When Education Minister Ong Ye Kung recently announced that streaming in secondary schools would be abolished, my cynicism made way for something that resembled hope.
Under this new framework, secondary school students would no longer be classified into Express, Normal (Academic), or Normal (Technical) streams. Instead, students undergo a common secondary school education with Subject-Based Banding (SBB), where they take subjects according to three bands measuring their subject proficiency: G1, G2, and G3.
In theory, this means that someone who’s terrible at Physics but acing Literature could attend G1 Physics lessons and G3 Literature lessons. This would ideally allow students to navigate their individual strengths and weaknesses, without having to conform to the standards and expectations broadly applied to anyone within the same stream.
Generally speaking, this change is great. Language does matter and labels do affect one’s self-esteem and confidence, so getting rid of streaming addresses the sense of self-worth we attach to academic results and the categories into which we classify people with said results.
As with any policy change, however, there are also valid criticisms. First, having insufficient teachers to cover G1/2/3 bandings for every subject and having to develop a far wider range of timetabling permutations are a couple of logistical concerns.
Second, there’s the worry that SBB is just another form of labelling. Even without streaming, it’s a reasonable assumption that there’d still exist a marked difference in the standards and expectations for G1/2/3 classes in different schools. In other words, a G2 English student in a neighbourhood school might not qualify for G2 English in an elite school.
While SBB might mitigate the social stratification within each school, perhaps the persistent disparity between schools reflects a larger phenomenon that the new framework alone might not be able to address adequately.
So as optimistic as I am about SBB, I also realise the social discrimination related to streaming isn’t solely caused by the education system. No matter how radical the change, it cannot be alleviated by just overhauling education policies.
And it’s this prevailing and misguided perception that is fundamentally why being in the Normal stream is demeaned at all.
One of my favourite subjects in secondary school was Design & Technology (D&T), but coming from the Special stream in a non-neighbourhood school meant that my exposure to D&T stopped after lower secondary.
Like many other non-neighbourhood schools, D&T wasn’t offered to the Special or Express students in my school as an O Level subject, although the subject is in fact offered under the Ministry of Education. The only students who were offered D&T in upper secondary were the Normal (Technical) students.
As a result of discouraging academically inclined students from pursuing D&T, we inadvertently stigmatise the students who do pursue the subject, especially if they have little choice in the matter.
Conversely, when D&T isn’t offered at all in certain elite schools, students may form the impression that technical skills aren’t a worthwhile investment. In time, this shapes their interests and pushes their ambitions in a direction that excludes these skills.
And so, even with the new SBB framework, this stigma attached to D&T won’t magically disappear.
Even though D&T is taken at the same subject banding as Chemistry, there’s no denying that G3 D&T will be assumed to be less ‘useful’, ‘relevant’, ‘profitable’, or ‘prestigious’ than G3 Chemistry.
When we don’t value technical skills, the effects are felt throughout the system. Within the Normal stream, Normal (Academic) students are conventionally considered ‘smarter’ than Normal (Technical) students. After graduation, many Normal (Technical) students go on to pursue technical education at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), which carries its own longstanding stigma. With good ITE results, they qualify to pursue a polytechnic diploma, because having just a technical education is not good enough.
In polytechnic, courses with better L1R4 entry scores may entail more theoretical assignments, such as media, arts, or business. On the other hand, most engineering courses tend to have worse L1R4 entry scores, reinforcing the notion that technical disciplines are less valuable.
There may be less stigma surrounding the polytechnic route now, but it’s mainly because an increasing number of polytechnic students are gaining entry to university.
Essentially, the idea that theoretical knowledge trumps technical skills still holds.
The reason for this is simple: technical skills are associated with blue-collar jobs, and society doesn’t respect blue-collar jobs.
In other words, when we know blue-collar work isn’t highly valued, we don’t prioritise similar subjects and skills in school.
Likewise, we end up treating blue-collar work with disdain precisely because of what we’ve been taught education should be. The subjects we hold in high esteem are related to being book smart; the skills we learn should be economically viable and, ideally, lead to high-paying and status-driven jobs.
Blue-collar jobs don’t require these subjects and skills. These professions, such as electricians, plumbers, cleaners, and construction workers (to name a few), are centred around manual labour. And because there’s little value in picking up technical subjects or skills in school, blue-collar jobs don’t command much salary or respect.
Abolishing streaming is a promising start to destigmatising Normal students, and those who are less academically inclined. But there will be limited impact if we continue to discriminate against careers typically associated with technical subjects or skills specific to the Normal stream.
For our education policies to meet their full and intended potential, an equally radical revamp of our economic policies at the same time is necessary to destigmatise blue-collar work. A vocational worker with excellent technical skills should be just as highly paid and socially respected as their academically-inclined equivalent.
Otherwise, the searing sting of stigma that our students might not face in schools under the SBB framework would merely be delayed until they enter the workforce.
And, ultimately, radical change that isn’t rooted in reality is neither radical nor change.