students. As early as the Primary School Leaving Examinations, students are streamed into O-level and N-level. Students in different streams seem to have taken different pathways that rarely cross in the future. The competitive streaming, coupled with fewer opportunities of ‘changing lanes’, makes each national exam a stressful experience for students and their families. The policy of introducing the N-level Through Train Program is actually part of a wider attempt by the government to alleviate the stratification effect of major exams, so as to reduce the unhealthy stress in the education environment. For example, young students taking the PSLE may not be so stressed after knowing that even they have not done well, they still have a ‘second chance’ that is available at later stage of his or her education. First and foremost, such a policy and any similar one make a single major exam less critical in determining the future of a student.
  • Secondly, the N-level Through Train Program also helps reduce the negative perception associated with N-level program. Even though ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ have basically the same meaning, but N-level seems more ‘ordinary’ than O-level in the minds of most Singaporeans. N-level program is associated with fewer further education opportunity and advancement, while O-level is regarded as the pathway to good careers in the future. The disparity is unhealthy for the esteem and confidence of students who are academically more suited for N-level program. By creating a more level playing field, we encourage motivated N-level students to pursue the same path as many JC students who enter polytechnics with their O-level results. This alluring chance of getting directly into a polytechnics of one’s choice helps improve the general competition environment of the N-level program, which can help improve the effectiveness of learning that benefit students who in the end do not go for Through Train admission as well.
  • Thirdly, this program benefits students who have a clear mind of what to do in the future. While we should not assert that many students know well where their future lies, there are some minority who have clear vision of their careers. Hence, opting for the Through Train program will enable them to achieve their dreams at accelerated pace, as they directly take courses from polytechnics in their final year. They will use their time more efficiently by focusing on courses of their interest, instead of some more generic subjects that are taught in N-level program. This is the essence of streaming. We identify students who will benefit more from professional training than general education, and we maximize their potential by providing an environment that is the most conducive for their growth.

As with all public policies, the program may create some undesirable consequences. It may encourage some risk-taking behavior from students. Because the Through Train program exempts a student from competitive O-level exams, it may encourage some to opt for N-level program in the hope they can get into the Through Train program later. This is an unhealthy opportunist mentality. Students will focus on how to take advantage of the system, instead of real learning. As the Through Train program is also competitive, a student may regret not taking O-level program once they fail to enter polytechnics via the Through Train program. They essentially limit their own choices by seeking the easier way out. Moreover, if the standard of admission to the program is not kept high, polytechnics may admit N-level students who are not capable of coping with poly courses. O-level exams are standardized and its ability to predict future academic success is reliable. But the new Through Train program is new and subject to variation. Once a N-level graduate drops out of a polytechnic, he or she will enter the job market with only PSLE certificate, having not taken the O-level exams! The consequence of such dropout can’t be more dramatic.

While it is of noble intention to enhance the equality of education, it is also critical that we do not increase admission just for the sake of equality, as rigorous check of academic capability is essential for continued study in a such a competitive environment as a polytechnic. We need to remain committed to increasing choices to students. But those choices should be motivators to work hard, instead of some easy exits or escapes from the duty of learning.

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