Life Beyond Grades

An initiative started by a group of parents, who aim to drive a mindset shift among all in Singapore, to alleviate the increasing pressures of school on our children.

Life Beyond Grades hopes to address the over focus on getting an ‘A’ – and instead, value and champion the development of traits such as perseverance, passion, innovation and resilience.

Given the technological disruption on the horizon – where 50% of the jobs in today’s world will no longer exist in 15 years time, they believe it’s time to broaden our narrow definition of success. They need to go beyond exams, to further encompass the nurturing of skills, our children’s love for continued learning, while embracing the multiple pathways that each child can take in their journey towards success and happiness.

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Even if you were horrified at the idea of hovering over your child as Amy Chua did in her polarizing 2011 bestseller “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” I’m betting there was a part of you that looked at her perfect children with at least a tinge of envy. As portrayed in the book, Chua’s magic formula of no playdates, no TV and always being No. 1 in everything (except for gym and drama, of course) ended up producing two girls who were straight-A students and who also were wildly talented in music. Oh, and they both ended up going to Harvard University.

Critics predicted that daughters Sophia and Lulu would end up being “mentally ill, friendless robots,” according to a recent “where are they now” profile in the Telegraph. Instead, they ended up being “polite, modest and thoughtful” as well as successful, the article says, and they remember their childhood as tough – but happy.

But are the sisters the norm or exception to this type of parenting?

Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah spoke in Parliament on Wednesday (Jul 11) after the debate on “Education for our future”, raised by several Nominated MPs. She said that while the ministry might not agree with some of the strategies or solutions offered by MPs, it shares the same objectives – to ensure that the education system is accessible, inclusive and leads to good opportunities. She noted that much of the stress talked about is driven by the assumption that there is only one path to success, when in fact there are many.


Is Life Beyond Grades advocating mediocrity and telling youth that they don’t need to study?

No. Life Beyond Grades is not telling our youths not to study, or that it’s okay be lazy or complacent. They fully believe that studying hard is important, and we’re not trying to champion mediocrity in youths. They are simply telling parents that we should not let our children’s lives be consumed by their studies, or let the chase for A’s and high grades be the only yardstick by which we measure their success. All children develop at a different pace, and some of them may not excel academically, but have other talents beyond their textbooks. So we as parents need to be mindful of this, and encourage our children to discover what their other strengths they have.

To the youths, they want them to know that a test or an exam score does not determine their future success as a person in society, and to not feel that it is the end of the world when they do not get the desired grades in school.

Why the emphasis on the PSLE scores in our campaign then? Why not leave the cards blank or have ALL of them read, “It did not define me” ? Why not O Levels then?

In Singapore, PSLE is the first major national examination that all children go through in our education system, so they featured PSLE scores in this campaign because they wanted it to be something that every Singaporean can identify with. They wanted it to be the first thing that caught your eye, and for it to compel people to want to read the stories of the people who have been courageous enough to share their stories about their journey since PSLE, and why it would have been easy to let that grade define them, but yet they chose not to let it.

Some of the people featured are holding boards that read “It did not define me” only because their PSLE scores were based on the old exam system, and thus their scores might be confusing to the rest of campaign.

As for O Levels scores, those differ according to the number of subjects you took, so it would have been less of a standardised measure.

Why are you focusing on Grades when your campaign is advocating a Life Beyond Grades?

The reason why the grades are featured front and centre was meant to highlight the fact that so many of us go around carrying the burden of these scores in results driven Singapore, and are ashamed of our grades… until now. They wanted this campaign to break the taboo discussing PSLE scores in public, and children being made to feel like their exam results at the age of 12 years old has to define who they are for the rest of their lives.

Why did you feel the need to include high scorers (250 & above) instead of just focusing on the low scorers (100 _199)?

They believe in a balanced approach to this, and are trying to show how in spite of their scores, all of the individuals who were featured made different life-changing choices along the way that exemplified grit, resilience, creativity, empathy and tenacity to be where they are today. Success as we know is not a one-path journey, and we were hoping to show that with our campaign.

All of the high scorers featured chose to not pursue careers in a “safe industry”, but instead forged their own paths in more challenging, and less familiar industries in order to lead a life that they could find meaning and fulfilment in.

Also, all of the individuals featured were people that they approached, as they felt that they had inspiring stories to share as part of the campaign.  Our hope is that others will feel inspired enough to share their own stories with the community via the #LifeBeyondGrades hashtag, and that has been happening organically since the campaign launched.

Why are they not featuring stories of people with lower scores to show that they are also capable of making something of themselves?

They do have stories of people with lower scores, and we have also reached out to ITE through out contacts at NYC to see if there are more inspirational stories there that we can tell. We also hope that through the stories shared online, more people may be willing to step forward and tell their own stories because we know that many of them do exist.

Don’t you think that people who come from middle to high income families should be excluded from this campaign because they naturally have a greater advantage than students from low income families?

They think it’s great that all our volunteer ambassadors made the time and effort to be a part of this campaign, and lend their voice to an issue they feel strongly for – bettering the environment in which our children learn, and encouraging the community to champion more than just academic excellence as a benchmark for the next generations measure of success. Regardless of one’s socioeconomic status, this is all a cause we can get behind. This elite/privileged talk seems to have eclipsed this bigger picture. If institutional changes can lower the stress level and help higher ups to re-evaluate and reposition curriculum to be more future ready, surely it will benefit all within the system.

How is this campaign applicable to people who come from less advantageous backgrounds?

While They need to recognise that people from less advantageous backgrounds have different, and more serious challenges to their education journey, they also believe that the values that they are championing (perseverance, passion, innovation and resilience) apply to everyone regardless of background. They also want to urge parents/ caregivers to try to be more mindful of their child’s emotional and mental health, as rising exam stress and school pressure is contributing to a rise in youth suicides.

What’s next?

They will be organising a series of talk, panels and workshops that address issues like, The future of employment (Coming Nov 2019), and what kind of skills your children need in order to be future ready, as well as financial planning for savvy parents.

In August, they posed a question on Instagram stories asking the public what their burning questions were for MOE, and these were the top ones that were submitted. The answers listed here are extrapolated from MOE’s website, and also from conversations that they had with them.

From here, They can then take the conversation forward to consider more options and solutions to ease the pressure from our children and prepare our children to be ready for jobs in the future.

Why can’t they do away with the PSLE?

The PSLE is a useful checkpoint at the end of primary school to gauge a student’s current understanding of key concepts and academic strengths, and to find a secondary school that best fits their learning needs. The PSLE result also serves as a fair and transparent mechanism to determine a student’s secondary school posting.

Removing the PSLE would mean having to find a new way to allocate secondary schools to students. If they consider the through train method from all primary schools to secondary schools as an alternative, it would lead to excessive stress during P1 registration, which might be even less ideal.

To ease off the exam pressure, the PSLE will not have the aggregate score in 2021, so children will no longer be graded relative to one another. These changes reduce fine differentiation at a young age, and recognise a student’s achievement regardless of how their peers have done to help them focus on their own learning instead of competing with others. Results for the PSLE are also now released without the top scorers, and without the highest and lowest scores.

Other than their PSLE results, students can also seek admission to a secondary school based on their achievements and talents across a diverse range of areas (including art and sports) through the Direct School Admission (DSA) exercise, which takes place before the PSLE. Throughout their secondary school education, students will have opportunities to transfer across courses based on their readiness at that time to study the curriculum offered in each of these courses.


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Why is there a need for streaming? Won’t such measures disadvantage children that cannot score in grades, even if they are talented in other areas? Won’t such measures also cause social inequality even within each cohort?

The main objective of streaming is to help students with different learning paces. For those who are struggling to keep up with the syllabus, streaming offers the chance for these students to learn at a more gradual pace. On the other hand, for students who find the syllabus too slow, streaming will allow them to learn at an accelerated pace.

Conversely, removing streaming would undermine students who have the capability to progress from moving faster. As such, MOE is offering those who find the syllabus challenging with multiple to still access good jobs and opportunities in the future.

Streaming can have the unintended result of stigmatisation and labelling by society, which can result in students feeling demoralised and pressured. As such, MOE has now refined the system to address this, and have considered that students do have strengths in different subjects.

MOE has introduced Subject-Based Banding (SBB), a form of differentiated learning where Primary 5 to Secondary 5 students can take combinations of standard subjects and foundational subjects taught at a more gradual pace. This means that students who find it harder to keep up in one subject will still take other standard subjects with their classmates instead of taking all subjects at foundational level, unlike the previous system.

Why are schools so exam focused, especially when this is not a fair way of judging our children’s capabilities? Can we at least abolish exams at the lower primary level? Why are CCAs not examinable as well? How can we grade such that it values skills?

Exams indicate how much students understand the subject taught. These results help teachers better gauge how each student is doing and cater to students who require more help, as well as moderate the pace of each lesson based on how the class is performing. Preparing for exams also do hone useful traits, such as helping children practice perseverance, resilience and to strive for excellence.

While exams do not reflect the full range of our children’s capabilities, they should focus on just studying core subjects instead of spreading themselves too thin by taking even more exams in different areas. The current examinable subjects build strong linguistic foundations and provide a strong mental rigour for problem solving, which are essential skills for the workforce.

MOE has been working to provide a holistic education for our children and focuses on bringing out the best in every child by enabling each student to discover their talents, realise their potential, and develop a passion for learning that lasts throughout their life.

Beyond exams, co-curricular activities (CCAs) still play an important role for children to develop their interests, talents and soft skills. All secondary schools also develop their own Applied Learning Programme (ALP), which allow students to pursue a wide range of interests across Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), the arts, entrepreneurship, humanities and languages. Through ALP, students learn through experimentation to explore, ideate and innovate. Some of the results of this programme include programming robots from scratch to move on different types of surface and producing videos on distinguishing between real and fake news.

For students who also display capabilities in their CCAs or across other diverse areas such as art or sports, they can also qualify for the Direct School Admission (DSA) exercise, which allows for admission to a secondary school before the PSLE. Furthermore, all five polytechnics and three of the local universities – Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and the National University of Singapore – will be expanding their aptitude-based admissions, allowing students who show passion and interest to get into the course of their choice.

Why can’t we do away with CL2?

Doing away with Mother Tongue entirely could possibly affect the confidence of Singaporeans to engage our counterparts in the region effectively. Knowing our Mother Tongue also does widen our children’s horizons, and offer a different set of cultural lenses and perspectives to connect with the world.

Why must our children be subject to so much stress in school at such a young age? Can MOE reduce the pressure from schools?

It is challenging for students to have to juggle many subjects, balance homework and face exam pressure. Moreover, it is counterproductive for students to spend long hours studying, doing their homework or being at tuition, to the extent of sleep deprivation, burnout and anxiety, among others.

To help to ease off the pressure, MOE has put several initiatives in place to reduce pressure among students. These include changing the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) scoring system to measure how well a student has learnt instead of how they did compared to their peers, ensuring that schools have a homework policy to regulate the amount of homework across departments, and providing different avenues for students to get into the schools they want.

Each school also has the discretion to plan their curriculum, classroom management, method of teaching, and rigour of teaching in different ways to address the pressure that their students face, and cater to the needs and learning pace of their students. This means that aside from the common exams like PSLE, GCE “O” Levels and GCE “A” Levels, the difficulty of the homework, assessments, classes and school exams are fully determined by the schools and not MOE.

At the same time, we should note that pressure on students do not just come from exams alone. Within the society and among some parents, there is a deeply entrenched belief that only specific schools can help a child do well. This can cause children a lot of stress because if they do not secure a spot in these schools, it can evoke the fear of “never being able to succeed in life”.

However, this belief is unfounded, and it is important to let our children know that no matter what they score, that they are still supported and that it does not make them any less capable, and definitely not any less of a person. Also, regardless of the PSLE scores, we have a diverse secondary school landscape that caters to a variety of needs, interests and learning styles which students can choose from to bring out their potential and nurture an even greater passion for learning. This would still lead to good job and life opportunities for our children.

Why do schools have so much homework?

Homework reinforces students’ learning, contributes to their progress and cultivates important qualities like diligence and self-discipline. However, it is counterproductive for our students to be spending excessively long hours on homework. Currently, schools have already put in place a homework policy and mechanisms to regulate, monitor and coordinate homework across departments and subjects.

Why does MOE keep focusing on keeping Singapore as number 1 in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)?

MOE has always been focusing on ensuring that Singapore students gain the necessary knowledge and skills to lead a successful and meaningful life, which has inadvertently led to Singapore being ranked favourably by PISA.

MOE still has regular reviews of the overall curriculum taught and methods of teaching in line with the PISA test findings to open up their perspectives to a wider range of policy options. For example, PISA has started looking at social and emotional skills such as perseverance and self-esteem. These are important measures for MOE to understand the effectiveness of their policies in these aspects and gain a good framework to better structure their future initiatives for students.

Finland also has a high PISA score, yet the children there seem less stressed. Why can’t Singapore’s education system move towards the Finnish education model?

 Let us first look at the Finnish education model. Finnish children aged three to seven have play-based curriculum in pre-school, and they do not learn to read and write at this point. When Finnish children enter their first grade, the focus is still on playful learning, and they have less homework compared to other countries, freeing more time for extra-curricular activities and play at home. They also do not have constant standardised testing, so teachers monitor their students’ progress by other indicators, such as group projects and personal portfolios. In high school, about a third of classes are electives, and students can choose which matriculation exams they want to take.

Such an education system, like every other education system, has pros and cons. While the Finnish education system eases off academic pressure across a child’s schooling years, it does make a few trade-offs. These trade-offs are necessary, and it depends on the current conditions, values and culture that each country has.

In Singapore, MOE seeks to balance academic rigour with play, such as helping our children capitalise on their formative years to learn how to read and write in pre-schools. This helps them to communicate, grasp ideas and learn new concepts early. At the same time, children are given time to play and interact over breaks, as well as enjoy activities like art, music, sports and excursions to help them explore their passions and interests.

Through consistent tests, schools can constantly monitor how our children are doing, understand where they need more support in, and cater to their learning paces by allocating a class which matches their level of understanding every few years. Without this system in place, students who have a strong understanding of the subjects would not be able to move faster, and students who require extra attention would not be able to get the help they need. Moreover, such rigour will teach our children perseverance, resilience and the ability to strive for excellence.

Such academic rigour teaches these important values, which helps to prepare our children for life, and could possibly be one of the factors of Singapore’s lower unemployment at 2.2% in 2017 in comparison to Finland’s unemployment rate at 8.5% that same year.

Regardless, placing too much emphasis on either extreme is not healthy, and it helps that MOE seeks to find a good middle ground to balance both academic rigour while helping our children discover and embrace the joy of learning.

Can MOE consider making it mandatory for all single session schools to start an hour or two later? Won’t this arrangement be better if our children can also have later classes instead of having tuition, and end in time for parents to pick them up after work?

Parents call for later schooling hours for their children because they want their children to have more rest. However, there are still a few considerations that MOE would need to have.

For one, if they do shift the schooling hours later, they still cannot guarantee that children would not make up for it by staying up later. Also, once the schooling hours are moved later, there would be a new set of implications. Shifting the hours to an hour or more would mean that students would be mostly commuting at the same time as the working crowd. This can lead to increasing the number of people on public transport during the already crowded peak hour and can also lead to a strain on our public transport system. It could also mean more traffic on the road, and affect the timing that parents reach work.

Making this change can lead to negative consequences with no known positive outcomes at the moment. MOE can look at implementing these measures when they have more certainty that there will be good results and minimal negative issues from this.

Children’s Development and Future

The Government advocates for a “passion for learning”, but how can our children ever have a passion for learning with so much stress, exams and homework?

There is no fixed way to foster a passion for learning, as each child discovers and develops this over different circumstances and time. However, MOE has been trying to create more chances for such circumstances to happen by creating the space and time for children in between exams, homework and school work to learn through play and by applied learning.

Under the Programme for Active Learning, primary schools provide varied and fun learning experiences which combines classroom learning and outdoor activities to stimulate interest and curiosity. As for applied learning, students are exposed to learning in a real-world context through an ALP. This programme allows students to experiment and engage in self-directed learning in projects in different fields of their interest.

In addition, the school syllabus exposes children to a lot of disciplines, areas to explore, and taught is in different ways for children to think and experience. Teachers also play an important role in facilitating learning. Having teachers who are passionate about the subjects they teach, and other life aspects can inspire students and make a big difference in their lives. The school also celebrates the achievements for students that show any form of improvement in school or excel in areas such as volunteer work or sports.

One of the reasons why our children are stressed by grades is because employers hire by looking at grades. Due to this, if our children do not do well, they would not be able to get good jobs. If MOE advocates focusing on a child’s learning and not on how well they do on exams, is the government then willing to hire those who do not do as well in school?

How does it benefit Life Beyond Grades to initiate this? Is this an MOE funded campaign?

Life Beyond Grades is initiated by a group of parents who want the best for our children, and who are concerned about the rising depression and suicide rates among the youth in Singapore, the immense academic pressure our kids face in school, and whether our children will be well-equipped for future jobs when they are out into the workforce.

They want to open conversations with the government, schools, educators and parents to rethink academic stress and pressure on our kids. Through this, we hope to change perceptions of what determines our children’s success, to explore how all of us can support and nurture our children to reduce unnecessary pressure and enable them to eventually lead the lives they want, and how we can help our children prepare for jobs in the future.

Life Beyond Grades is not funded by MOE. The social media campaign is a parent volunteer led initiative.

However, as this is a community project, they seek funding from the National Youth Council to organise a series of talks, workshops and panels aimed at tackling the issues at hand.


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