Is the PSLE a relevant measure of a Child’s Abilities?

On the recent ‘The Straits Times roundtable, ‘How much does PSLE matter?, seven panelists provided their opinions and on the question: “How much does PSLE matter?” The questions includes: “Is the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) a relevant measure of a child’s abilities?” and “Is there too much focus on results, and too little on helping children discover and explore their interests?” The panel consists of Ms Denise Phua, who heads the government parliamentary committee for education; Ms Genevieve Chye, divisional director of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) engagement and research division; and criminal lawyer Josephus Tan.

Getting Good Grades

During the roundtable, several of the panellists acknowledged the merits of the PSLE because it instils values like discipline and hard work. However, The Straits Times’ senior education correspondent, Sandra Davie argued that students who are late bloomers are disadvantaged by the PSLE. Moreover, such an exam also “skews the priorities in education” because teachers geared their students on getting good grades at the expense of meeting the broader objectives of education.


The PSLE is meant to be a checkpoint to gauge the pupils’ strengths and help them figure out their next step. This is because there are also other routes to success beyond primary school today for children.

Checking before taking the next step

On the other hand, Ms Phua articulated the view that MOE has made efforts to reduce the over-emphasis on academic results and further qualified by stating that the PSLE is still only one aspect of a person’s ability. This is because there are people who did not obtain good PSLE scores but have gone on to do well in university. Similarly, Ms Chye highlighted that the PSLE is meant to be a checkpoint to gauge the pupils’ strengths and help them figure out their next step. This is because there are also other routes to success beyond primary school today for children.

Moreover, the UOB executive director and head of group retail marketing, Wendy Ong who has three sons, noted that parents need to recalibrate their expectations a parent’s responsibility is to try and understand how they are able to help their children learn rather than getting good grades.

One of the panelist, Tracey Or, who is a former teacher and mother of five, highlighted that the school environment and peer pressure can add to the stress on the children. This resulted in her making the decision to homeschool her two children, such as her daughter, who is now 10 years old. In addition, Mrs Or highlighted that her daughter asked for tuition in Primary 3 because her schoolmates would compare how many tuition classes they had.

In addition, Dr Henry Toi, who is the managing director of education firm Nurture Craft, opined that the current task involves helping the children discover their strengths and provide the necessary support them to help them achieve it.

Ultimately, it is noteworthy that this year’s batch of 38,808 PSLE pupils had made history by producing Singapore’s best showing at the national exam since it was introduced in 1960 because around 98.4 per cent of them were able to progress to secondary school.

PSLE pupils in the 2016 cohort


progress to secondary school

The influences behind PSLE

Before analysing the merits of PSLE, there must be an analysis of the background behind the PSLE and the corresponding asian culture that feeds its importance. It must be noted that intelligence and success are deeply ingrained in asian culture, which means that parents who want to see their children succeed would do everything within their power to support and push the limits of their children. In addition, this drive for success is further fueled by the institutionalisation of systems to gauge intelligence. It is not clear when the rise of institutionalisation of education truly began but it may well have originated from China due to the existence of the imperial examinations.

As a side point, the imperial examinations was a civil service examination system back in Imperial China. This was a means of selecting candidates that are suited to take up bureaucratic positions of governance. Accordingly, the imperial examination system was the major source of shaping China’s intellectual, cultural, social and political life.

Importance of PSLE in Singapore

Given the above, the implementation of the PSLE in the modern context is used to stratify students based on their level of intelligence. The inevitable result is that the smarter students are naturally grouped together in a particular school. This is because after the PSLE examinations, these students are to move on to the Secondary school level and such schools have cut-off points, which means that the smart students are able to enter into any Secondary school but the not-so-smart students are limited in their options of Secondary schools who are willing to accept them. As a side point, this allows for the smarter students to become smarter and also the first instance of breeding social hierarchy.


it seems artificial to determine the long terms success of a child based on the grades that he or she obtains when he or she is only 12 years old.

The perspectives on PSLE

As such, the merits of the PSLE have been hotly debated more recently amongst Singaporeans especially after the incident of the KiasuParents Co-Founder’s disappointment with Son’s PSLE score, because it seems artificial to determine the long terms success of a child based on the grades that he or she obtains when he or she is only 12 years old. If a child is to be discriminated at first instance by the PSLE scores, then it may well be discouraging for these children who may well be late bloomers or have interests in other fields.

While it is true that the importance of the PSLE could be reframed as a checkpoint, it is submitted that a child naturally undergoes a school-based examination every quarterly and the parents have a responsibility to take heed where the child is failing in a particular area. Nevertheless, the PSLE is a national based examination and it provides for a national gauge amongst children of the same age. On the other hand, it is still premature to state that the PSLE score becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of a child’s future failures or limitations in his or her future endeavor.

Overall, it will take a considerable period of time to change this asian mindset of being focused solely on grades and more importantly, to alter the mindset that the PSLE examination is the “be all and end all”. Accordingly, there are many other challenges in life and it would be wise to equip the children with a set of necessary skills to survive and achieve happiness, whatever they determine it to be.

To conclude, it is possible that the PSLE examinations may be removed altogether one day so that young kids are able to mature and enjoy their childhood. In addition, a side benefit of its removal is that even the parents would not be pressured to ensure that their young child are academically prepared but be able enjoy the quality time spent with their children, who are in their young, vulnerable and especially formative years.