Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The runaway IP train

NINE-YEAR-OLD Ian Lim spends three evenings a week with a private tutor on mathematics, English and Chinese. Next year, when he enters Primary 4, he will spend four evenings a week, including his Saturdays, on tuition.
By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer

His manager father and housewife mum admit that their son is stressed out from all the studying. They know the $1,100 spent on providing tuition for him is a lot of money.

Not that Ian is at risk of failing. He is already top of his class. His parents just want him to score good enough grades at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to get into an Integrated Programme (IP), preferably at Raffles Institution, where the cut-off point for admission is above 260.

If he does not get into an IP school, where he is assured of a place in a junior college, they fear he would have scant chance of getting into a good junior college for his A levels.

The Lims are typical of an increasing number of parents piling the pressure on their young children early, in the hopes of getting them into the elite IP programme.

Their concern is that their children cannot get a place in a premier secondary school or junior college because many top institutions now reserve the bulk of their places for students in the IP.

The IP started in 2004 at eight schools, including the Raffles and Hwa Chong family of schools. It was targeted at the top 10 per cent of the PSLE cohort, who were clearly university-bound.

The idea was to allow these students to skip the O levels and go straight to the A levels or International Baccalaureate (IB). This way, their learning would not be stifled by having to prepare for two major examinations in six years. Instead, the seamless secondary and junior college education would develop their intellectual curiosity and other talents.

The IP - called the 'through-train' programme for skipping the O levels - became so popular that pupils and parents clamoured to get on board. More schools responded by offering the IP.

By 2013, 18 - or just about all the premier secondary schools and junior colleges - will be offering the programme.

This has created a fear among parents that there will be even fewer places in top junior colleges for those not in the IP, who hope to get in after the O levels.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has assured parents repeatedly that the IP junior colleges are offering just as many places as before to those coming in via the O-level route. But in the absence of hard numbers, parents have resorted to doing their own checks, and cite figures to explain why they worry.

Hwa Chong Institution and Raffles Institution, for example, each give out only 250 places a year to those from the non-IP track. The remainder of the 1,200 places at each of these two colleges go to the IP students from their own institutions.

The through-train that started out as a niche programme for a small elite group risks becoming a runaway train. Some fixes are needed to reduce undue pressure on students racing to be admitted to the IP at Secondary 1.

Right now, students can be admitted into the IP at Secondary 1, Secondary 3 and JC1 after the O levels. MOE can ensure that there are multiple entry points into IP schools, and that a good number of places are given out at each level.

Another simple fix is for schools and MOE to release admission figures.

Schools should make public their admission figures to the IP, giving the number of students who enter at Secondary 1, Secondary 3 and at JC1 after the O levels. This gives parents the assurance that their students can get another chance if they fail to do so at Secondary 1.

Schools should also publish data comparing the performance of their IP students to those who join them after the O levels. The two top junior colleges, Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution, say the performance of students who joined them at JC1 is on a par with those who were on their IP track earlier.

On a more macro level, MOE should consider whether it is good for the education system as a whole if so many top secondary schools should convert to the IP. Some parents and alumni of IP schools have already questioned this.

One of them is an old girl of the popular Singapore Chinese Girls' School (SCGS). She remembers that the school principal then, Ms Rosalind Heng, steadfastly stood by the tried and tested O-level route. When other top schools were debating whether to offer the IP through-train, Ms Heng said that SCGS prepared its students well for the O levels, and it was going to continue that tradition.

But SCGS is among the latest list of schools to announce that it will offer the IP. Laments the SCGS alumna, a mother of two who went on to the elite Raffles JC: 'What is wrong with the O levels? Is there no value in it any more? It prepared me well for the A levels.'

Another issue to consider is whether more schools which offer the IP can do so in parallel with the O levels. After all, some students even at top schools benefit from the more structured O-level track. And there is a small number who fail to get an A-level certificate or IB diploma after six years in the IP.

Without O levels, their highest formal qualification is only their PSLE certificate. There may thus be benefits for schools to retain the O levels and allow students to switch tracks from the IP to the O levels.

Students who entered the IP schools with their O levels and aced the A levels do not regret having sat for the O levels. They say the examination was good practice for the A levels.

The Integrated Programme began as a niche programme for very bright children expected to make it to university, who thus do not have to sit for the O-level sorting examination. But with so many schools jumping on board, is it becoming a default programme, resulting in parents pushing their average kids to get in?

Seven years on, it is time to review the IP experiment and consider the effects it is having on students and parents' behaviour. It might be time to put the brakes on the IP and return it to its original purpose - a programme for a very small minority - and restore the place of the O levels for the rest.