Monday, January 11, 2016

Junior college or polytechnic - factors to consider

The 'O' level results will be released today, so I thought it would be timely to write a JC vs poly post. This topic is something that has been discussed in our household over the past couple of years, since Andre will have to make the decision soon.

 As I'd blogged about previously, Andre is certain that he will be pursuing the poly route, unlike his sister. This decision was reinforced when we visited a couple of poly open houses last weekend. He was instantly drawn to the vibe and energy there. There's just something about polys - probably partly due to the large open campuses and the fact that the students don't need to wear school uniforms, but you can practically inhale the vibrant atmosphere.

We spoke to a few lecturers and students. Andre was very impressed by the practical curriculum offered, with the myriad of opportunities for internships and overseas attachments. The facilities are, of course, fantastic. So he's now more motivated than ever to work for his O levels and aim for the course he wants.

Sometimes, I despair when I hear parents' views like, "you should go to a JC if you can because it's better." Better? What constitutes "better"? Often, the very myopic consideration is simply based on cut-off-point (COP). It seems like in Singapore, people monitor COPs the way stock brokers do with share prices. From the time of PSLE, parents scrutinise COPs like they hold the answer to the secret of their children's success. That's like believing a weighing scale is all you need to tell you how healthy you are.

JCs and polys couldn't be more different in terms of the curriculum, teaching style, grading system and overall environment. There is no one "better" path for everyone. Ultimately, the most important consideration is fit. I just can't imagine Andre in a JC - that would be like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole - with great difficulty and unlikely to generate satisfactory results. Whereas when I saw him at the poly, I could see how easily he would fit into the culture, with a real chance of thriving. It was a no-brainer, no matter what his eventual results will be. 

I'd previously worked at a polytechnic and with Lesley-Anne having undergone two years of JC, I feel I have garnered sufficient knowledge on both options. So here are my views on the JC vs Poly debate and how you can determine which is a better fit for your child. Note: Lesley-Anne sat for the 'A' levels so I'm referring to JC only from the 'A' level point of view, not IB, as I don't know enough about the latter. 

Academic vs Applied Education

JC is basically an enhanced version of secondary school. Most of the subjects are familiar, just taught in greater depth and detail. However, one point I would like to make to parents is that the leap in difficulty from secondary school to JC is exponential. Not only is the subject content enlarged significantly, at JC level, application skills are essential. You can't simply memorise content and regurgitate in the exams, and expect to do well, unlike at the 'O' levels, especially for the arts subjects. There are many students who scored A grades in secondary school, in Chemistry for example, and find themselves failing 'A' level Chemistry. So do understand your child's abilities when making the decision. You hear about the straight A students from the media so often that you might think it's almost a cinch to do well. It's not. Many students struggle and more than a few end up repeating a year or two, even in the top JCs. You don't read reports about these cases.

The course selection for 'A' levels is also much more limited. Out of the four core subjects, one has to be a contrasting subject. For Arts students, this subject is often required to be Maths, unless they take Knowledge Inquiry (KI) which takes the place of General Paper (GP) and can be counted as a contrasting subject. There are also many more restrictions on subject choice. In Lesley-Anne's JC, for instance, you can't take Chemistry without taking Maths, and you can't take Biology or Physics without taking Chemistry. (In other words, Maths and Chemistry are practically compulsory if you're in the Science stream). For the Arts subjects, you can't take both Geography and History. You also can't take two special or niche subjects, like KI and English Language and Linguistics (ELL).

Poly education is applied - meaning it's designed to groom graduates towards certain industries or vocations. The modules tend to be very practical and poly students are trained to be work-ready upon graduation. As such, poly education is also very much more specialised. As of now, there are 234 courses offered by the 5 polytechnics. It's enough to make your head spin. There are often electives in years 2 and 3 where you can specialise even further. Since most courses carve out a specific niche, you need to be very sure what you want to do as a career. It would be disastrous to enroll in Early Childhood Education, for instance, then later realise that you don't really like teaching or kids all that much.

From talking to poly lecturers, one of the biggest problems they face is students who enroll in courses and later realise that the courses are not what they expect or not suitable for them. Then they find themselves having to ask for transfers to a different course mid-way, thus wasting time and funds, or sticking to a pathway that they are unhappy with. So if your children, at age 16, aren't sure what they would like to do with their lives, it's probably a safer bet to study general academic courses at a JC.

Course Structure

The JC course structure is similar to that of secondary school. You sit for various common tests and exams throughout the year, culminating in the main one at the end of the year (promos for J1 and the big 'A' levels for J2). I find the JC journey very short. Since you enter in February and graduate before the 'A' levels in October, the teachers have to squeeze a heck of a lot of curriculum within 1¾ years. As a result, it feels like the students spend the entire period just mugging for exam after exam, especially in J2. 

The added stress comes about because the 'A' levels is a national exam where you're pit against the nation's other 18-year-olds and race towards accumulating as many A grades as you can possibly muster. The pressure is on both students and teachers alike. Also, the grades in this one exam are all that matter, for university admissions. You could be an excellent all-rounder throughout your JC life but choke at the 'A's and find that your previous stellar record didn't matter in the least. Terribly unfair and unhealthy, in my opinion. 

Polys run on the modular system, which gives you more flexibility. There is less focus on exams and more on assignments and project work. Your grading is based on Grade Point Average (GPA), taking into account your work throughout the three years. While this means that your grade is not dependent on one major exam, it also means that you can only do well if you put in consistent work. You can't slack off throughout the year and chiong only at the last minute - that's a recipe for disaster. Once your GPA drops, you might find it difficult to pull it back up on track.

Higher Education

The traditional thinking is that you go to a JC if you're university-bound whereas you go to a poly if you're not, since they train you for the workplace. These days however, many poly graduates want to further their education to improve their career prospects and progression. What are their chances then? If you look at the stats, you will see that the odds are stacked against poly graduates: about 70% of JC students and 20% of poly students enter local universities.

Statistically speaking, your chances of a local university education are much lower if you're a poly grad, even though the government now acknowledges the dreams of poly students for higher qualifications and are trying to widen avenues for them, such as the expansion of the Singapore Institute of Technology, which offers applied degree programmes for poly students. Many poly grads thus choose to go overseas for their degrees which is definitely pricier. Sometimes though, overseas is more appropriate if you prefer specialised programmes which are not offered by local universities anyway, such as Human Resources or Interactive Media.

In terms of time investment, you may be surprised to learn that there can be no difference between the JC-university and the poly-university route. Even though JC takes 2 years and poly takes 3 years, poly students, if taking up a related university programme overseas, are often granted exemptions on certain courses, as much as 1.5 years in a three-year programme! This is, of course, assuming you go on to a related course, eg. Mass Comm in poly moving on to a Mass Comm degree. If you move on to an unrelated course, you will not get any exemptions and have to complete the full programme. Local universities too, tend not to offer exemptions.

English Proficiency

I added this last point because I think it's an important one often overlooked. I'd written before how I'm baffled by the 'O' level point system which grants two additional points to students who pass Higher Mother Tongue. Two points for 'O' levels is a LOT. In addition, you can choose to count either English or Higher Mother Tongue as your L1 in L1R5 for admission into JC. Why? This implies that Mother Tongue is more important that English, our official language.

What can potentially happens then is this: a kid who is very proficient in Chinese and attains A1 for Higher Chinese can use it as L1 AND shave off 2 additional points from his total L1R5, thereby giving him or her a very good L1R5 score, while scoring poorly in English.

This is a loophole that I feel MOE should close, not only because it's a farce but because a student who is weak in English will struggle in JC. At JC, writing essays is a must. Even if you choose to go to the Science stream, you'll need to take a contrasting Arts subject, which would definitely require essay-writing. A friend of mine, who's an Econs teacher at a JC, recounted to me her frustration in trying to teach students who lack the English proficiency to express themselves clearly. In addition, GP requires a good command of the English language. Incidentally, if you fail GP, you would have deemed to have failed your entire 'A' levels. Gulp. It explains why so many students have tuition in GP.

In short, a student who is weak in English might want to reconsider going to JC as the language skills required are substantial. Not that you don't need English in poly education but because the modules are applied in nature, language use tends to be more practice-oriented. Polys also have communications skills modules to help students brush up on their English.

At the end of the day, I stress again that fit is the most important consideration when choosing between JC and poly. Visiting open houses is a great way to get a feel of the environment, and do speak to students and teachers. The poly open houses were last weekend but I believe many JCs have open houses this week. Go take a look with your child if you can.

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