School Stories #12: DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped

The extent that parents would go to try and secure a place for their child in the school of their choice via DSA seems to have reached new heights. Some parents start serious training for their kids from the time they are in primary 1 while others sign their kids up for DSA-related enrichment courses to equip them with skills to ace the interviews.

I first heard about it 8 years ago when #1 was in P4. A group of us parents were sharing how worried we were that the cut-off aggregate for the schools we were keen on were out of reach for our kids with their mediocre grades.

A more experienced mum shed light on us ignorant newbie parents that there was this route called DSA which had recently been implemented. Our eyes lit up as this seemingly whole new opportunity opened up before us and we started to consider what sporting prowess our kids had.

MOE website

For the uninitiated, the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme was introduced by MOE in 2004. The rationale being:

Schools with distinctive programmes can participate in the DSA-Sec Exercise, to admit up to 5% of their Secondary One intake on a discretionary basis to benefit students with strong interests or aptitude in these distinctive areas. This gives schools with distinctive programmes greater flexibility in student admission so as to allow a more diverse range of student achievements and talents to be recognised. It also gives due consideration to abilities not fully assessed in the PSLE.
Seemed like a fair initiative. However, as with most policies, kiasu parents manage to turn it the other way around. Got loophole to get into the school? Let’s go all out and try!
The group of us continued our very animated conversation and ‘helped’ one another to narrow down some possible CCAs. For #1, it seemed like squash would be her best bet. She has good ball sense, squash courts are available in our condo, the school that I was hoping she could get into offered squash via DSA, and their coach happened to be giving private lessons at our condo. 
Sounds like a plan!

I contacted the coach to arrange for a trial. He agreed that she had good ball sense and was agile. What she lacked was stamina, which could be built up. #1 enjoyed the game and looked forward to the weekly lessons.

After a few months, she improved by leaps and bounds and I asked the coach for his assessment. He said that she had the potential, and if we wanted a shot at DSA, she would need more intensive training and we would have to increase the lessons to 3 times a week, for 1.5 hours each. In addition, she had to run 2.4km on her own on the other non-training days. And that was for starters.

Was he trying to groom an Olympian? Not only did it sound like a financially draining plan, but where would she find time for all of that? There was so much more I wanted for them in their childhood years.

I gave the issue some serious thought. What were our priorities? Would we allow this to take precedence over other activities if things clash? Would the rest of the family have to work around her schedule? What about financial considerations? Is it justifiable? Would she be able to cope with both the academic and sporting demands during her P6 year? What do we do if she starts to crack under the pressure? Allow her to give it up?

So many questions came to mind and try as I did, I could not align myself with this strategy. I could foresee the possibility of reaching a stage where we would be at the mercy of this sport because of the effort and money which had been thrown behind it, and it would be too late. I didn’t want to embark on something I could not sustain comfortably for the whole family.

I am happy for our kids to pursue any interest with no strings attached, but I didn’t want to be held ransom to a choice I allowed to be made. With a big family, I had to be very focused on our priorities. I was also very aware of the underlying values being taught to the kids through our decisions. I didn’t think ‘spending excessive time and money through sport to gain entry into a school’ made the cut. If she was extremely gifted in it, that would be different.

Moreover, I didn’t want her to face a day where she would feel that she was a failure because she didn’t perform well enough to gain entry into the school. Because that is not what sport is about.

Before I decided to write this whole idea off, I wanted to get the complete picture. I called up the school we were eyeing on, and asked them how many places were they offering via squash DSA. The officer couldn’t give me an answer, but when I kept pressing her, she said probably 1 or 2.

Great. Thanks for making the choice easier for us.

Over the next 8 years, I watched as friends put their kids in competitive CCAs and ferried them around for extra ‘outside’ lessons and competitions to boost their skills.

The kids could sense that their parents are very stressed about their performance, and sometimes, it seems like all that matters to their parents are their achievements. If you hang around elite coaching centres, the atmosphere is tense.

It is no wonder that some kids start to feel that life seems to be one big competition. Everyone is fighting for limited opportunities. We have to win, win, win. Childhood is tough. Life is stressful.

Over the years, as I listen to some of my close mummy friends discuss the intricacies of DSA and plot their strategies, I did question if I was not trying hard enough to support my kids. However, what stops me from joining in the fray is that I have made my decisions based on our priorities and values.

I watched on as some of my friends’ kids managed to get into top schools via DSA. The stress doesn’t end there. In fact, it worsens. They find it hard to cope with the pressure and their self-esteem may be affected. It is not easy for students with an aggregate of 210 to keep up with classmates with aggregates of 260. They end up needing a lot of tuition to catch up, and with training days, there is not enough time to fit everything in. These poor kids are exhausted.

When friends ask me for advice if they should try the DSA route, I point out another angle which they usually miss. At the end of Secondary 2, the students have to choose their subject combinations (in almost all schools). If your child is at the bottom band, he may not be able to select the subjects he wants because those with better grades get first pick.

You would think the story ends here. But there’s a twist.

Never would I imagine a day where one of my kids would gain entry into a school via DSA.

But #3 did!
I wanted her to get into #2’s school as I like many things about the school. However, she missed the cut-off by 2 points and was posted to the school of her 2nd choice. We filled in an application for appeal, and as #3 has some background in sports, she was called in for the selection process for the school’s niche sport as they had vacancies under DSA. We were quite bewildered as #3 had never played the sport, but they were selecting based on general sporting abilities.

Before we went for the try-outs, we had a long discussion about whether she would enjoy the sport as she would have to participate in it for 4 years. She was hesitant as she had never tried it in primary school before, but I have always known that she would love team sports, given her sociable and cooperative nature. She also enjoys most ball games and my instincts told me that it would be a suitable sport for her.

I wasn’t too worried that she would have to stick to it for 4 years even if she didn’t like it because I knew from the older girls that things have changed and you are not allowed to change CCA for 4 years irregardless of DSA or not.

Both #1 and #2 chose CCAs which were new to them and have learnt to embrace and excel in it over the 4 years, so I was all for them persevering in one CCA. I also discovered that all CCAs have stand-down periods before the exams so I wasn’t too concerned about her having insufficient time for revision.

#3 got selected into the school’s niche sport and as I predicted, she loves it.

Do I think DSA is a good initiative? Yes, but not the way it has evolved.

Am I thankful the MOE came up with DSA?

You bet I am.

Sane tip: Once you get admitted into a school via DSA, a place has already been reserved for you and you can’t change your mind after the PSLE results are released. Your child is also NOT allowed to transfer to another school for the entire duration of the course.

Save tip: Sometimes we make parenting way more stressful and expensive than it should be. I am quite certain that when the MOE mapped out this initiative, they never intended it to benefit the sports vendors, but our children.
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.


~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~


7 Replies to “School Stories #12: DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped”

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights and experience. Jazz is doing P1 next year, and I'm already very bewildered by this DSA thingy. It's so relevant when you mentioned there might be problem keeping up if one rooted with other academically stronger classmates, and he's not. Very stressful!

  2. Yes, parents have really gotten carried away with this initiative! It's sad how it was meant to benefit the children but has ended up creating more stress for both the kids and the parents.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience… totally agree! And haha yay another platform to share my view again.

    I believe that the DSA was started with good intentions. To de-emphasise the t-score, since some kids may crash at a high-stakes exam. I think it's great to try to relieve some of the stress from the PSLE, and encourage kids to take up a hobby, and do well in it. So that they are more than 10 year series /past-year exam paper automatons. And can still get into their desired school if they miss by 5 points or less. At this margin there should be no difficulty keeping up with the rest of the school.

    The sad part is when parents try to use DSA to get into 'branded schools' even if the academic gap is super wide. If MOE really wanted to regulate it, they could state that PSLE t-score still has to be within 10 points? Not sure if they already do, but doesn't seem so. Then again, what's in it for schools when it comes to DSA is also talent to bring in the medals, so it's a shame that they will still admit kids whose t-score is so vastly below that academics will certainly be a struggle. Does the child gain from all this? I think not…

  4. Thanks for that, Lyn!

    You are right. MOE should start looking into it and re-assess if a cap is needed.

    In many cases, the schools seem to 'use' the kids for winning medals and accolades, and it doesn't feel like the welfare of the kids are top priority. Sad.

  5. 2 of my 3 older kids used DSA, but no crazy training to get to it. Nothing quite out of the ordinary other than what they've been doing already. Whew! And actually – we're thankful for the DSA.

  6. Ah, thanks for sharing this. That is what DSA was initiated to recognise. Natural talent. Parents have gone overboard to try and get their child to excel. And then there is still the problem where the students can't cope after getting in.

    I've heard of a child who got in via DSA even though his scores were far from the cop and 2 years later, he was still doing so badly that the school asked him to leave. Such a sad outcome. Definitely not what children should be put through.

  7. Well, my no.2 had score some 8 points below school's COP. He had a great 6 years there and we are thankful for many opportunities given. He was to be working there too, except he then received NS enlistment letter. hahha. No.3's case is more extreme. He was always at the bottom of the school cohort, but he expected it, and thankfully not despondent – these are important to look out for in the kids. Good for them to accept, adapt, and move on with their life and just work it out. He led in his CCA until his Sec 4 year last year bc of DSA. Instructor messaged me to ask me to do up this No.3's portfolio and apply DSA to a top JC that he was at. No.3 said he didn't want. Fine! 😀 So ends anymore DSA for the time being for us.

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