The storyline of Jack Neo’s movie “I Not Stupid” tells of three friends – Terry Khoo, Liu Kok Pin and Ang Boon Hock. Kok Pin is a talented artist but performs poorly in his conventional academic subjects. All three friends are in the EM3 academic stream; one assumes that they may have done poorly, relatively in their steaming examinations as compared to their peers who got into the EM1 and EM2 streams. Through a series of developments and twists to the plot, the story came to a fairytale conclusion – Kok Pin’s art work won second place in an international competition, and it is apparent, though not clear from the movie that he could have been accepted to a dedicated arts school overseas to further develop his talent.
Neo’s movie has a fairy-tale ending, but as always there are sociological undertones underpinning the storyline. What Neo is trying to demonstrate from his movie is that talented kids whose talents aren’t apparent by conventional measures used by our education system will fall through its cracks.
Here is a more realistic scenario. Joe is a secondary three student in an express programme. He is an avid cartoonist and loves drawing cartoons from comics. His penchant for cartoon drawing went so deep that he would take any opportunity to draw his favourite cartoons. Joe does exceedingly well in his Art and Design classes, but that’s about it. In his end of year examinations, he failed his mother tongue, mathematics and science subjects. Joe’s mother is worried for his future. If he did badly for the “O” levels next year, he may end up in the Institute of Technical Education.
Thus, the reality is that our conventional system of examining student over general and widespread areas meant those with specific interests and talents whilst good in their chosen areas, may not do well in other areas and as a result, fall through the cracks. Joe is one example. We could also have a budding journalist whilst acing his English and Literature could be failing his mother tongue, mathematics and science subjects.
Hence, as far as possible, we should consider changes in our education system that will move it towards an all embracing one. And such changes cannot be too disruptive that results in the system detracting from its former functions that will adversely affect majority of students. Instead, they must complement the current system to make it more inclusive.
One possible inspiration for change can be drawn from the admissions system practised by the National University of Singapore (NUS) under the stewardship of Professor Shih Choon Fong, who is currently President of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Under Shih, NUS practised discretionary admission for 10% of its places. Such will allow NUS to admit students who do not perform well according to conventional academic indicators, but are otherwise talented in their own ways.
Such discretionary admission practices, if practised at NUS can be implemented for our polytechnics. Students from secondary schools who show promise in fields that they excel at but may fall at the hurdle of generalised examination across multiple areas may be considered for admission to courses at the polytechnics. If they fall at the hurdle of the national examinations, usually the “O” levels, they may not meet the cut-offs for the courses they are interested in at the polytechnics. Hence, the need for discretionary admissions in our polytechnics.
It will be a tremendous waste if such talented students slip through the cracks. A discretionary admissions system in place within our polytechnics serves as a net to catch students who fall through. With the current system, students who do badly and cannot make it to their desired courses in the polytechnics have to undergo training at the Institute of Technical Education before gaining admission to polytechnics. A considerable amount of time and money will be invested in this long educational journey. Thus, this discretionary practice allows for the admission of students with demonstrated aptitude for their field directly from secondary schools. This means that our polytechnics may set aside a certain percentage of places in their courses for such students. It offers an opportunity for talented students to pursue their field of interest immediately, and the possibility of a qualification, i.e. a diploma which can be a springboard for their educational aspirations or careers.
Thus, for our example above, Joe could be considered for admission into the School of Design programme offered by our polytechnics under the discretionary admissions system. Similarly, a budding journalist may be admitted to a programme offered by the School of Communication of our polytechnics under the same system.
One advantage is that such a practice is student-centric. Conventionally, if a student is not doing well in his subject areas, the teachers would conduct extra coaching or remedial sessions for him. Some students may respond to it, whilst others will just switch off – if they are not interested in the subject, they will remain uninterested and not take any pro-active action to improve. To force improvement in these students will be like forcing a square peg into a round hole. Needless to say, it is a waste of time and energy to coerce an improvement out of them. If such students are already passionate in a field, a student-centric approach will serve to nurture their interest, and develop their interest with the necessary qualifications that will aid them in their future careers.
How can such a change be implemented? The teachers of such students, usually in secondary schools, have a crucial part to play. If the student does not do well within the generalised assessment system over wide areas, the teacher should not pre-judge the student as a poor student, but consider the possibility that the latter could be talented in an area that cannot be picked up by conventional assessment indicators, which in this case is usually the “O” levels aggregate score. The next step will be to zero in on the student’s strengths and speak to the latter about his passion and aspirations. Obviously, such will require close rapport with the student so that the he will open up with regards to his aspirations and interests.
A good time-frame to assess such a student’s interests and aspirations will be between his final year examinations of the year before the national examinations and the mid year of the year of the national examination, e.g. between the final year examination of secondary three and the mid-year examinations of secondary four. Once the teacher has determined the student’s aspirations and interests, he or she has to amass a portfolio of evidence demonstrating the student’s potential in his area of interest. Thus, Joe’s form teacher will need to amass a portfolio of his works during art class which show evidence of his promise.
There must be another additional step to ensure that Joe is serious about his interest and aspiration, and such involves an interview or consultation with an educational counsellor. Once the counsellor is satisfied that Joe is serious about his passion, he may apply to the polytechnic that practises the discretionary admissions system. At the polytechnic end, it may offer bridging courses or workshops to ease such students into the coursework proper.
Thus, only minor changes to our current education system is needed in order to plug the cracks that some talented students may inadvertently fall through. The changes can be implemented in our polytechnics, which follows the NUS system of discretionary admissions for students who demonstrated potential but may not do well in a conventional examination system. To implement the system, the polytechnics have to set aside a certain proportion of places for such students, and run bridging workshops and courses to ease the students into their diploma programmes proper. Form teachers of such students play a crucial role in identifying their strengths and aspirations, and there is no end in emphasising the importance of the part they play.
An inclusive education system is one that is reactive to the aspirations and passions of students, and nurture them to provide the latter with a springboard to reach greater heights in their careers beyond. As such, cracks in, which otherwise talented students fall through, and who may never realise their potential, must have nets placed under them.