The Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme was introduced in 2004 to fulfil two aims. One was to provide Primary 6 pupils with more routes to enter secondary school. The other was to “give better recognition to talents and achievements in domains outside of general academic ability”.
With the DSA, students with talents in sports, music or the arts or those who have shown particular aptitude in an academic subject can apply for direct admission to a school of their choice — even before taking the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination).
For some parents, the DSA is an opportunity for their child to enter a top school which he or she might not have otherwise qualify for based on PSLE results. Others get their children to apply for the DSA thinking that this would give their children two shots at trying for their dream secondary school — once through the DSA, and another through the regular Secondary One posting exercise.
The DSA scheme for Distinctively Superlative Achievers
Scrolling through the selection criteria and processes of some popular top schools, I realise that the bar is set high for admission under the DSA scheme. Students hoping to make the cut via a sport need to rank within the top three in national competitions. Students applying under the music domain need a minimum of a Distinction in a Grade 7 examination. Those hoping to convince the school of their academic prowess need to have excelled in competitions such as the Maths Olympiad. In addition, most students applying under the DSA scheme will go through rounds of selection tests such as a General Aptitude Test, interviews, and auditions.
Last year, only 2,700 of the estimated 15,000 applicants were admitted under the scheme. This is fewer than one in five applicants who were successful, or 6.9 per cent out of the cohort of 39,286 students.
Given such a stringent selection process, it might appear that the DSA scheme has achieved its purpose of sifting out the truly talented students and allowing them to pursue their areas of interest in a secondary school of their choice, even if they may not have done as well academically as their peers entering the same school through good PSLE results. If this is the case, it would be heartening to see our education system moving away from the narrow focus of academic excellence to recognising students with other talents and helping them to develop in these areas.
Gaming the DSA System
However, in recent years, a proliferation of courses that prepare a child for the DSA has sprouted. In order to build an impressive portfolio for the DSA, some parents try to groom talents which may or may not have been inborn in their child. In some instances, children are put on fast track courses despite not being developmentally or physically ready.
DSA grooming can be an expensive affair. Sports coaches charge up to $300 per hour for an individual coaching session. MP Denise Phua commented in Parliament that it is an “open secret” that the DSA benefits children who have more resources from a young age.
Based on figures released by the Ministry of Education, 60 per cent of students enrolled under the DSA scheme over the last five years live in Housing Board flats. Given that 81 per cent of Singaporeans reside in public housing, this suggests that a larger proportion of successful DSA applicants reside in private housing compared with the rest of the population.
This leads me to ask:
- Is the playing field is truly level?
- Are the students who were successful under the DSA scheme are genuinely talented or merely groomed?
As it is, our children are already pressured to out-perform their peers in order to get a higher PSLE aggregate score and better chance at going to a “good” secondary school. Burdened with school homework, tuition homework, and after school remedial classes, should they still be saddled with additional enrichment courses with an eye on the DSA scheme if they are not inherently talented in that particular area?
Should additional time be devoted to preparing portfolios and going through gruelling DSA selection procedures during the PSLE year? Would this simply place additional stress on the child? As parents, we have to evaluate whether it is worth putting our children through all this, sacrificing their childhood and mental health in the process for a mere 18 per cent chance of getting into a top school.
Although there were 126 secondary schools accepting students under the DSA scheme last year, I have yet to come across someone who had applied to a neighbourhood school with a niche programme that matches his interest. Anecedotal evidence suggests that most parents are gunning for top schools, especially those offering the Integrated Programme.
Good school = Good future?
Growing up as a driven student in a highly competitive education system, I too, had bought into the notion that success in life depended on scoring straight ‘A’s, attending top schools, and landing a prestigious scholarship.
However, meeting people from various walks of life over the years has helped to broaden my tunnel vision. A sample of such people include:
• A boy who had attended neighbourhood schools and enjoyed much of his childhood playing table tennis. He graduated as one of the top students in his university cohort and landed his dream job in a large firm within two months of graduation. He has continued to excel in his career ever since.
• A top school alumnus and scholar who graduated from university in the bottom 10 of his cohort, and another who is grappling with career stagnation and dissatisfaction.
• A student who felt that his future was ruined because he did not enter one of the top secondary schools. He ended up in his last choice, a new school without a proven track record. There he met caring teachers who moulded his character, and who gave him leadership opportunities in his CCA.
I have come to the realisation that while attending a top school may put a shine on our children’s CV, getting into one will not make or break their future. In fact, it may be the stress of getting into one or surviving there that breaks them.
I therefore welcome the announcement by the Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng that all secondary schools will each offer two distinctive programmes in various domains by next year to “enable more students to benefit from the DSA scheme and tap on the range of programmes our schools offer”.
Even as the Ministry of Education makes adjustments to the DSA scheme, let us as parents also re-examine the way we view it. Rather than to see it merely as a passport to top schools, let us use the DSA scheme to place our children in schools with niche areas that can truly nurture their talent, should they show and aptitude or passion in a particular area.