PSLE: When just being normal is bad

How does one ever define a 12 year old child and put him or her into certain categories when we realise every child still has so much untapped potential still waiting to be unleashed? Well, the PSLE just did it again last month. The PSLE or Primary School Leaving Examinations are where young children are streamed/determined/labelled/defined into an identity that plays a major influence on their self worth and belief. Here, to most parents: being ‘normal’ is never a good thing (less said about being technical) and being labelled as ‘express’ is the bare minimum. Depending on which secondary school one chooses, a child can either be in the normal or express stream, such is the arbitrariness of the T-score.

A self-fulfilling prophecy?

In secondary schools, labels take on an even greater meaning especially to adolescents searching for their own self-identity and crucially, their self-worth in the process. Every student being streamed and labelled as Normal (NA) or Technical(NT) knows that they are not really just ‘normal’ but instead are inferior to the majority of their ‘Express’ peers. This is very dangerous as it does not just translate into academic inferiority but presupposes, unfairly by the majority of their ‘Express’ peers and generally by society, inferiority in other aspects as well. Being ‘normal academic’ or ‘technical’ does not just heavily affect and influence a child’s academic ability but his or her overall self-worth as well. How can they be normal when the majority is not? How is the majority not the normal? Perhaps maybe they really are not that ‘normal’ and soon realise it is misguided lie and that they are just truly inferior after all.

Lost potential?

NA and NT students are facing not just stigma(which is a big problem in itself) but both conscious and unconscious discrimination from schools as well. For those who have missed the final chance to be promoted to the ‘express’ stream in lower secondary, they are adjudged to have less potential and discriminated in a subtle number of ways which is pretty obvious upon close analysis. If being ‘normal’ means taking just one more year longer to attempt the ‘Ordinary’ Levels, that why do the majority of NA students not continue to secondary 5? Shouldn’t that be the norm? Ignoring the pun, notice how the two words ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ are so similar in meaning but yet a majority of NA students do not attempt the O levels. If they do not qualify for the Poly Foundation Programme(PFP), which itself requires above average results in the N levels, are they then deemed to be ‘unfit’ to continue into secondary 5 as well? Are average N levels results unworthy for a chance to take their O levels like the majority of their peers will do. Does that mean they have no potential? Or that their potential will not be stretched and fully realised?

Can the prophecy be stopped?

There shouldn’t be an implicit assumption from schools that most Normal stream students will never qualify for junior colleges…

Schools can play an much more active role in helping ‘Normal’ academic and technical students reach their full potential and not just assume their abilities are ‘limited’ and opt for the ‘easy’ way out. Instead of encouraging most Normal students to ‘graduate’ if they cannot qualify for the PFP, why not actively encourage those with still decent grades to continue and have a fair shot like the majority? Moreover, they have an extra year of practice to prepare for their O levels. Isn’t that the main objective of the Normal Stream? After that of which they should deserve the equal and fair chance of going to a polytechnic or even a junior college just like any other express student, rather than casually assuming that they are even inferior to their younger secondary 4 express counterparts. I will even go further to state that there shouldn’t be an implicit assumption from schools that most Normal stream students will never qualify for junior colleges, just as how an express student is seen as having every chance to choose between a junior college and a polytechnic.

End the bias against our ‘normal’ students. A good starting point will be equal academic treatment to all. Have active programs combating the latent and structural discrimination from both students and teachers in schools. Every child learns at a different rate but it does not mean any less potential.

The contributor is a former secondary school teacher with experience of teaching the so-called ‘last classes’. Coming from within the school system, he knows that academic discrimination is real, not just with Normal stream students but also with Express students from so-called ‘neighbourhood’ schools compared with ‘elite’ schools.

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