BY CAMERON KHENG
From 2024, the “Express,” “Normal (Academic),” and “Normal (Technical)” labels that have long been household names in Singapore will officially cease to exist. This momentous change comes as a result of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) latest policy, Full Subject-Based Banding (FSBB). FSBB was unveiled in 2019 by then-Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, and its announcement sparked immediate jubilation among students, parents, and politicians who hailed it as the long-awaited “end” of streaming. Bouts of optimism were common across various sectors in society, with some politicians even likening the policy to the slaying of a “sacred cow.” Despite these upbeat sentiments, however, it is important to consider just how well the policy can achieve its own purported goals. As we shall see, the FSBB policy is both clumsy and contradictory, sowing serious doubt over the claim that it would end streaming.
How FSBB Works
Before embarking on a critique of the policy it is helpful to understand how it works. When it is fully implemented in all secondary schools come 2024, FSBB will operate on three central mechanisms. First, it will remove the “Express,” “N(A),” and “ N(T)” courses along with their labels. Second, it will grant students the ability to take their subjects at a level that matches their interests and aptitudes, i.e., some at an easier level and others at a harder level where appropriate, instead of taking everything at the same level. Finally, instead of grouping students into classrooms by their stream, form classes under FSBB will be mixed, comprising students of “different learner profiles.” This purportedly allows students to interact with peers whom they may not have otherwise crossed paths with under the traditional streaming model. In sum, the FSBB policy aims to produce three benefits over streaming: it eliminates labelling and stigma, it permits curricular customisation, and it promotes social mixing.
Two Official Narratives of FSBB
Broadly, the official discourse surrounding FSBB has been anchored by two narratives about what it would bring to the table. First, the MOE claims that FSBB will unify a once-fragmented secondary school system. This narrative is captured in the policy’s slogan, “One Secondary Education, Many Subject Bands,” which is often paired with infographics that depict the three former streams being amalgamated into one. Second, FSBB is framed as a policy that will allow students to recognise and develop their “unique strengths.” Students under FSBB are supposedly in a better position to discover their latent talents since the prior system of streaming had been known to impose restrictions upon students’ subject choices.
Depictions of a “unified” secondary education system and the amalgamation of streams
In the following sections, we shall unpack the specific features of FSBB to show how the policy contradicts its own grandiose narratives.
Contradiction #1: The Persistence of Streaming
For FSBB to achieve its goal of “One Secondary Education,” no trace of streaming should remain. Extreme as this requirement sounds, it is only the logical consequence of the claims made by parliamentarians, policymakers, and journalists that FSBB will “replace,” “scrap,” and “abolish” the former system of streaming. Their optimism is justified only if it is matched by an equally strong commitment to eliminate streaming. This does not play out in reality, however, as streaming still exists in name and in practice under FSBB in its current iteration.
First, one need only consider the fact that certain schools at the top and bottom of the educational hierarchy are exempt from FSBB to realise that streaming still exists, if not within schools, then certainly between schools. The policy contradicts its own claim to build “One Secondary Education” when it exempts the most and least elite schools, including Spectra Secondary School (which enrols only N(T) students), and the 16 elite Integrated Programme (IP) schools like Hwa Chong Institution and Raffles Girls’ School. In a truly post-streaming world, such stark inter-school hierarchies should not exist.
Next, there is a prominent irony in the policy’s goal to promote social mixing. We should recall that one of FSBB’s three central goals is to create opportunities for students across the different streams to interact with each other in mixed form classes. Consider the explicit choice of words found in a Straits Times article on FSBB, “Under full SBB, students from the Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams are placed in the same mixed form class.” Or consider also the words of the Education Minister himself in a March 2022 parliamentary speech, “in the [FSBB] pilot schools, students taking different courses come together in mixed form classes”. Despite the attempt at a euphemism in the latter quote (“courses” instead of “streams”), the irony of the policy is plain to see. How else can schools engineer mixed classrooms unless they continue to identify students by their stream   ? And how can a student’s stream still serve such a critical function under FSBB when the same policy simultaneously strives to de-emphasise it? FSBB cannot have its cake and eat it. If it insists on doing so, it must draw up alternative methods to mix classrooms without relying on streams as the basis of diversity. While it is a worthy goal to pursue socially diverse classrooms, doing so ironically contradicts the policy’s objective to abolish streaming, since by design, schools still need to know and act upon a student’s stream in order to create mixed classrooms. This final point is not a conjecture on my part, but a reality on the ground.
Consider the following quote by Mr Paul Lee, Head of Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) in Gan Eng Seng Secondary School, who in a 2020 article by Schoolbag.sg (an official outlet for educational news in Singapore) reflected on the inescapable need to invoke the very same labels that FSBB was designed to eliminate. “As the students still need to know their course of study, we can’t avoid the term ‘Normal (Tech)’ entirely.” Mr Lee could not have been clearer about exposing the policy’s biggest contradiction. Other educators are more anxious about slipping back into their old labelling habits, thus opting to employ euphemisms like “course” to replace “stream,” or deliberately saying “student in the N(T) course” to replace the stigma of branding someone an “N(T) student.” However, if after the full implementation of FSBB in 2024 there is a noticeable majority of students who do not have a customised mix of subjects at various G-levels, but instead take almost every subject at the same G-level, it could well be that the “G1 student” label becomes the new “N(T) student” label. The point here is that a mere change in language cannot induce a change in concrete reality. New labels will constantly arise unless the forces that animate their usage are addressed. Where then are we to look?
Unless we recognise that the entire practice of streaming is driven by structural factors beyond the realm of education, and unless we explicitly acknowledge the subordination of the educational system to the political economy, no amount of euphemistic retranslation would rid us from the problems of labelling. Our use of stigmatising labels originates from the structures of society and not from the prejudices of individuals. Thus, even if we alter the ways we employ our labels under streaming, we do nothing to address the fundamental reasons why the impulse to use them exists in the first place. To strike at the heart of stigmatisation, therefore, we need socio-structural reforms, not the piecemeal changes offered by FSBB.
It is worth concluding on this point with some empirical insights. Through my personal research, I combed through the websites of every secondary school that was piloting FSBB at the time of writing. Of these 59 schools, 27 of them had created a dedicated webpage to explain how FSBB works in their schools. Analysing these webpages, I counted how many of them contained an invocation of streaming either in concept or in name. For instance, I counted a webpage if it explicitly identified students by their stream (e.g., “Sec 2 N(A) students”), or if they invoked the concept of streaming through a euphemism (e.g., “students will be grouped in mixed form classes, comprising students from different courses of study”). One would expect that if the FSBB policy was truly committed to the abolishment of streaming, i.e., if it truly walked its talk, then no remnant of streaming should exist whatsoever. This was not to be, however. In total, I found that 24 out of the 27 schools (88%) maintained the concept or language of streaming on their websites while explaining FSBB. Granted, only time will tell if these linguistic legacies of the past will survive the full implementation of FSBB after 2024. For now, these findings and the arguments above strongly suggest that FSBB will not, as its proponents claim, slay the “sacred cow” of streaming.
Contradiction #2: The Limits of “Unique Strengths”
The policy’s second claim is that it grants students the opportunity to recognise and develop their unique strengths. In reality, however, this is severely limited by constraints set by the policy itself. Specifically, students in the N(T) stream who do well in their humanities subjects in secondary one cannot upgrade these subjects to the G3 (which maps onto today’s “Express” level) come secondary two. They can only upgrade them to the G2 (or “N(A)”) level. In addition, if the same student did well in all their humanities subjects, namely geography, history, and English literature, they are only allowed to upgrade one of these three subjects the following year. These structural barriers are highly inconsistent with the policy’s goal to help students unlock their unique strengths.
Constraints imposed on low-achieving students wishing to upgrade their humanities subjects
Furthermore, the range of subjects offered in secondary schools is simply not broad enough to capture the many unique strengths latent among our students. It is true that some schools offer niche subjects like Music and Physical Education, but these are too few and rare. Additionally, even if students are allowed to express their strengths through one of these few subjects, they cannot escape being judged by the same narrow modes of assessment which prioritise individual high-stakes performance.
Sociologists of education have shown that although formal scholastic assessments appear to be objective and neutral, they actually systematically exclude underprivileged students from school success. Students from the middle- and upper-classes enjoy a cultural leg-up in school because scholastic assessments implicitly reward the cultural competencies they already acquired through childhood (e.g., obedience to rules, time management, setting priorities, etc.), competencies which are never explicitly required in these assessments. Thus, unless FSBB takes bolder steps to broaden both the subjects that students can take and the ways in which they are assessed, the policy will lead to the same inequalities that its predecessor has so often been criticised for.
What Could Have Been
When all has been said and done, I am not critical of the policy only because it pretends to replace streaming while concealing it instead—time will tell how valid these criticisms are when FSBB is fully implemented in 2024. Rather, my disappointment with FSBB stems from the belief that it could have been so much more. For example, it could have experimented with mixed classrooms not just in form classes for non-academic subjects like Music and Art, but also for certain core subjects like Science and English, at least at the lower secondary level. Some research has shown that mixed-ability classrooms benefit the mathematics learning of low-performing students. Alternatively, FSBB could have committed more strongly to its goal of customisation by allowing the lowest-achieving students to take more than one humanities subject at a higher level (currently, secondary one students at the G1 level for humanities can only advance up to one humanities subject in secondary two, and this subject can only be upgraded up to the G2 level, not G3). It is true that the MOE has rightly and boldly identified the flaws of streaming after struggling for 40 years to address its many ills, and the FSBB policy is indeed a step in the right direction. But it is too tiny a step. With it, the MOE has failed to translate the boldness of its discourse into the boldness of its policy.
Despite appearing like a radical change, FSBB is ultimately a piecemeal reform that does little more than rearrange and conceal streaming. It makes education slightly more tailored for a proportion of students whose proficiencies cannot be boxed into streams, but on the whole it mounts no challenge whatsoever to the fundamentally economic logic of schooling. Little has changed since 1979 when then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee and his “educational” team—which, composed only of systems engineers—recommended streaming as a way to curb the “educational wastage” of those who were dropping out. Today, this same logic of harsh economic rationality continues to pervade our educational landscape. We prioritise children as workers first and students second, credentials first and knowledge second, schooling first and education second. By continuing to embrace the economic logic of streaming, the FSBB policy does all of this no differently. In contrast, the often-extolled Finnish educational system has staved off the temptation to subordinate their schools to the economy by holding firm to their policy of open and “comprehensive” schools, disavowing exclusive selection processes common in places like Asia, even amidst pressure from right-wing groups to stratify schools and fast-track elite students. While Finland’s geopolitical circumstances certainly differ from ours, their principled pursuit of educational equity over economic pragmatism leaves us wondering if there is more soul-searching we need to do.
At the 40th anniversary of streaming in 2020, Singapore’s educational system stood at the precipice of transformation. It recognised streaming’s many ills—stigmatisation, social division, and academic inhibition. It seemed poised to make a change, but it took a half-measure instead, missing the opportunity to fundamentally rethink our obsession with pragmatism in education. Thus, if one thing remains certain amidst the flurry of optimism surrounding FSBB, it is that streaming has not ceased to exist. It has merely gone into hiding.
Cameron Kheng is an MA candidate in sociology and recipient of the Nanyang Research Scholarship at Nanyang Technological University. His research interests include educational inequality and critical social theory. He is currently conducting research on streaming and inequality for his master’s thesis under the academic supervision of Associate Professor Teo You Yenn.
Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.
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