Welcoming Subject-based Banding in Singapore’s Secondary School: Reform or Re-formation of Our Superstructure?

There was a momentous, if not overdue, education policy announcement in the first week of March 2019. In five years’ time, secondary school students in Singapore will no longer be streamed into Express, Normal Academic (N (A)) or Normal Technical (N (T)) streams. Beginning 2024, there will instead be full subject-based banding (SBB) and students will take up subjects at higher or lower levels based on their strengths.

In a Straits Times article dated 6 March 2019, Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung said, “With full SBB implemented, […] we would have effectively merged Express, N(A) and N(T) streams into a single course. […] So from three education streams, we will now have ‘One secondary education, many subject bands’. We will no longer have fishes swimming down three separate streams, but one broad river, with each fish negotiating its own journey.”

In nine months, from January 2020, 25 secondary schools will pioneer this subject-based banding initiative. This article argues that the work of banding students may not be carried out in full as claimed, nor will it be as fluid as the broad river metaphor that Minister offers. I would venture to add too, using an analogy derived from Karl Marx’s theory, that there are huge base and superstructure rocks to negotiate as we begin this much-needed swim.

Marx defined ‘base’ as the forces and relations of production within a society, which determines the various groups of people found therein; the nature, hierarchy and structure of relationships between them; the roles that they play or are allowed to play; as well as the materials and resources involved in producing the things needed and wanted by society.

A ‘superstructure’ is Marx’s term for all other aspects of society. These include culture, ideology encompassing worldviews, ideas, beliefs, norms and expectations; identities that people take on; social institutions such as education, religion, media, and family, among others; as well as the political structure of the country and the State, or the political apparatus that governs society. Marx argued that the superstructure develops out of how the base operates, and in doing so, strengthens the power of the dominant group in the society.

It must be recognised that neither the base nor the superstructure is naturally occurring, nor are they static formations. Both are socially constructed by the people in a society, and both are the sedimentations of various social processes and interactions between people that are constantly shifting and evolving in unintended directions.

The base of Singapore education system built on streaming students is forty years old. Streaming was part of our primary school provision for thirty years until the SBB was implemented for Primary Five students in 2008. Up until that year, primary school streaming was one of the most controversial, and yet the most stoutly defended, policies in the history of Singapore’s education system. There were divergent messages within the State’s discourse of streaming during these three decades. One that stuck in my mind is feeding students what they can digest.

The 1979 Goh Report, which partook in the institution of streaming, spoke of it as a means of giving students “half a loaf when a whole loaf will choke” – a metaphor that is far from egalitarian, and even downright condescending. Streaming has always also been seen as a magical solution for reducing attrition rate in our school system. During his parliamentary speech on 5 March 2019, Minister Ong took this argument in defending the decades of streaming further. He claimed that if our education system had not reduced attrition rates through streaming, social stratification would have been far worse. Yet, the State knew that it was not an egalitarian policy.

Former Minister for Education, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in a 2004 Parliamentary session, pointed out that egalitarian policies may not always work, and that streaming is more focused on outcomes. He noted how standards have fallen in British universities as a result, not only of rapid expansion, but of many years of experimentation with egalitarian policies in schools, which have led to a lowering of standards so that more students can pass and obtain the same qualification. He concluded that Singapore should stick to a system that is focused on achieving strong outcomes for all.

Weaving the thread of both Mr Ong’s and Mr Tharman’s arguments, essentially streaming had been a non-egalitarian policy held on by our education system for an outcome that was seen to be more egalitarian. Mr Ong also went on to say that stigmatisation is not a government policy but a societal response. The fact is the base of our society was built on inequitable curriculum access and stratification by the State forty years ago, and a host of superstructure has grown out of this base.

For instance, Singaporeans who view children streamed into lower tracks as coming from an inferior upbringing, one that is not in line with their sets of values, is not uncommon. I have seen how quickly some teachers, school leaders, parents and adjunct educators equate a good student to a good person. Equating students from lower tracks to people with lesser moral values is not a surprising syllogism and, I would argue, a worldview that owes its debt to our history of forty years of streaming.

Literature on educational research since the 1970s have warned of how education systems reproduce and reinforce class stratification and how people can be systematically and indirectly categorised, labelled and excluded from the mainstream and elite strata of society, economy, and politics because of their race, gender, sexuality, age, and class. The State cannot disclaim such worldviews from its longstanding policy. The base could have been changed so much earlier, and the superstructure allowed to reconstruct since then.

In 2002, the Remaking Singapore Committee, while acknowledging that streaming in primary schools has allowed pupils to study at their own pace and helped them to go further in school, was concerned that streaming at Primary Four is done too early, is too exam-based and may be socially divisive. The Committee proposed refining the system to allow pupils to take subject modules of varying difficulty.

Our other concerns should also be that our students who are caught up in the lower tracks take on learner-failure identities. This point was made by Member of Parliament, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar in her parliamentary speech on 9 March 2019, where she spoke about how her students in the Normal streams were convinced they were failures in learning mathematics.

Studies done by scholars, such as Pollard and Filer, show that students do not behave randomly in response to school expectations and learning contexts. Rather, they build on existing biographies and experiences and act in ways which are often patterned. Parentocracy, a system where parents deploy their greater economic, cultural and social resources to secure their children’s educational advantage, is now a set part of our societal response to the decades of educational streaming in our competitive education system.

The approach in which schools manage their practices could also contribute considerably to the students’ sense of success and failure. The Ministry of Education’s SBB booklet for primary school, which has been implemented for a decade now, recommends the practice as such: a child has the flexibility of taking a mix of standard or foundation subjects, depending on his or her strength in each subject. There were 17 curricular combinations drawn up by the Ministry in this flexible banding policy, but a quick survey of our primary schools’ implementation of the SBB initiative shows that schools are currently offering between four and six choices. Timetabling around a set of 17 combinations has proven too much for many schools and this desultory result of 25% of the possible combinations continues to this date.

How will our secondary schools which offer between three and five times more subjects than their primary counterparts cope with this work of timetabling? The pilot SBB school, Edgefield Secondary, had to go through more than 100 permutations before coming up with the final version of their current timetable. How sustainable will this work be in all secondary schools?

During my PhD fieldwork analysing the enactment of SBB amongst four primary school principals, only one of them took on the challenge of providing more than five combinations to their students. This principal offered ten different combinations and had to literally hold classes under the staircases. Beyond the logistical and technical challenges, my PhD study also showed that the modularity of the SBB combinations requires an entirely new set of decision-making strategies for our primary school leaders.

My study concludes that the perspectives policy actors at the school level use as conceptual frameworks in confronting a new policy are paramount in the work of defining, deciding and doing the policy. Only two out of the four principals in my study understood the conceptual framework of the banding work they have to carry through. The teacher in my case study class was a warm, affective teacher, but his implicit pedagogy was to continue to have low expectations of his students, taught them to the test, and instilled a fear of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in them. The principal in my case study school saw his main task as making sure the students have a chance at getting better results in the PSLE through this new SBB reform, and towards this end, he only offered four curriculum combinations.

I would like to conclude by stating that beyond the logistical and technical complications of the structural adjustments in allocating teachers, classrooms and the assiduous, more complex timetabling work, there will be cognitive disjuncture and limitations which all policy actors within the school needs to overcome in the enactment of this policy. Our educators need to overcome the discrete and neat categorisations engendered by the streaming mindset and move towards a more complex way of deciding, planning and enacting the banding of students into so many choices of subjects. Classrooms will have to be much less homogenous, while pedagogies more differentiated.

The intellectual, emotional and moral demands on all stakeholders will commensurate with our education system when this reform unfolds. We should also be cautioned that research has shown the claim that educational reform make as a special agent of social redemption is difficult to sustain. Minister Ong said that there are no reasons why the stigma of streaming should not be removed with SBB if society plays its part. I share the Minister’s hope and I do applaud this reform but I am wary of this magic bullet argument.

I have noted, just as many other researchers do, that both track placement and mobility vary along racial lines with an overwhelming number of minority and low socio-economic status students placed in the lowest tracks. It is argued that tracking maintained the existing distribution of power and privilege in society, one that is stratified to meet the demands of capitalism.

A large number of our Malay-Muslim children are placed in these lowest tracks in primary and secondary schools in Singapore. Will banding be the game changer for our Malay-Muslim children who have been underperforming in the current education system? Will the enduring issue of Malay-Muslim children streamed into the lowest tracks be a thing of the past with SBB?

The relation between the base and the superstructure is a dialectic. Theorists tell us that if there are large enough changes within the base, this will be reflected within the superstructure. The questions I would like to pose are not how large a change this reform will bring about, or how long it will take the superstructure to change; but will SBB in our secondary schools be the reform it promises to be, and make an impact on the way we value all our students and think all of them worthy of equitable curriculum access? Or will it be a re-formation of the old stratification along the lines of the three ‘G’s? Will the fluid river we are promised merely flow over the older rock formations of the current base and superstructure? ⬛


Dr Mardiana Abu Bakar is a lecturer with the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Academic Group of the National Institute of Education in Singapore. Her teaching duties revolve around curriculum policy, theories, and enactments. She lectures on the pedagogies of dialogic teaching and reflective practices. Her scholarship looks into issues of ontologies, opportunities, and potentialities of policy-making, and curriculum implementation. Her three current research efforts are focused on issues of diversity in secondary school classrooms, intervention and support models in a childcare institution. She also looks into the ontologies of Institutes of Technical Education alumni and students within the pathways of the education system. She is also a consultant with Yayasan MENDAKI in developing a signature pedagogy through an Ethics of Care in the MENDAKI Tuition Scheme.

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