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The End of Streaming? Full Subject-Based Banding Explained

Updated: Jan 13


Image: Credits to Straits Times (ST Photo: ST FILE)

In this Explainer, find out...

  • Why was Full Subject-Based Banding introduced?

  • What were the reactions to Full Subject- Based Banding?

  • What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of Full Subject-Based Banding?


Introduction


The start of 2024 marks the end of streaming in nearly all secondary schools across Singapore — 120 schools will adopt Full Subject-Based Banding (FSBB), a system that replaces separate educational streams with mixed classes of varying aptitudes. Students will take common subjects such as Art and Physical Education with their form class, and other subjects like Mathematics and English with classes banded according to diculty. With this major overhaul to Singapore’s educational system, read on to find out about the rationale, implementation and reactions to the FSBB scheme.


Setting the Stage for FSBB


Streaming: Old System, New Contexts


The predecessor to FSBB was the streaming system, which separated secondary school students into three courses: Express, Normal (Academic) (N(A)) and Normal (Technical) (N(T)) based on their PSLE results. Streaming was formally introduced back in 1981, in response to high drop-out rates during the 1970s.¹ In his landmark report on Singapore’s education policies, then-Minister for Education Goh Chok Tong stated that streaming was necessary to cater to students’ diering learning speeds. He argued that placing students in a singular stream was an inexible system which privileged above-average students while disadvantaging slower learners.² Ultimately, streaming was successful in achieving its original purpose — drop-out rates fell from 30 - 40% in the 1980s to 5.3% in 1997 and under 1% in 2019.³


However, streaming has faced growing criticisms in recent years, with reasons ranging from the system’s inflexibility to its socioeconomic implications.


The streaming system was criticised for providing limited opportunities for mobility between streams. Despite reforms to increase flexibility, only 10 to 20 N(T) students could transfer to the Express stream each year. This disparity continued into higher education, with N(T) students making up 5% of polytechnic graduates and 1% of autonomous university graduates.


This inflexibility and the social stigma associated with education streams caused students to internalise negative beliefs about their academic abilities. MPs with experience in teaching recounted their interactions with N(A) and N(T) students, who doubted their ability to take on more challenging content due to their stream.


Most importantly, streaming was stated to be a factor in widening social divisions, as it limited interactions between students from diering socioeconomic groups. Although streaming was intended to differentiate students based on their academic abilities, it inadvertently separated them based on socioeconomic status. Students’ streams tended to correlate with socioeconomic status, with 69% of students on financial assistance coming from N(A) and N(T). As streaming placed these students into separate form classes, combined with the social stigma associated with their streams, opportunities for interactions between socioeconomic groups were limited. In a 2019 parliamentary speech, Member of Parliament Louis Ng raised concerns that streaming was contributing to social stratification and could worsen inequality. With schools influencing students’ social circles and future employment prospects, an inflexible streaming system could limit social mobility and widen the income gap.


Precursors to FSBB: Removal of Streaming in Primary Schools and Subject-Based Banding


Though a major overhaul to streaming in secondary schools may come as a surprise to some, such changes are not novel to Singapore’s education landscape. Streaming was once implemented in primary schools as well, up until 2008. From Primary 5 onwards, students would be separated into three different streams based on their academic abilities: EM1, EM2 and EM3. The system was replaced with Subject-Based Banding in 2008, with students allowed to take a combination of Standard and Foundation subjects in a single stream. This change was assessed positively in a parliamentary reply 10 years after its implementation.¹⁰ It had increased opportunities for student interaction and reduced social stigmatisation, while successfully catering to different learning needs.¹¹


FSBB is not a wholly untested programme either. It resembles an earlier pilot programme introduced in 2014: Subject-based Banding.


The Subject-Based Banding (SBB) scheme was piloted in 12 secondary schools from 2014 onwards, allowing lower secondary students in N(A) and N(T) to take subjects at higher levels. Based on students’ PSLE and school-based exam results, they could choose to take subjects at the Express or N(A) level.¹² In the 12 pilot schools, 50% and 70% of N(A) and N(T) students from the 2014 to 2016 cohorts took at least one subject at a higher level. Most of these students continued taking these subjects at a higher level into upper secondary.¹³ With these positive pilot results, SBB was implemented in all secondary schools from 2018 onwards.¹⁴


Rolling out FSBB


The calls for reforms to streaming and results from the SBB pilot culminated in the announcement of FSBB in 2019. During the Ministry of Education (MOE) Committee of Supply Debate, then-Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung introduced FSBB as an initiative to increase the flexibility of the secondary school system.¹⁵ In his speech, he cited the positive responses to SBB and the need for reforms to streaming as reasons for introducing FSBB. In 2020, the rst FSBB pilots were conducted in 28 secondary schools. The scheme would be progressively rolled out to more secondary schools across Singapore from 2022 to 2024, reaching a total of 120 schools by 2024.¹⁶


Full Subject-Based Banding


Subject Structure


Overall, there are three distinct stages of a student’s secondary school journey where significant changes have been made. These may be classified into:


  1. Pre Secondary 1

  2. Secondary 1

  3. Secondary 2 and Beyond


As the student progresses through secondary school and learns more about their academic strengths and weaknesses, their ability to change the G level of their subjects expands, so that they can tailor their choices to what they can cope with.


1. Pre-Secondary 1


Starting from the 2024 Secondary 1 cohort, the current Express, N(A) and N(T) streams will be removed. These bands will be replaced with G1, G2, and G3. G1 will offer the lowest diculty out of the three levels, while G3 will offer the converse.


Admission standards for each stream are shown in Table 1. Students will be assigned to different Posting Groups depending on their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scores. Their Posting Group will determine the highest G level for a subject that they will be allowed to take at the start of Secondary 1.


Table 1: Posting Groups and G Levels Corresponding to PSLE Scores¹⁷


2. Secondary 1


Upon entering Secondary 1, students will be assigned to different classes according to their chosen diculty level for the subjects:


  • English

  • Mother Tongue Language (MTL)

  • Mathematics

  • Science


Students will also be able to adjust the G level for these subjects throughout the school year based on their performance e.g increasing from G2 to G3 or decreasing from G2 to G1.¹⁸ Concurrently, all students must take Geography, History and English Literature at a fixed level in Secondary 1.


3. Secondary 2 and Beyond

From Secondary 2 to Secondary 4, students may also adjust the G Level of the following subjects:¹⁹


  • Geography

  • History

  • English Literature

  • G1 Humanities


This will be determined by their aptitude and interest in the subjects. For instance, those with G1 Humanities will also be able to move to G2 Geography, History, and/or English Literature if they perform well.


From Secondary 3, students may take elective subjects like Additional Mathematics. Students may also reduce their MTL G level if they are found to be struggling following their Secondary 3 examinations.


Class Structure


With FSBB, students will now spend around 30% of curriculum time on mixed-form, common curriculum subjects such as:²⁰


  • Art

  • Design and Technology (DT)

  • Food and Consumer

  • Music

  • Physical Education

  • Character and Citizenship Education


These classes will be shared by all students in the cohort, increasing interaction between students with different academic abilities. Students may also take electives like Additional Arts and Additional DT from Secondary 3.²¹


Concerns with FSBB


Lack of Social Mixing Across Schools


The FSBB scheme serves only to facilitate social mixing within schools, where academic ability and social status are already likely to be similar. Students of higher socioeconomic status and who perform better at examinations are more likely to enrol in “top” schools that have stronger academic track records, and the converse is true of “neighbourhood” schools.²² This phenomenon of school stratication results in students largely only interacting with peers of similar backgrounds.


Since the problem was previously exacerbated by the categorisation of classes within schools by Express, N(A) and N(T), it could be said that FSBB partially alleviates it by introducing mixed-form classes. Within schools, FSBB thus has the potential to create social mixing. However, FSBB does little to promote such social mixing across schools, especially those of different Posting Groups, thus not addressing issues of school stratification completely.


Pervasive Stigmas and Stereotypes


Despite eliminating old labels, stereotypes attached to students who are less academically inclined, and therefore taking subjects at the lower G1 or G2 levels, may still pervade. Parents have sounded out concerns about potentially disruptive classmates in mixed-form classes, attributing such behaviour to students of lower academic calibre.²³ As with the old system, unhelpful biases and labelling may persist, pointing to the importance of influencing mindsets in creating desired social change.


However, since FSBB is less rigid than streaming as students are allowed to take a combination of G levels, it is more dicult to stigmatise students. As such, others might be less quick to judge them based on academic ability.²⁴ That said, only time will tell if new labels will still emerge, or if Singapore is truly willing to move away from reducing a student’s development to their academic attainment.


To dispel such stigmas, MOE has continuously challenged one-track minds and stereotypes by reiterating diversity in education pathways.²⁵ Furthermore, FSBB works in tandem with other policies, for instance, the removal of high-stakes mid-year examinations for all primary and secondary school students.²⁶ The combination of these initiatives reveals MOE’s priority in reducing overemphasis on results-driven excellence, and instead diverting focus towards holistic markers to measure a student’s growth.²⁷ With such clear direction set by MOE, attitudes can hopefully change in alignment with the Government’s goals.


Furthermore, a heterogeneous classroom, guided by teachers whose pedagogy promotes inclusivity, can help students move away from typecasting others based on academic performance by encouraging a more compassionate approach to learning.


Teachers’ Workloads


Teachers are crucial in the transition to FSBB, especially in cultivating a positive and inclusive classroom environment, monitoring the holistic development of students, and advising them about their eligibility to oer subjects at a higher level.

Yet, the transition could take a toll on teachers, many of whom may already be overworked and burnt out.²⁸ The diculties in rolling out FSBB include configuring new timetables to accommodate different subject combinations as well as managing a more diverse range of abilities in a single classroom.²⁹ With the additional load, they might nd themselves with more administrative responsibilities and facing new sets of challenges in the classroom.


Students’ Perspective


While FSBB offers students the opportunity to take certain subjects at a more demanding level, there is inevitable anxiety about the differences in rigour when students wish to go from G1 to G2 or G2 to G3. As a result of these doubts, some students may not seize the opportunity to take a higher level, even if they are eligible to do so.³⁰


Moreover, without adequate bridging lessons for students who are “upgrading” their subject, students might struggle to cope with the added requirements or might feel like they are disadvantaged as compared to peers who have already taken the subject at a higher level for an additional one or two years. Schools will have to strategise regarding how best to ease students into their higher-level subjects and monitor their progress to ensure they do not fall behind.


Yet, it is notable that the pilot SBB from 2014 did encourage students to develop their special interests further.³¹ In offering N(A) and N(T) students a chance to discard the negative labels associated with their streams, FSBB allows students to navigate secondary school with less judgement and greater confidence.³²


Conclusion


FSBB is a transformative policy, eliminating the streaming system that has long dened Singapore’s approach to education. The policy signals a shift in Singapore’s priorities, but they can only go so far in changing ingrained mindsets about prestige and stereotypes. Much of the social change envisioned by the Government is thus dependent on how willing Singapore is to let go of restrictive ideals.


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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own.


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of Singapore.

 
¹ Ministry of Education. n.d. “Supporting Our Students Through the Years — Evolution of Streaming in Secondary Schools.” Ministry of Education. Accessed November 30, 2023. https://www.moe.gov.sg/microsites/psle-fsbb/assets/infographics/full-subject-base d-banding/Evolution-of-Streaming.pdf.
² Nadarajan, Raj, and Faris Mokhtar. 2019. “The Big Read: Streaming — the good, the bad and the ugly side of an outdated policy.” Today Online, March 9, 2019. https://www.todayonline.com/big-read/big-read-having-served-its-purpose-stream ing-slowly-became-outdated.
³ Ibid.
Mokhtar, Faris. 2019. “Abolish streaming to narrow social divide: MP Louis Ng.” Today Online, February 27, 2019. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/time-abolish-secondary-school-streamin g-narrow-social-divide-mp-louis-ng.
Nadarajan, Raj, and Alfred Chua. “MPs double down on calls to abolish 'sacred cow' of streaming in secondary schools.”
Mokhtar, Faris. “Abolish streaming to narrow social divide: MP Louis Ng.”
Ng, Louis. 2019. “Make Every Class a Good Class: Doing Away with Streaming.” PAP Nee Soon. https://papneesoon.sg/2019/02/27/make-every-class-good-class-away-streaming/. Ibid.
Teng, Amelia. 2019. “From EM3 to subject-based banding: How streaming has changed over the years.” The Straits Times, March 5, 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/from-em3-to-subject-based-ba nding-how-streaming-has-changed-over-the-years.
¹⁰ Ministry of Education. 2019. “Removal of the EM3 stream in primary schools.” Ministry of Education. https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/parliamentary-replies/20190212-removal-of-the-e m3-stream-in-primary-schools.
¹¹ Ibid.
¹² Yishun Town Secondary School. n.d. “Subject Based Banding.” Yishun Town Secondary School. Accessed November 30, 2023. https://www.yishuntownsec.moe.edu.sg/parents-links/sec-1-e-registration-for-202 3/subject-based-banding/.
¹³ Mokhtar, Faris. 2017. “Normal stream students can take subjects at higher level from Sec One from 2018: MOE.” Today Online, March 7, 2017. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/normal-stream-students-can-take-subjec ts-higher-level-sec-one-2018-moe.
¹⁴ Ibid.
¹⁵ Ministry of Education. 2019. “MOE FY2019 Committee of Supply Debate Response by Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung.” Ministry of Education. https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/speeches/20190305-moe-fy2019-committee-of-sup ply-debate-response-by-minister-for-education-ong-ye-kung.
¹⁶ Ang, Hwee Min. 2023. “CNA Explains: What you need to know about full subject-based banding.” CNA, March 2, 2023. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/full-subject-based-banding-seconda ry-school-posting-groups-express-normal-streams-3315171.
¹⁷ Ministry of Education. 2023. “Full Subject Based Banding.” Ministry of Education. https://www.moe.gov.sg/microsites/psle-fsbb/full-subject-based-banding/seconda ry-school-experience.html.
¹⁸ Ibid.
¹⁹ Ibid.
²⁰ Ibid.
²¹ Ibid.
²²Ong, Xiang L., and Hoi S. Cheung. 2016. “Schools and the Class Divide: An Examination of Children's Self-concept and Aspirations in Singapore.” N.p.: Singapore Children's Society.
²³ Yong, June. 2023. “Commentary: Parents' concerns over full subject-based banding reect how sticky old labels are.” CNA, March 8, 2023. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/full-subject-based-banding-secon dary-school-express-normal-stream-parent-teacher-student-3331026.
²⁴ Yuan, Jun, and Navene Elangovan. 2020. “The Big Read in short: With subject-based banding, stigma be gone?” Today Online, February 8, 2020. https://www.todayonline.com/big-read/big-read-short-subject-based-banding-stig ma-be-gone.
²⁵ Teng, Amelia. 2023. “Education Minister Chan Chun Sing lays out potential pitfalls of meritocracy and how to avoid them.” The Straits Times, April 18, 2023. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/education-minister-chan-chun-si ng-lays-out-potential-pitfalls-of-meritocracy-and-how-to-avoid-them.
²⁶ Ministry of Education. 2022. “Removal of mid-year exams will help nurture joy for learning.” Ministry of Education. https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/forum-letter-replies/20220317-removal-of-mid-yea r-exams-will-help-nurture-joy-for-learning.
²⁷ Ibid.
²⁸ Ang, Qing. 2021. “More than 80% of S'pore teachers say Covid-19 pandemic has hurt their mental health: Survey.” The Straits Times, September 22, 2021. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/parenting-education/more-than-80-of-te achers-say-the-pandemic-has-hurt-their-mental-health.
²⁹ Kai, Wei, and Syarafana Shafeeq. 2023. “Teachers, students adapt to full subject-based banding that caters to diverse interests, strengths.” The Straits Times, March 1, 2023. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/teachers-students-adapt-to-full-s ubject-based-banding-say-it-caters-to-diverse-interests-and-strengths.
³⁰ Lim, Jun Kang. 2023. “Three years on: How secondary school life has changed with Full Subject-Based Banding.” Schoolbag, Feb 8, 2023. https://www.schoolbag.edu.sg/story/three-years-on-how-secondary-school-life-has -changed-with-full-subject-based-banding.
³¹ Yuan, Jun, and Navene Elangovan. “The Big Read in short: With subject-based banding, stigma be gone?”
³² Ibid.

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