Paper Chase

It’s exam season all round; Singapore and UK seem to be swapping testing strategies, families are boycotting SATs; but maybe the real issue of raising standards is less about schools and testing…and more about the parents?

We are all breathing a sigh of relief as Miss Chu has just completed her first round of formal assessment here in her three core subjects – English, Maths and Mandarin. But surprisingly, the results don’t really count towards anything. (When Daddy Chu was in primary school, test results were pinned up, the class was ranked from top to bottom and pupils were made to sit according to rank!)

Singapore is currently implementing a slew of recommendations for primary education over the next few years which are aimed at “making learning more engaging and enjoyable”. They want to emphasize the process of learning and move away from a longstanding preoccupation with how well children perform in tests. There is even a push to provide more time in the school day for non-academic aspects of the curriculum – sports, and performing and visual arts under a nationwide Programme for Active Learning. This is all good news to me!

In the lower primary years, Singapore has recently abandoned the long-established calendar of major mid-year and end of year exams towards a model of “holistic” continuous assessment, comprising a wider variety of mini-tests throughout the school year. They have also stopped streaming children in P1 and 2.

While I really welcome a move in this direction, a fair number of parents here have actually expressed concern that their children will “become complacent” without the motivation of high-stakes testing, and worry that they will be unprepared for the major exams in the upper primary years. Singapore is a small nation with a billion-dollar private tuition industry, where parents take time off work to coach their children through final exams. Acing tests is a national pastime.

This is a far cry from last week’s “Let Our Kids Be Kids” campaign, which galvanized over 30,000 parents across England to take their children out of school last Tuesday to boycott the national SATs exams for 6-7 year olds, protesting that test prep was putting undue pressure on their children and robbing them of their childhood. Here in Singapore, I’ve overheard parents admit to being more nervous than their P1 children on these “mini-test” days. A parent-led strike on exams is pretty much unimaginable.

It seems strange that the UK (or at least, England), with half an eye on the success of East Asian education systems, appears to be moving in the opposite direction. There appears to be a drive by the current government for increased testing and tougher standards at every level, which are only being partially implemented due to huge resistance from teachers and parents – who complain that the joy of learning and non-academic aspects of the curriculum are being squeezed out.

So – the British government wants more high performing test-takers and Singapore wants more creative risk-takers. Teachers are running around trying to manage the continuously shifting goalposts – but – I think parental ambition and expectation play the biggest role in educational outcomes.

Children will take their cue from their parents’ priorities. If Britain wants to effectively raise academic test scores, it will have to appeal to the hearts and minds of parents who may view standardized testing with a healthy dose of suspicion. If Singapore hopes to reduce competitive academic stress on young children and allow them to develop in a more creative, risk-taking environment, the government needs to convince local parents that there are other definitions of success than a perfect report-card.

*Featured image source: The Telegraph


  1. In the English SATs there is now an emphasis on grammar such as identifying fronted adverbials and modal auxiliary verbs which I had never heard of a couple of weeks ago. Critics of the new tests say it takes away the enjoyment of reading and writing. It will be interesting how this plays out in the next few years…

    • I just took the KS2 grammar test from your FB link – and don’t think I really understood most of the questions! Only got 50%. Its hard to understand why kids need to be tested on this…not sure whether its helpful at all!

  2. It’s an interesting contrast between the 2 accademic cultures, it’s a shame for the kids there isn’t a consensus somewhere in the middle ground. No SATS in Scotland yet but it’s probably only a matter of time!

    • Yes Scotland has been spared this fiasco so far! Hopefully your two will be out of primary before they get a chance to start piling on assessments…

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