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Should we abolish PSLE ?

‘I am all for slaying the PSLE sacred cow,’ wrote a member of parliament in his blog. The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) issue once again came under the spotlight. Popular opinions have been rising for scrapping the PSLE, for it puts unnecessary stress on young students and limits their holistic development. However, proponents of the system have been equally strong in their support for the exam, arguing that no viable alternative exists to ensure the fairness of selection. According to an online poll, the PSLE has been ranked the top ten most pressing issues faced by Singaporeans. It is high time for us to engage in the debate, as education is becoming more and more important in determining the future of a child and the the nation as a whole. So, should we abolish PSLE?


Let us examine the reasons why some people call for the removal of the exam. First, the national exam puts too much pressure on students and families. The present system uses the results of the exam to decide which secondary school a student can enter. With increasing unequal distribution of resources, such as the implementation of integrated programs by some top-notched junior colleges, the exam scores for the PSLE have more far-reaching consequences in determining how far a student can go in the future. That’s why the exam has become a war for many families, and some literal deaths, seen in students committing suicide failing to cope with stress, are strong warning to society that is increasingly obsessed with the final exam scores.


Secondly, it may not be entirely meritocratic if we segment students too early into different streams, while the potential of a

Should we abolish PSLE

Should we abolish PSLE

student may not be fully realized or reflected by the PSLE results. Students in Finland do not take any standardized exams until they are 16 years old, when Singaporeans students have become veterans for exams. The early streaming is harmful to social mobility as well. Richer families can provide their children with better learning environment, and better quality tuitions outside the school. This may lead to a situation where students coming from richer families get richer while students coming from poorer families get left behind. While education is supposed to be a ladder for social mobility, the competitive exam at the PSLE may be against the spirit of education.

Single dimensional

Thirdly, the exam-oriented philosophy of education encourages other undesirable phenomena: too much emphasis on study and too little on play and co-curricular activities. Long hours of study that contribute worsening eye sight and rising obesity. Soft skills may be compromised for exam techniques, and we run the risk of breeding a generation that is less able to compete in the global talent pool. Other than affecting the attitude of students, the PSLE may also affect the attitude of parents. Even though the MOE may stop ranking secondary schools, informal ranking by parents based on cut-off points always exists. This social pressure for prestige is a strong motivation that causes everyone to encourage their children to work harder, sometimes compromising other developmental areas that are equally essential.


It has been recognized that there are harms created by the PSLE. However, are the harms sufficient justification for removing the exam altogether? We seem to be swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the other, which may create more problems than we solve. The biggest challenge for removing the PSLE is the inability of the campaigners to offer a viable alternative.

Some suggest a more comprehensive testing system including assessments for presentation, sports and others. As good as the plan may sound, it goes against a fundamental principle of any national exam in the world: standardization. The assessments for soft skills or other non-academic skills are highly subjective. Fairness is at stake, and bribery and malpractice may even be induced. Moreover, a more holistic plan may lead to perverse behavior, as parents force their children to go for sports training or attend arts lessons, not for interests, but for a desire to compete and win. The repeated drilling in such areas usually backfire in reducing students’ passion, which defeats the purpose of education.

The PM Lee recently pointed out the increasing availability of choice as a way to alleviate the problems of the national exam. For example, we can enhance the exercise of the Direct School Admission that allows students talented in non-academic areas to be admitted before they go for the leaving exam. Moreover, we may also set up some pilot secondary schools that admit students based on their own standard other than the PSLE, and parents have the choice to opt out the PSLE to go for such schools. Academic performance and practice of such schools will be monitored by the MOE to assess the viability of such academic alternative.

Increasing choice is critical to reducing stress of students and parents. Because it is not an absolute necessity to go through the PSLE to enter a good school, students will have more freedom to pursue their interests and develop their qualities in other areas. But at the end of the day, we still need to have some scheme to differentiate capabilities, reward talents and provide incentives for hard work. It may not be a wise decision to scrap the PSLE. But rather, we need to diversify the schemes of assessments to discover different talents, while still maintaining fairness of education that is essential to a meritocratic society like Singapore.

About usFrankl Tuition Services is the leading provider of primary school tuition in Singapore since 2009. Learn more about us or request a home tutor now.

1 Comment
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