New Education System

In August 1978, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee was tasked to lead a study team to identify problems in Singapore’s education system and propose solutions.1 The government had felt that a thorough review was crucial to align the education system with the rapidly changing social and economic needs of the country.2 A key aim of the exercise was to consider how education policies and their implementation could be made more flexible to enable each child to learn at a pace suited to his or her ability.3 The resultant recommendations laid the foundations for a system of ability-driven education based on streaming known as the New Education System (NES).

Shortcomings in the education system

The Report on the Ministry of Education 1978 (also known as the Goh Report), released in March 1979, identified high education wastage, low levels of literacy and ineffective bilingualism as the main problems in the education system.4

The Goh Report studied the flow of pupils through the education system, from primary school up to the tertiary level. The report noted that about 71 percent of the Primary 1 cohorts from 1971 to 1974  passed the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Thirty-six percent of these students did not attain at least three General Certificate of Education Ordinary (O)-Level passes, while 14 percent of those who passed enrolled for pre-university education and nine percent went on to university. Furthermore, the attrition rates (referring to dropout plus failure rates) at primary (29%) and secondary (36%) levels were the highest compared with those of France, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and Japan.5

Taking the system as a whole and tracing those who sat for both the PSLE and the GCE O-Level examinations, the team found that only 19 percent of each primary school cohort passed both languages at the O-Level. In terms of literacy, the report noted that less than 40 percent of the student population achieved the expected minimum level of competency in English and mother tongue.6

These problems stemmed largely from the peculiar situation created by the existing bilingual policy in which the languages of instruction (primarily English and Mandarin) were not spoken at home by some 85 percent of schoolchildren.7 This meant that most children struggled to absorb content in a language that was unfamiliar to them, not to mention that what they studied in school was not reinforced outside of curriculum time. This troubling state of affairs was exacerbated by the switch from Chinese- to English-medium education, which witnessed the accelerated establishment of English-medium schools, along with the mass recruitment and training of new teachers to the detriment of the quality of teaching.8

The Goh Report pinpointed weaknesses in the policies, systems and procedures of the Ministry of Education (MOE). Foremost was the rigidity of the education system, in which all schools followed the same curriculum and examinations. This could not cater to different absorption capacities and rates of learning among students. Another pitfall was the lack of long-term planning and specific objectives to guide the curriculum – for example, there was no clear definition of “effective bilingualism”.9

Having identified the problems in the education system and its underlying causes, the team proposed several recommendations that formed the basis of the NES.Among the major changes that resulted from the Goh Report was the streaming of pupils into different courses at the upper-primary and secondary levels depending on their language proficiencies and academic abilities at Primary 3 and 6 respectively.10

Recognising that the basic objective of education was to produce literate and numerate school-leavers who could go on to acquire other skills, the report recommended that the first three years of primary education focus on language proficiency, so that pupils would have a strong foundation for the learning of content such as science, mathematics and other subjects. Pupils who were less academically inclined should be allowed to learn at a more relaxed pace and be given the opportunity to excel in vocational and commercial training.11

The team suggested a system of bilingual education with the emphasis on English. The highest scorers could choose to do both English and mother tongue – Malay, Chinese or Tamil – at the first-language level, and opt to learn a third language such as German. Average and above-average pupils would do English as a first language and mother tongue as a second language. Those who could not cope with two languages would focus on achieving English proficiency and take up mother tongue as a second language at a lower level.12

Aware that the effectiveness of the streaming system depended on its accuracy, the team proposed features to minimise and rectify mismatches should they occur. These included recommending that the first streaming should take place only after three to four years of primary education, as well as provisions for lateral transfers between streams to allow adjustments for students who may excel or do poorly after the initial streaming. Intelligence tests would also be developed as an additional method of assessment.13

There was widespread public interest in the streaming system, and the subject emerged as the focus of a four-day parliamentary debate.14 Among the concerns raised were the social stigma and reduced access to higher education potentially faced by children who had been channelled into a lower course of study.15 On the other hand, there were also parents and teachers who felt that the proposal of the NES was reasonable and preferable to the prevailing situation, since pupils would be allowed to develop at their own pace and become competent in at least one language.16

On 30 March 1979, Parliament endorsed the NES with the agreement that there should be flexibility in implementation, particularly to accommodate the wishes of parents; that there would be periodic adjustments and changes to the structure, taking into account the experience and advice of principals and teachers; and that there would be a review of the revised education structure after two to three years.17

Primary schools
The NES was implemented in primary schools beginning with the 1979 Primary 3 cohort.18 These students were streamed at the end of Primary 3, based on their examination results in Primary 2 and 3, into one of three streams:

1. Pupils who passed Primary 3 would be streamed into the normal bilingual course where they would learn two languages (English and either Malay, Chinese or Tamil) and take the PSLE after three years at the end of Primary 6.

2. Those who passed Primary 2 but failed Primary 3 would be streamed into the extended bilingual course leading to the PSLE after five years at the end of Primary 8.

3. Those who failed both Primary 2 and Primary 3 as well as a test administered by the MOE would be streamed into the monolingual course, which led to the Primary School Proficiency Examination after five years at the end of Primary 8.19

While the normal and extended bilingual courses were academic courses that prepared pupils for the PSLE, the monolingual stream was a non-academic course focusing on basic literacy and numeracy as well as to prepare pupils for vocational training.20

The results of the first streaming exercise exceeded the estimates given in the Goh Report, with 84 percent of 49,271 Primary 3 pupils advancing into the normal bilingual Primary 4 course.21

Secondary schools
The NES was implemented in secondary schools starting with the 1980 Primary 6 cohort.22 At the time of implementation, pupils were streamed based on their PSLE results into the special, express or normal tracks, with provisions for lateral transfers between the streams.23

– The top 10 percent scorers could opt for either the special or express course, both of which lead to the O-Level examination in four years. The difference is that those in the special course would do English and a mother tongue at first-language level, while those in the express course would study English as a first language and a mother tongue as a second language.

– The next 40 percent were streamed into the express course.

– The next 10 percent could opt for either the express or normal course. Pupils in the normal course sat for the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) examination in their fourth year with the option to take the O-Level examination after an additional year of study. (The CSE was renamed Normal Level from 1984 onwards, and its syllabus became a subset of the O-Level syllabus.)

– The remaining 40 percent were streamed into the normal course.24

Effectiveness and subsequent changes
Overall, the NES led to significant improvements in bilingual effectiveness, a higher number of passes in the PSLE and O-Level examinations as well as a decline in attrition rates.25

The percentage of pupils obtaining three or more O-Level passes rose from 60 percent in the pre-NES years to nearly 90 percent in 1985. Attrition fell from the pre-NES rate of 29 percent to eight percent among the first batch of Primary 6 pupils who underwent streaming. Likewise, attrition among the inaugural batch that entered secondary schools fell from the pre-NES rate of 36 to six percent.26

A number of changes have been introduced over the years to improve the accuracy of streaming and to fine-tune the curriculum to help students reach their fullest potential at a pace suited to their learning aptitudes. For example, the Gifted Education Programme was introduced in 1984 to nurture intellectually gifted pupils.27

The NES was modified in 1991 following the results of a study that found that more could be done to address the needs of weaker pupils, specifically the 20 percent who did not make it to secondary school.28 Firstly, streaming was delayed from Primary 3 to the end of Primary 4 to give pupils an additional year of study to build a strong foundation in English, mother tongue and mathematics.29

Additionally, the normal bilingual, extended bilingual and monolingual streams were replaced by the EM1, EM2 and EM3 streams (“EM” stands for “English and mother tongue”). Pupils in the EM1 course studied both English and a mother tongue as first languages; those in EM2 studied English as their first language and a mother tongue as the second language; while those in EM3 studied English as the first language and a mother tongue as a third language, focusing on reading, listening comprehension and conversation.30

All pupils go through six years of primary education, culminating in the PSLE, which functions as a placement test to determine the type of secondary school course most suited to each pupil.31

The NES was said to have achieved its objective of reducing educational wastage, and established a long-term commitment to tailor education for a spectrum of abilities and talents.32 However, streaming remains contentious, and there have been calls for alternatives due to reasons such as the pressure that it places on children at an early age and the adverse impact on their self-esteem.33

Efforts have been made to ease streaming while ensuring that the system would remain flexible enough to meet the diverse needs of pupils. For example, the EM1 and EM2 streams were merged in 2004, and EM3 was scrapped in 2008.34 In its place is a subject-based banding that groups students according to their strengths in different subjects rather than by language ability alone.35

Janice Loo

1. P. M. Raman, “New Team to Study Education,” Straits Times, 17 August 1978, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2.  Soon Teck Wong, Singapore’s New Education System: Education Reform for National Development (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1988), 1. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 SOO)
3. Raman, “New Team to Study Education.”
4. Goh Keng Swee and The Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978 (Singapore: Singapore National Printers, 1979), 4–1. (Call no. RCLOS 370.95957 SIN)
5. Goh and The Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, 3–1, 3–3.
6. Goh and The Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, 1–2, 3–4. 
7. Soon, Singapore’s New Education System, 9; Goh and The Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, 1–1. 
8. Goh and The Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, 1–1, 4–4.
9. Goh and The Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, 4–1, 4–3, 4–5, 5–1.
10. Soon, Singapore’s New Education System, 15–16.
11. Goh and The Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, 6–1.
12. Goh and The Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, 6–1.
13. Goh and The Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, 6–1, 6–4–6–5.
14. “The Main Point of Concern in the Debate,” Straits Times, 30 March 1979, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Leslie Fong, “Why Parents Should Have the Final Say,” Straits Times, 28 March 1979, 1; “Most People Would Think That Streaming Is Good, but There’ll Be Queues to Meet MPs,” Straits Times, 1 April 1989, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Dr Goh’s Plan: Fair Enough, Say Parents and Teachers,” Straits Times, 16 March 1979, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Leslie Fong, “All ‘Ayes’ for Goh Report,” Straits Times, 31 March 1979, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Soon, Singapore’s New Education System, 15.
19. Soon, Singapore’s New Education System, 15–16; Masie Kwee, June Tan and Thomas Wee, “New Start for 91,000 Pupils,” Straits Times, 5 July 1979, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Soon, Singapore’s New Education System, 16.
21. “84 PC Make It to Normal Course in Primary 4,” Straits Times, 22 November 1979, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Soon, Singapore’s New Education System, 16.
23. “Students Can Switch Course,” Straits Times, 19 June 1980, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Soon, Singapore’s New Education System, 16–17; Hedwig Alfred and Abdullah Tarmugi, “And Now it’s GCE ‘N’ Level from Next Year,” Straits Times, 7 August 1983, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Soon, Singapore’s New Education System, 25–30.
26. Soon, Singapore’s New Education System, 28, 30.
27. Gifted Education Branch Singapore, Gifted Education in Singapore: The First Ten Years (Singapore: Gifted Education Unit, Ministry of Education, 1994), 12. (Call no. RSING 371.95095957 GIF)
28. Chua Chong Jin, “Education Changes Proposed to Help Weaker Pupils,” Straits Times, 21 February 1991, 1; Ng Wei Joo, “Changes in Education System to Ensure Fair Chance for All,” Straits Times, 9 July 1991, 24; Sandra Davie, “School Starts Today Along with New Education Schemes,” Straits Times, 2 January 1992, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “The Three Phases of Proposed Primary Education System,” Straits Times, 17 November 1990, 29; Ng, “Changes in Education System.”
30. Sandra Davie, “Most Make It to EM2 in Pri 4 Streaming Exercise,” Straits Times, 20 November 1991, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Chua Chong Jin, “Education Changes Proposed to Help Weaker Pupils,” Straits Times, 21 February 1991, 1; Ng, “Changes in Education System.”
32. Sandra Davie, “Streaming – a Painful but Fruitful Policy,” Straits Times, 7 December 2002, 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Sandra Davie, “End Streaming to Reduce Stress, Urge Parents,” Straits Times, 3 March 2001, H13; Sandra Davie, “Here’s the Foundation of a Better System,” Straits Times, 29 September 2006, 15; Sandra Davie, “Find Alternatives to Streaming,” Straits Times, 6 June 2002, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Sandra Davie, “Primary School Streaming Relaxed,” Straits Times, 19 March 2004, 1; Lynn Lee, “A ‘Merger’ That’s Good for Everyone,” Straits Times, 1 November 2004, H11; “EM3 Stream Scrapped,” Straits Times, 1 January 2008, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Jane Ng, “EM3 Stream to Be Dropped from 2008,” Straits Times, 29 September 2006, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 1 November 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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