Student Pressure: A Result of Society or System?

Is it the system or the society that increases the pressure cooker known as “the Singapore school”?

In the course of this month’s TFR related theme, I had the opportunity of speaking with more than a few mothers. Through these conversations, I have had an enlightened view on the pains, concerns and ironies of child raising. Over a quick chat and dinner with my homeschooling teacher-cousin, we discussed the issues revolving our education system. We talked about school banding and awards (which was repealed a short few weeks after our discussion). We mulled over the Prime Minister’s call for more playtime during a child’s kinder-school years.

As a home schooling mother that raised 5 children on her own for more than a decade, she feels strongly that a child ought to be protected from worldly expectations and allowed to pass their examinations with ease.  “What’s wrong with building their motivation and letting them feel good about themselves?” she would argue.

The climax of the discussion came when she walked with me to a nearby bookshop and fished out the nearest Pre Primary Chinese assessment book:


“You see, this is what children must go through in pre-school, in order to meet demands from Primary 1 and 2! So how can you tell mothers to take it easy in kindergarten”?

I told my cousin that, if I was a parent – I’d tell my kids that it is ok to fail, and that my kids should discover what they are good at, then focus on those subjects. This was the way I grew up, this was how I viewed school when I was young. But she retorted swiftly with a sharp chide, “You will NOT do that, you CANNOT do that. As a responsible parent, you CANNOT let them fail”. Well, I still disagree… much to her vexation.

Curriculums are intense, even at the Primary 1 level. But the question is: Could this be a problem of supply and demand? Is it because society is demanding more challenging subjects and thus, resulting in high pressure material? The assessment books in question need not have been vetted by the Ministry of Education (doing so would be against the rights of a free market), so publishing companies will want to sell what the market demands.

Sadistic Parents and Grandparents

We have spoken with (more than a few) sadistic parents who seem to enjoy pitting their child’s tolerance for stress against another. These are the same people who, in their everyday conversation, sneak in ego boosting boasts that their children can outperform their classes in difficult tests and assessments. They take pride in overloading their children with a myriad of enrichment classes, courses and activities.

Add to that the expectations and pressures our previous generations hang over our children’s curriculum. How many of us remember the results fueled nags, punishments and threats delivered to us when we were children ourselves? This was the generation who knew what poverty meant, and cannot understand (nor accept) when we take a laissez-faire approach with our new generation.

Singapore is a society that still places high standards on education, competition and results. The Education Ministry has taken steps to reduce unnecessary stress (such as school banding and awards) but still needs to take into consideration the value of our education, and it’s implications on our employability (in Singapore and overseas) in the future.

Private Schools

This is a free market, there is no stopping a commercial entity from setting up the “ideal” schooling system by means of a private school. There have been calls for “a small number” of government schools to “test” systems such as abolishment of PSLEs and other projects, but which parent is willing to subject their children to such experiments?

So here comes my point: Instead of calling on Government schools to do this, why not allow for private schools, or home schooled parents to decide if they want to avoid PSLE or not, in fact, to decide if they want exams even or not? This makes good our free-market model and puts no student at risk of becoming a guinea pig.  Let the market decide for itself which model it prefers – low pressure private schools or high pressure Government ones. Ironically, today when you mention private schools, you will be forgiven if you conjure up images of elite students facing a curriculum even Einstein would dread. This does not have to be so.

To sum up:

– Ours is still very much a results driven society

– If there is a call for a simpler curriculum and experiments such as scrapping of PSLEs, private schools should lead this rather than Government ones. This way Government does not have to assume risk of a drastically modified education landscape, which could affect the employment future.

– Every small step from parents to reduce pressure on their children, is a small step taken towards changing macro attitudes in our society

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