My BEST Parent Teacher Meeting EVER

I dreaded to attend #5’s PTM. Every year, his teachers complain about the same things. He doesn’t pay attention in class, blurts out irrelevant things while the teacher is talking, is always fiddling with something, does not hand in his work on time and can’t file his worksheets properly.

They have tried everything – the soft approach (talking to him nicely), the hard approach (scolding him), punishing him by making him stay back during recess to finish his work, but nothing works.

In their eyes, he is a mischevious and problematic student.

While walking into school, I seriously contemplated turning back. I don’t have to subject myself to another round of complaints from his teachers, exhorting the same problems. I can already hear it coming… “He talks too much, is distracted, likes to do his own things.”

But I took a deep breath and as the PSLE is next year, I wanted to keep tabs on what he’s been up to in school.

I entered the classroom with trepidation. Finally, it was my turn.

Mrs Lim, his Science teacher sighed and said, “You are xx’s mum…” (yes, she did let out an audible, resigned sigh. I’m sure I wasn’t dreaming it).

I looked at her pleadingly like ok, give it to me straight.. what else am I going to hear this time. Let’s get it over and done with.

She started with the same old. “He doesn’t pay attention and is always busy fiddling with his pencil case and I have to confiscate his things.”

I probed further. “What do you mean by not paying attention?”

Now I’m almost an expert on attention issues, having seen all permutations of kids who come to my enrichment centre because they are bright but not reaching their potential.

Sitting across his teachers trying to figure out his learning behaviour made me realise how much firsthand experience I have gained in this one year by being the bridge between hearing from parents and seeing the changes in the kids by isolating their problems instead of seeing them as being “naughty”, “lazy” or “distracted”.

I wanted to get to the root of the problem so that we could work together to help him.

Mrs Lim elaborated. “Halfway through my lesson, he will stop listening and do his own things. Thus when it comes to doing the worksheets, he does not know what to do because he has stopped listening.”

Ah, he had the same problem last year and his Math teacher discovered exactly what was happening. She said that the first time she introduces a new concept, he is interested and will be listening attentively. But when she repeats herself the second or third time to cater to those who did not fully understand, that is when he will switch off and start fiddling in his pencil case to create something. She realised that he understands concepts easily and gets bored when the lesson is moving too slowly.

So his Math teacher decided that she would let him fold his origami quietly if she has to repeat herself for the other students. This is better than him turning to his friends to start chatting. So long as he is not disturbing anyone, it was a reasonable solution.

However, because he has switched off, he would miss important information and thus would not be able to complete his homework. She would then call his attention before issuing instructions. It took her many months, but she finally figured him out. In a class of 40, it is not easy to move everyone along at the same pace, thus it is inevitable that some students fall through the cracks.

#5’s tinker corner
Mr Tan, his form teacher, had been listening quietly as I chatted with Mrs Lim and he finally chipped in. This is the first time #5 has a male teacher and I was keen to get his perspective.

I asked him directly. “Is he naughty in school?”

“He is not naughty. Yes, he is playful and very active and tends to talk loudly. But he is not what I’d call naughty. In fact, he has a caring side. When classmates do not understand their work, he will explain to them.”

Music to my ears! Finally. A teacher who could see past his challenging behaviour, and in turn, he probably behaves himself better in Mr Tan’s class.

He asked me what he does at home and I described how he likes to while away his after school hours tinkering with engineering concepts.

He starts by looking at the manual, but would toss it aside and freely create what he envisions in his mind. He would spend hours cooped up in his room and has no problems being able to focus on a single activity for several hours.

He built this structure and allowed Kate to place the little balls at the top and watch them drop into the collection cup he fashioned. He patiently problem-solved and shortened or lengthened the various threads and added or removed segments of the track to align it at the precise height for the ball to turn smoothly. He must have adjusted it a few hundred times! Such perseverance.

He explained to me that it should not roll too fast (or it will fly off course) nor too slow (as it will come to a halt). After playing with the same structure for a few days, he will dismantle it and start dreaming up something new.

Mr Tan said simply. “#5 is a bright boy. He is creative and inventive. He has lots of ideas and can lead others. The unfortunate thing is, he will perhaps not thrive in our local system, but I think you don’t have to be worried. I am certain he will have a bright future. Are you considering sending him overseas?”

I asked him, as his English teacher, how can he tell that he is intelligent? He explained that when they discuss open ended questions, it is usually #5 who can come up with a fresh idea and he is able to back it up with a logical reasoning.

Mrs Lim, on the other hand, was concerned that this term, he has become even more inattentive. As we discussed further, she said that they are spending time covering answering techniques.

That explains it. She said that #5 is attentive when she is teaching a new Science topic. But when she teaches them how to answer the questions using the correct key words, he is not interested in listening.

Can I fault him? Should our exams even be thus? Nothing more than drilling and regurgitating, and giving the examiner the correct key words they are looking for?

As for his other ‘bad’ behaviour like blurting out in class, not filing his worksheets in the correct order and not handing in his homework on time, these are weaknesses in his executive function and that is a whole different set of skills altogether that is hard to address adequately in school.

I was never able to pin point them until now, and am actually relieved to discover that he is not just being lazy. He has poor verbal impulse control, lacks time management and organising skills and is weak at task initiation. Really need to work on these with him.

It was a rather strange PTM. 3 seated at the same table, coming from 3 different standpoints.

Mrs Lim was very worried and stressed that the PSLE is next year, yet he is so “unteachable”.

Mr Tan who didn’t quite know what to say to this parent, as he seemed stuck between a rock and a hard place. He is a part of this system, a system which is glaringly inadequate to support these mavericks, yet he recognises the different learning styles and needs of the students.

And me. A parent who wishes our education system was more progressive. I have thought long and hard about it and have made peace with the situation. We live in this country we call home, with family and friends around us, and we will stay put. It’s a pity that our education system is evolving at such a snail’s pace and our children are wasting too much time learning to ace exams.

It is something I have never conformed to and have decided that I will not subject #5 to it, at the risk of dampening his love of Science and of learning.

I will not force my round peg into a square hole. It is not worth it. I am prepared for whatever score he might get for his PSLE and I know it is not a reflection of his abilities nor intelligence.

I will be sure to let him know that too.

School Stories:

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
#12 – DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 – Tuition – First line of attack?
#14 – Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 – First day mix up!
#16 – The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 – No more T-score. Now what?
#18 – Tackling the new school year
#19 – She did it, without tuition.
#20 – So who’s smarter?
#21 – Why I do not coach my kids anymore.

~ www.mummyweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

Why I do not coach my kids anymore

I have been asked this many times – Do I coach my kids? The answer is no. Not at all. I don’t look at their daily homework nor test them spelling. In fact, I tell them not to come to me when they get stuck because I probably won’t be able to answer their questions.

I’m not kidding. The way they do Math is different from our time, and don’t get me started on Science structured questions. “Mum, you need to answer with key words.” When I guided them on their Chinese composition, they came back with a fail grade. It is still a running family joke.

They know my standard answer – go look for an older sibling as they’ll have better luck in getting the concepts explained properly to them, with the appropriate key-words thrown in.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try. When #1 was in P2 & P3, she would come to me when stuck while doing homework and I was able to help her. The turning point came in P4. Every few days, she would need help to finish her Math, Science or Chinese homework and truth be told, I was annoyed that she couldn’t independently handle homework doled out to her.

Having 4 other kids on my tail left me scarcely any time to deal with #1’s academic demands, and being in a constantly sleep-deprived state must have made me prone to going berserk.

I remember one particular incident when I was trying to help her with her Math homework, and she could not comprehend it. I became angrier and angrier and started yelling at her. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but they were unnecessarily hurtful words along the lines of “I’ve explained to you so many times! What can’t you understand? What is wrong with you? Why are you so stupid?” My blood was boiling and I felt like smacking her. 

I was shocked at my own extreme reaction. I am by nature a calm and patient person, and here I was, getting agitated by my own child, over MathI saw the fear in her eyes as she recoiled from my wrath, and there and then, I decided that it was not worth it. I could not let this ruin our mother-daughter relationship. My first and foremost responsibility is to be her mum, and this tutoring job can be outsourced.

I did feel like some kind of failure, but found out that many of my friends were in the same boat. Some have flung school bags out of the house, while others have raised their hands at their children. It is never the right thing to do, and we have no excuse. But the reality is that it is not easy teaching our own children. Some parents are cut out for it, and some are not. I am glad I recognized it early enough before saying or doing things I might have regretted.

When she moved on to P5, it became an almost daily struggle to complete her homework. Being our eldest, it did not occur to us that she might need tuition as she was fairly bright and in a top school so we had the impression that the teachers would prepare them adequately for tests and exams.

Since I had thrown in the coaching hat, the hubs volunteered to do it. The first time #1 went to him with her Math problem sums, he eagerly took on the challenge. 3 hours later, she finally emerged from the room. She revealed that daddy took so long to finish 2 pages of her Math homework and she still has other homework to do. Worst of all, he used the wrong method. His coaching stint ended as soon as it began.

Since then, we have stopped coaching them. Even if they come home with entire worksheets covered in red or if they fail their tests, I seldom nag or scold them. I ask if they had prepared well for it, and what are they going to do about it. I don’t want the focus when they get test marks back to be on what mum is going to say, but on how they think they can improve in future.

I keep an eye on the big picture and monitor their grades for their CAs and SAs throughout the year. It is better to find out their percentile instead of looking at the raw score. In her P5 year, #1 barely passed her English mid-year exams. I was concerned, but when I spoke to her teacher she said, “Oh, don’t worry, it was a very tough paper and almost the entire class failed. She was one of the top scorers.”

They get one-to-one tuition in the P6 year because I find that an effective way to plug the content gaps in topics which they might have missed over the years. The tutors also know how to guide them to phrase their answers to suit the examiners. 

While writing this post, I was chatting with my girls to get their perspective now that they are already in secondary school. I asked them how did they manage without coming to me for help.

“We know that you will tell us to figure it out ourselves or ask our teacher, so we have to pay attention in class. There is a lot of wasted time between lessons, so we quickly get our homework done and if there is anything we don’t understand, we ask our friends. Most of them have tuition.”

I burst out laughing. They had found their own strategy and outsourced the coaching to their classmates! It’s good for their friends too, as the best way to understand something well is to explain it to others. Brilliant win-win situation.


School Stories:

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
#12 – DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 – Tuition – First line of attack?
#14 – Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 – First day mix up!
#16 – The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 – No more T-score. Now what?
#18 – Tackling the new school year
#19 – She did it, without tuition.
#20 – So who’s smarter?
#21 – Why I do not coach my kids anymore.

 

About MummyWee

Michelle Choy is an Occupational Therapist by day and mum of 6 by night. Besides the already very demanding job of managing 5 teenagers and one 7-turning-17 tween, she is also Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in areas like resilience and executive function, to survive today’s volatile world. She is also a parenting coach and has been featured on national TV, radio and print media.

~ www.mummyweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

She did it, without tuition

We attended #2’s award ceremony last week at her alma mater. It was indeed a joyous occasion for us, seeing how she has blossomed over the 4 years, not only doing well academically, but displaying leadership qualities and being surrounded by close friends. She received a leadership award for her position as band major, and topped her cohort in Social Studies/Literature for the O levels.

I think what I was proudest about was that she managed everything on her own, without me having to nag or micro-manage.

When she entered Primary 1, I gave her my expectations and her responsibilities and guided her to be in charge of her own learning for the next 6 years.

She did not have any tuition nor extra “mummy homework”.

So what did she do with her time?

She spent a lot of time reading, and went to the playground every evening with her siblings, even throughout the PSLE year. Their fond memories of playground games with their neighbours will stay with them forever.

Dinner was at 6pm and bedtime at 8.30pm, so that hardly left room for much else during the school week. When bored, she would create all sorts of things, such as mazes for their pet hamsters or swimming pools for their terrapins, and the 5 siblings would find their own fun.

The grandparents took them out most weekends, to the zoo, bird park or science centre.

The only tuition I gave her was after the P6 prelim exams because her grades were Bs and Cs. On hindsight, tuition was probably not needed as we discovered that her school had set very tough prelim papers, and she scored much better for her PSLE with 3 As and 1 A*.

In secondary school, she returned home at 8pm twice a week due to CCA and in her spare time, she wrote fan fiction (she has more followers than me!) and taught herself to play the keyboard and guitar.

I encouraged her to balance health and family with school work especially when the latter became a monster which took on a life of it’s own. And even when she bucked the trend and was the only one amongst her classmates sleeping at 10pm, she stood firm.

I did not keep track of her tests or exams, because it was her responsibility, and the message was always that learning does not equate to passing exams, nor competing against friends, but for herself.

In the run up to the O levels, I checked in frequently to see if she needed additional help from a tutor (while reminding her that it should be the last resort), but she reassured me that she was managing ok and was getting help from her friends in her weak areas. In the end, she did well and entered a JC of her choice.

School days are the best days!

I made a decision not to be sucked in to the rat race, to keep my focus on what was healthy and meaningful for them, and the achievement she attained today is testimony that pushing our kids relentlessly through the education mill is not the only way, and we do have a choice in how we want to bring our kids up in this over-competitive academic landscape.

Having walked this ‘alternative’ path alone, I’m glad they turned out alright.

10 years on, I am assured that I have not short-changed my kids in any way, and that I have achieved my simple goal of giving them a happy childhood, guiding them to be self-motivated, to discover their passions, and to never be afraid to chase their dreams.

For that, it’s time I gave myself a pat on the back 🙂


School Stories:#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
#12 – DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 – Tuition – First line of attack?
#14 – Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 – First day mix up!
#16 – The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 – No more T-score. Now what?
#18 – Tackling the new school year
#19 – She did it, without tuition.
#20 – So who’s smarter?
#21 – Why I do not coach my kids anymore.

 

About MummyWee

Michelle Choy is an Occupational Therapist by day and mum of 6 by night. Besides the already very demanding job of managing 5 teenagers and one 7-turning-17 tween, she is also Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in areas like resilience and executive function, to survive today’s volatile world. She is also a parenting coach and has been featured on national TV, radio and print media.

 

Do schools make the PSLE more stressful than it should be?

The 2016 PSLE results are out and something strange is happening. I’m still wondering why a parent’s response to her own child’s results was picked up by a newspaper, which has gone viral.

Our children, who have increasingly more access to the internet, are picking up on the views of us adults, and that is where they are forming their own opinions of self and success based partly on societal norms.

What should we be talking about, the days following the release of results?

The stories about resilience and students surmounting great obstacles are encouraging, and I would also love to read about the special programmes of various schools which might suit my child’s interest and aid in our selection of a secondary school.

#4 had a rough ride this year and did not enjoy her PSLE year like her 3 older sisters did. They were up for the challenge, were motivated, supported well, and fought hard.

For her, the preparations and exams leading up to the PSLE were so daunting that she was overwhelmed. Even more of a pity is that despite the ridiculous amount of work piled on them, with hours of homework every day, there was no correlation to results.

As a parent, what do you do when you see your child cracking under the pressure? Push some more? For her sake or mine?

I shall not disclose her score as I did previously with my other girls as she was uncomfortable with me documenting her P6 year and I respect that.

Suffice to say that her results were as expected and I had already come to terms with that in June as she was not coping well and we had terminated all her tuition which we began in January. Her sanity was more important to me than those 3 digits.

However, what was unexpected was that several of her classmates had low scores too, despite them having a ton of tuition. I can’t understand why parents are so caught up with top scorers and the percentage of students scoring above 250. Shouldn’t we consider the weakest link in any situation? More so when there are GEP students making up the bulk of that percentage.

I only put her in this school after giving the school in our neighbourhood a shot with my 3 older kids and realizing that the values of the principal did not align with ours. On this note, I have to say that #4’s principal is one of the best I have encountered and she was indeed lucky to have the opportunity to be in this school at this time. Her care and concern for each and every student was evident, and her greatest desire seemed to be to imbue in them solid values such as respect for others, service to the community, gratitude and humility.

I clarified with her teachers if she was in the lousiest class in the cohort, but no, I was told that it was a general mixed ability class. So that was quite puzzling. The hubs is disappointed that a seemingly good school is unable to prepare their students adequately for the national exams. It can’t be that she is a very weak student because she managed to score an A for her English.

We did not scold her, for she must already be disappointed that she does not have many schools to choose from. We also could not say that as long as she had tried her best, that was enough, because honestly, I don’t think she had given of her best in the run up to the exams.

Could we have done things differently? I do not know. Was it the pressure of the system that became too much for some of these 12-year olds to cope with? Likely so.

All I can do is to put things into perspective and tell her that the exams that needed to be taken were taken, and the results are out. This is definitely not the end, and life goes on. She has another opportunity to work hard and to do well and she should seize that chance.

Now it’s off to consulting THE GREY HANDBOOK for the 4th time! It almost feels like an old friend.

One sad fact is that because her friends come from all over the island, from as far as Yishun, Pasir Panjang and even Sengkang, most of them are choosing a secondary school near their own home and the group of them will be separated.

That is her greatest worry now, to enter an unknown school, alone.

Whichever school she goes to, we can only hope and pray that she is lucky enough to get passionate teachers who will go the extra mile to teach and encourage them, and that she will find good friends to journey the next 4 years with.

~ www.mummyweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

PSLE is finally here!

The English paper starts tomorrow. #4’s PSLE journey has been quite different from her 3 older sisters. I have a broad strategy for them, which includes private tuition for all subjects to plug the gaps during their primary 6 year.

For #4, she tried a few tutors in the early months of this year, but their teaching style did not suit her so she only had Math and Science tuition and relied on her school teachers. She was cruising along fairly well, and was excited to take her mid-year exams.

However, when she returned to school after the June holidays, her spirits seemed to falter. I think part of it had to do with the rather ridiculous workload and the expectations of her teachers and peers.

As we felt that the amount of work and pressure from school was more than sufficient, we decided to stop tuition altogether, and replaced that time with fun activities to relax.


On hindsight, I find that being in an elite school is not for everyone, because our philosophy can be quite different from the PSLE culture of the school. Some days, she was given 4 mock papers as homework, and struggled to complete them.

Her classmates were discussing which schools they were aiming for, and they were all top schools. When asked, she said she wished to go to her sisters’ school, which none of her friends have even heard of!

I was wondering how all these kids are so certain of scoring above 250, and she told me simply, “Mum, they have tuition everyday. Some of them have 2-3 tuition classes per day, and each lesson is 2 or 3 hours.”

My dear child on the other hand, is struggling to finish her homework while making time to play with her little sister.

Talk at school constantly revolved around the PSLE as though it was some kind of doomsday, and I think it does become rather depressing and stressful. I find it strange that the focus is on this one exam so much so that the students themselves start to question what education is all about.

Grilled salmon

Since the school was doing too much, I decided my role leading up to the PSLE was nothing of the academic sort, but instead, to provide her with nutritious meals. Not only will it help to give her brain and body the necessary boost, the fact that she saw me put in so much effort everyday to prepare a healthy, balanced and yummy lunch put her in good spirits.


I drew up a special ‘exam menu’ for her, and the other girls have been coming back for lunch everyday as well, and brought some of their friends home too. How I wish I had more time, and could set up a home kitchen for my kids and their friends.

In fact, the kids commented that my cooking has improved by leaps and bounds!
Prawn & potatoes on a bed of quinoa

My cooking is really random, and I use a variety of grains like quinoa, buckwheat and wild rice as a base, and sprinkle herbs, wheatgerm and soaked chia seeds for a boost of flavours and nutrients.

When they get bored of the same, I jazz things up with something different like savoury crepes. I must have stood over the pan pouring batter and flipping crepes for almost 3 hours as the kids streamed home. It is all worthwhile, seeing the kids tucking in and telling me, “This is really good, mum!”

Chicken and mushroom crepes

For a nutritious snack between papers, I have prepared cheery boxes packed full of dried fruit and nuts. I added in cranberries, apricots, white mulberries, cashew, almond, pistachio and macadamia nuts. Her bff gets a set too!

Snack box
Besides eating well, I am getting her to sleep earlier so that she will be well rested and alert. This time, being the fourth time round, we are at the same time excited yet calm.

To fellow P6 mums, we have done all we could to support our kids. They are probably feeling very anxious right now, so just reassure them. Now is not the time to nag or give them more pressure.

For all P6s who will be taking your first major exam, even though your parents may not say it, they love you very much and are proud of you. Relax, sleep early and enjoy the exams.

All the best!


School Stories:

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
#12 – DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 – Tuition – First line of attack?
#14 – Why do exams have to be so stressful?

#15 – First day mix up!

~ www.mummyweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

NEW Changes to PSLE Scoring and Secondary One Posting

The wait is finally over!

MOE has just released more details of the changes which are going to take place, starting from the 2021 cohortIn a bid to reduce the excessive focus on academic result due to the fine differentiation of students by aggregate points, they are changing to a grade band.

Since our PM announced this change almost 3 years ago, parents have voiced tremendous disapproval at this suggestion, speculating what sort of criteria would be used as the tie-breaker when there are students with the same grades, for example 4 As or 4 Bs.

Here’s where MOE is going to make the biggest change. They are introducing 8 Achievement Levels (ALs), with AL 1 being the best. This is similar to the O Level grading system, just that the mark range is different.

Credit: MOE press release

The PSLE Score is the sum of ALS across the four subjects, ranging from 4 to 32, with a score of 4 being the best. Students with a score of 4 – 20 will be streamed into the Express course.

See table above for the placement outcomes of Express, N(A) and N(T) and their corresponding PSLE scores.

The other significant change is that previously, when there were students having the exact same PSLE score fighting for the last place in a school, they would be allocated to the secondary school based on a computerised balloting.

Many parents were not privy to this, but yes, for the few students in this situation, it was down to luck. In future, choice order would be the new tie-breaker.

What this means is that, say for example there are 3 students fighting for the last place in a particular school.

Student A puts it as his 1st choice, Student B puts it as his 2nd choice, and Student C puts it as his 3rd choice.

In this scenario, Student A would be given priority for the spot.

With this wider scoring bands as compared to aggregate points, we will see a higher percentage of students who will end up in this situation.

Thus, more than ever, we have to use our 6 choices judiciously.

This new scoring system looks to be the middle ground between the aggregate score (which is too fine) and grade bands of A,B,C,D (which is too broad).

The way I see it, this seems to be the most practical solution to move towards their goals of reducing an over-emphasis on chasing the last mark and hopefully free up time and space for a more holistic education and well-rounded family life.

~ www.mummyweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

School Stories #17: No more T-score. Now what?

After waiting almost 3 years for more details, MOE has finally released some information pertaining to doing away with the PSLE aggregate score.

During his 2013 National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the PSLE T-score will be replaced with wider scoring bands, like the O and A level exams, in a bid to reduce stress levels by not sorting the students so finely.

Now we have a date. 2021.

The first batch of pupils to be affected will be this year’s Primary 1 cohort.

Parents with children from P2 to P6 can heave a sigh of relief at finally getting an answer, and continue with their current strategies.

In the meantime, the other parents are second-guessing what is in store as more information will only be released in the coming months.

The big question being, how is MOE going to address the issue of allocating places into secondary schools when they will clearly get many students with similar grades vying for that last spot.

Already, super kiasu parents have been pre-empting the announcements and are padding their children’s resumes in the event that non-academic achievements can be used as the tie-breaker.

This would be an unfortunate scenario, as instead of alleviating the current high stress levels, it will add even more stress to the children as parents push them to achieve in these other areas as well.

Furthermore, it will widen the gap between the haves and have-nots as wealthy parents have more money and time at their disposal to ferry their kids to the best enrichment classes around, some who can even “guarantee” good portfolios.

Worse, I hope that we will never see a day when parents drive their kids even harder to attain the next band up, instead of just the next point up.

The GREY HANDBOOK

What are the changes?

So far, I’m in agreement with everything that has been announced.

– that “the new system will no longer depend on how pupils do relative to each other”, as has been with the T-score.

Strange that this system has gone unquestioned for so long. If I scored an A, it shows I have a good grasp of the material, and I’m satisfied with the effort I put in. Not only will it beget contentment and equanimity, but is a healthier mentality than thinking, “I have to score an A* to beat the others.”

– that it will only be implemented in 2021 as the ministry needs a “few years to work through the changes carefully, developing and testing the new exam and secondary school posting systems”.

Such a major overhaul is going to throw up unforeseen challenges and ample time is needed to consider how the herd will respond, so that unintended consequences can be carefully smoothened out to ensure this change is indeed for the better.

– that “a five-day OBS (Outward Bound Singapore) expedition-based camp will be compulsory for all Sec 3 students from 2020”.

Brilliant. I have always believed that the outdoors is a terrific teacher, in more ways than one. More opportunities to spend time in the great outdoors is necessary especially in this age where our kids are so sheltered and spend way too much time indoors, and on their gadgets.

– that “more will be done to match students’ interests with their course of study” and “up to 12.5% of the polytechnic intake, starting from next year’s cohort, will be admitted via the new Early Admissions Exercise (EAE)”. “The EAE will assess students’ suitability for admission on the basis of their aptitude, talents and interests in the courses they are applying for. This could include interviews, aptitude tests and portfolios”.

Tertiary education admission is an important part of the whole equation, as parents would be reassured of the chances of their children entering their chosen fields, and has to be carefully administrated.

All good changes in the right direction. But how does that solve the problem of the high stress levels and parents’ unrelenting chase for sought-after-schools?

Nothing will change if mindsets don’t change.

It baffles me how on one hand, parents are waiting with bated breath to see what alternatives the MOE will come up with, yet whenever new policies are introduced, they will try to find ways to maximise their child’s chances and look for loopholes to squeeze their children into schools which they perceive as ‘good’.

There will always be a tier of parents who are aiming for the creme de la creme list, believing that the elite schools and the benefits that come with them will outweigh any cost or sacrifice, whether on their part or their child’s.

So be it.

However, for the great proportion of parents who wish there was a better way, a way where they can walk away from this academic arms race, yet not short-change their children, here’s what can be done.

Make the majority of schools desirable to the majority of students and parents, to spread out the demand.

What do I mean?

Let’s just pretend that this year, #4 were to score 250 for her PSLE. I would strongly encourage her to go to the same school as her 2 older sisters even though the cut-off point is 230.

I have witnessed first-hand how the school has shaped #2 over the past 4 years, and as a Parents’ Support Group volunteer (aka opportunity to watch her interact with her peers, have informal chats with her teachers and even her Principal), I have journeyed with her closely to know that she has imbibed much more than academic knowledge.

From their specialised Learning for Life programme which every student went through from Sec 1 to Sec 4, to the vast number of leadership opportunities to nurture them, the dedication of so many caring teachers (which I can write a whole post on) and the “looking-out-for-one another” culture amongst them, I have been converted to a loyal supporter of their school.

The branding and identity of each school has to be that strong.

This entails a two-pronged approach.

The first aspect would be for every school to have a specialised programme which benefits every single one of their students, not just a select few, and the second but equally important part, is to market these programmes well to both the students and parents.

And guess what?

All our secondary schools already have these wonderful unique programmes running!

Surprised?

Here’s what else our Acting Education Minister Mr Ng Chee Meng announced recently:

“(The next few years) will give parents and pupils the chance to understand and adjust to the new system. In the process, secondary schools will develop strengths and specialised programmes. This will allow students to choose a school that is a good fit for them”
 

In 2013, then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said that all secondary schools will offer two distinctive programmes by 2017 to develop students beyond academics.

One is an applied learning programme to help students see the relevance of what they learn and the second, a “learning for life” programme to develop character and skills such as teamwork through activities like a school expedition.

The problem is, not many parents are aware of these programmes.

I still remember the process I went through with #1 and #2 when we had to pick 6 schools after the PSLE results were out.

We took out THE GREY HANDBOOK which listed all the secondary schools alphabetically.

As with many parents, the order to select a school went more or less like this:

1) Brand name (Let’s just see.. WOAH!)

2) Cut-off point (We’ll flip around and highlight those that are close)

3) Distance (Narrow down the search of eligible schools by distance)

4) CCAs (Check that the shortlisted schools have CCAs he/she intends to join)

5) Details of programmes (Read about the specialised programmes and awards. With 165 pages of details of schools, we were overwhelmed and read only those we shortlisted)

6) Friends (All the better if possible to be in the same school)

We visited the various open houses and surfed the websites of the schools we were keen on. Problem was, we didn’t know exactly what we were supposed to be looking for.

I casually interviewed the neighbours in my condo with secondary school going children and most of them gave me vague answers such as, “The school is not bad. The Principal is quite nice. The teachers seem ok. The friends so far also ok.”

Not once did anyone mention, much less rave about any outstanding programme they knew about. Yet their own kids were studying in the school!

One neighbour did mention that her son’s school has a rock climbing wall. “Since your kids like to do rock climbing, they can consider this school.”

Come to think of it, I do not even know what specialised programme #1’s school had and she has already graduated!

Perhaps MOE needs a better marketing communications team.

Enough of “Every school a good school.”

It’s like saying “Every parent a good parent”.

Don’t we expect every parent to be a good parent?

We need to face the fact squarely that every school is not the same, just as every student and every household is not the same.

The message should be more along the lines of Every school has a unique programme. Which one fits your child?

While writing this post, it dawned on me that if #2’s school has such a wonderful programme, all the other schools must have one too!

I started pouring over the tiny print in THE GREY BOOKLET and lo and behold, I am intrigued.

What sort of specialised programmes are we talking about?

If you look under the innocuous heading of “Special Student Development Programmes” in THE GREY HANDBOOK, you will see that they run the gamut from Social Entrepreneurship training, to Eco-sustainability, Robotics and Engineering, Effective communication/public speaking, Business & enterprise/Essentials of Marketing, Leadership with service to the community and even applied learning through Aerospace!

I had actually gone through the handbook twice, once with #1 and again when #2 had a different aggregate score from her sister, yet none of these remarkable programs caught my attention.

There is a lot of information and jargon to sieve through and it is easy to get overwhelmed.

Specialised programmes

We were given 7 days to make our selection of 6 schools and as a result, we defaulted to the more easily defined match of cut-off points, potentially missing out on wonderful opportunities to discover other schools which may have been a better fit.

Then there are the niche programmes.

All schools have been building up their niche programmes, be it in sports, science or the arts.

That’s an excellent way not only to distinguish themselves, but to pool resources and groom our youngsters who show aptitude and interest in a variety of arenas.

However, say I live in the East. Would it be practical for my child to travel all the way to the West for a niche sport?

It has been physically and mentally draining for my 3 older kids as training in their niche activity took up 3 days per week. One mistake I made was not factoring in peak hour traffic.

For #1, it took her 20 minutes to get to school by bus, but an hour to get home because during peak hour traffic, the buses were full and did not stop. By the time she got home it was 7.30pm, which left her hardly enough time to finish her homework and get to bed at a decent hour.

The more realistic scenario would be to look at the schools in the vicinity of our homes, consider their cut-off points and keep in mind the niche areas.

If there is no good fit, that’s where the level-wide Learning for Life programmes would come in to distinguish one school from another.

Branding Every school

For many years, I’ve seen a strange phenomena going on in my older children’s previous primary school.

It is a popular school with frantic volunteering and balloting as it is consistently in the top 10 ranking.

However, after a few years of having their child in the school, the parents are wondering what all the hype is about, and can see no significant advantage the school has to offer. And the most dismal realisation is that the stellar results were achieved via excessive tuition.

How’s that for successful branding?


I still remember vividly an article about a school which allowed their entrepreneur club students to run the drinks stall in the school canteen. I don’t remember the details as it was many years ago but it stuck in my mind.

Parents need to hear about exciting events and experiences that go on in the schools and the media can play its part.

How will we know we have succeeded?

We need a paradigm shift from the prevailing method of choosing a secondary school to this scenario:

Mum: These 10 schools (with a various range of cut-off points) have niche activities or specialised programmes that you would like to pursue, and ethos which our family aligns with. Instead of spending 6 hours a week on tuition for several subjects, let’s allocate 2 hours for tuition on your weak subject and spend the rest of your time on family activities or other pursuits.

Another way to look at it is if the child is very talented in a particular field and sets his sights on a certain school with that niche area, it would be a great motivator for him/her to work hard to achieve the necessary grades.

Hard to study all 165 schools’ information
Time to update the way THE GREY HANDBOOK presents the information.
Now that our secondary schools are rolling out interesting and successful programmes, it is time to make the information easily digestible by parents.
 
I had the misguided impression that the “Special Student Development Programmes Offered” paragraph was simply acclaiming their school’s merit, with jargon like highly effective programme, balanced academic curriculum, and various mentions of awards, that I gave it a cursory glance.
 
The way the information is presented seems to be at the discretion of the schools, and for some, it was not clear if the programmes / overseas trips mentioned were for the whole cohort or a select few.
 

It would be immensely helpful if parents could have a separate summary booklet of all the schools’ unique programs, in a consistent format. And after shortlisting the schools, they can refer to the handbook and the websites for more information.


A cheat sheet like this would be useful (the following information was randomly lifted from the grey handbook).

Nearest MRT: Ang Mo Kio

Type of school: Co-ed / SAP / IP

Mother Tongue: Chinese / Malay / Tamil

Learning for Life programme: (For All students) Design Thinking

Aims: To prepare students for the complexities and challenges faced in this digital age of social and economic revolution and innovation.

Sec 1: Integrated learning journey with holistic learning experiences

Sec 2: Leadership camp

Sec 3: Overseas adventure camp

Sec 4: Whole school youth carnival cum learning fiesta

Programme for selected students based on aptitude: Design Thinking focusing on Health Sciences and Technology, in partnership with Science Centre Singapore.

Niche area: Hip hop dance (I’m simply picking one CCA out from their list, as it is neither listed in the grey handbook nor on their website or I’m just not enough of a sleuth.)

Special mention: The students’ work in designing and making rehabilitation equipment for real-life nations with wrist injuries, has been showcased at MOE ExCEL Feast 2013 and the PS21 Convention 2013.

Many parents hold the mindset that academic comes first, and all else is secondary. However, I can see how these concurrent programmes actually help to motivate them in their studies, and give them vital skills which would not only serve them well in the school setting but more importantly, laying a strong foundation for them as they move on to tertiary education and beyond.

If you ask any child, they will likely tell you that the fondest memories they hold of their secondary school life are the school camps, overseas trips, or organising of events with their friends.

Why wait till Primary 6 to hand out such important information about the  secondary schools and what they offer?

This information should be made available to parents much earlier. Or at least an abridged version.

Parents can then watch out for the budding interests in their children over the years, perhaps join some CCAs in primary school or externally to see if their interest is sustained, and start to make their plans accordingly.

If more details can be provided about what the secondary schools have to offer, parents can make a more informed decision as to which school would best fit their child instead of solely relying on brand names to equate with quality education.

With more parents loosening up and not joining in the fray to enter the perceived ‘good’ schools, whatever new system that will be implemented to sort the pupils by a wider band will have a chance of success at what it aims to do: reduce the stress of this high stakes exam.

A simple analogy.

Instead of trying to use genetic modification to make all fruits look like apples (or durians, the King of fruits), shouldn’t we embrace the fact that together, the different fruits make a dynamic fruit basket bursting with colour?

Changes are happening very rapidly and our children will be facing challenges which they have to rise up to and conquer.

Are they prepared?

As a nation, do we want to be shackled by the single-minded pursuit of chasing that last mark as can be seen by the billion dollar tuition industry?

The next few years will be extremely interesting, to see how parents react to the new measures and if there will indeed be a shift in mindset.

Oh well, we will have no part in this academic arms race and go on our merry way as we have always done.

The good news is, now I know what to look for, and the secondary school landscape is looking much brighter for #5 and Kate. I’m going to study THE GREY HANDBOOK to mark off some suitable schools for my son!

PSLE results: Good or bad, what do you say?
6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child
My teen in a neighbourhood school
PSC Scholarship? Wow
What the PSLE is really aboutWho is behind MOE

PSLE results: A test of the parents more than the child

ECHA – The mother of all awards

School Stories:

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
#12 – DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 – Tuition – First line of attack?
#14 – Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 – First day mix up!
#16 – The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 – No more T-score. Now what?
#18 – Tackling the new school year
#19 – She did it, without tuition.
#20 – So who’s smarter?
#21 – Why I do not coach my kids anymore.

~ www.mummyweeblog.com –  a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

Diary of a PSLE mum: Keeping a balance

When the 3 older girls had their PSLE, I couldn’t believe that some of their friends’ parents stopped their kids from engaging in all family and recreational activities after chinese new year so that they could ‘focus’.

Even as adults, we need a balance in our lives, what more these 12-year olds who are going through a rather stressful year.

The hubs bought himself a new toy recently, some fancy camera, and this time I didn’t complain because suddenly he became more proactive in taking the kids outdoors.

Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden

Being in nature has so many benefits, which includes allowing them to concentrate better and relieving stress.

Best of all, it doesn’t cost a cent!

My kids are kampung kids.

They climb trees and organise their own games with neighbours at the playground.

Monkeying around

After this post, I’m afraid I won’t be continuing Diary of a PSLE mum as #4 has changed her mind about documenting her year online and I respect her decision.

I wish all families with P6 kids a meaningful year where you bond in a different way, by encouraging and supporting your child through one of the toughest challenges they will face to-date.

By rewarding hard work, not marks per se, and celebrating every significant progress with ice-cream treats or movie nights to show them that we are with them on this journey, always rooting for them and believing in them.

All the best!

6 things to do in the PSLE year

Why PSLE kids would feel like burning their books

How #2 topped her level in English

6 tips to choose the right Secondary school for your child

What I expect from a good tutor


~ www.mummyweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~