Monday, March 13, 2017

The DSA vs kiasu parents

The latest news on the education front is the changes to Direct School Admissions (DSA). A reader asked me what I thought about the changes and I told her that after all these years, having witnessed cohort after cohort of students and parents undergo the system, I've become quite pessimistic about the possibility of a real transformation in education.

Two reasons: one, the mindset of parents in this country HAS NOT CHANGED. If anything, parents have become more kiasu than ever. This is not to say that all parents are kiasu, but as long as the majority of parents believe in chiong-ing to ridiculous extremes to chase the "best" school, the top grades etc, change cannot take place, no matter what tweaks are done to the education system.

The second reason is related to the first: the changes that MOE have made do not address the root problem of parents' mindsets. Removing DSA via academic ability will simply shift the focus onto sports and other abilities. If your attitude is that the DSA is a fast ticket to the school of your choice, then you will work backwards to calculate what it takes to get the DSA. This accounts for the horrifying number of pre-schoolers being pushed into swimming, golf, theatre and what have you, with the aim of hot-housing them for the sole purpose of DSA.

Honestly, how do you, as a parent, know that your 5-year-old has or will have a real passion or talent in competitive badminton? Or violin? Or hip hop? The short answer: you don't. These misplaced efforts have the potential to do real damage by forcing a child into an activity which serves only a pragmatic purpose, with almost no consideration for his or her real interest. I personally know of parents who pour thousands of dollars into singing or acting lessons with the hope that their kids can get DSA into SOTA, without even thinking whether their children have any interest in pursuing the arts as a career.


Education Minister Ng Chee Meng was quoted as saying, "With this expansion, students can better access schools with suitable programmes via DSA to nurture their strengths, talents and interests."

That may be MOE's intention, but the way that parents are trying to game the system, I argue that the DSA currently does not nurture strengths, talents or interests. If you have been training for a sport for 7 years by the time you're 12, chances are you will be very good at it, simply due to the amount of time invested. It does not mean that you have the natural strength or talent in it, let alone interest. In addition, the DSA nurtures nothing. Let's not kid ourselves - students don't have their abilities honed upon being successful in DSA. The DSA rewards students who ALREADY display ability.

The only way that the expanded DSA relieves stress is simply by increasing the number of spaces allocated. So instead of being able to take in only 2 basketballers, maybe a school can now take in 5. In other words, the child now doesn't have to be the top 2 trying out, just the top 5. Whoop dee doo!

Another problem is the schools themselves have a pragmatic agenda. Schools who offer DSAs via sports and arts see these kids as potential medal grabbers for school glory. Don't believe me? When was the last time a school offered DSA for a sport or CCA that wasn't competitive?

In fact, this clumping of DSA students into niche schools for specific activities creates other problems at the secondary school level. The same old schools tend to dominate all the medals in specific sports, which is not surprising because they already took in all the top players to begin with. It makes a mockery of competitive sports and the arts, leaving very little room and recognition for schools who don't take in DSA kids and actually DO nurture students with no prior experience. Forget about sportsmanship, growth and effort. Those take a backseat.

The DSA, therefore, has become an avenue for schools to become "elite" in certain sports and the arts, in the same way that branded schools like to trumpet their academic achievements, when the chances of success are already skewed in their favour. Ironically, instead of closing gaps, the DSA has inadvertently created an unlevel playing field in a whole different arena.

Andre's experience

I was initially reluctant to post about this topic because I felt that nothing I said would make a difference. It's like using a fly swatter to pit myself against the kiasu parents wielding Thor hammers. Plus, I'm perfectly aware that the parents who follow my blog tend to share my views, so I'm only preaching to the converted.

But in the spirit of giving encouragement, I thought I should share Andre's case, so for those of you who are despairing, you might take heart.

When Andre was in p6, he tried out for DSA for badminton to a few schools. He was rejected by every single one of them. There was one particular school that his badminton coach recommended him to, that she was quite confident he would be successful in. Then just three months before the badminton trials, the school changed the coach. The new coach took a different approach and didn't select Andre.

At a badminton competition
Back then, we were bitterly disappointed and so was he. We couldn't understand why God seemed to close all the doors to Andre, even though he realistically should have stood a chance. It was only years later that we realised we should have just trusted God from the beginning. The school where he eventually enrolled in, via an unlikely appeal, became such a blessing for Andre. It amply recognised and rewarded him for his badminton achievements and efforts, as I've blogged about before. He even became the CCA's captain and vice-captain for four years, an opportunity he would have been unlikely to receive in the other schools with DSA candidates.

In addition, many of the schools which offer badminton DSA are SAP schools, meaning Andre would have had to take Higher Chinese. With his horrendous Chinese standards, this would have been an unequivocal Disaster with a capital D, and maybe caused Andre to be retained. As a poetic ending, Andre's school badminton team, with no DSA students, beat out that earlier school he had missed out on the DSA for, in this year's school badminton tournament. It's a lesson in sportsmanship, humility and character-building.

I'm sharing this from the vantage point of a parent who has been there and done that. For Christian parents, have faith that God really knows what's best for your kid. You may not see it now, but it's my experience that every time we try to arm twist God into giving us what we want, it usually turns out to be disastrous. No need to chiong and stress - just trust that He will provide. Remember, God knows the future, we don't.

For non-Christian parents, I know it can be nerve-wrecking to trust that you're making the right decision in not chiong-ing with the crowd. But from the many parents I've spoken to and know about, I found that a significant number of children who took up DSA sports or arts eventually regretted doing so and dropped their speciality. I'm not saying that DSA, or even preparation for DSA, is bad. I'm saying that if you want to take this route, do make sure that your child is truly passionate about the chosen sport/art form, and it's not just because you're trying to bypass the PSLE or chope a place in a desired school at all costs.

As I'd also observed from the paths Lesley-Anne and Andre's friends took, the vast majority of them ended up in a similar route in higher education. At Yale-NUS where Lesley-Anne is now, the students come from a wide spectrum of schools and had amassed an equally wide range of grades, which makes me believe even more fervently that all the panicking and stress are so needless. The Big Bad PSLE is REALLY just one exam and it doesn't make as great an impact on your child's future as you might think.

It all boils down to perspective. At the end of the day, if what you want are happy and fulfilled children with values and character (and I hope you do), then understand that it doesn't start with killing their childhood with work, drills and more work (both academic and non-academic). I see so many unhappy teenagers around who are stressed out, insecure and hate their parents, and I say this emphatically: it's not worth it.

"For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." - Jeremiah 29:11

5 comments:

Siew Kheng said...

I totally agree with you especially on the needless stress and panicking. Regardless of which of which school the child ends up with, it's important the child enjoys school and have a balanced life in school. God already has a plan for every of our children, we should not try to charter their lives and plan for their long term future. All kids blossom in their own ways at different timing. I have 3 kids and I can attest to that.

With the recent change in DSA, my fear is for those who 'chiong' for elite schools and not able to cope with the academic demands of the schools. They are typically grouped into sports classes which are very disruptive due to their training and competition schedules. I know of a case whereby the teacher told the student to drop the sport to focus on his studies as he was not doing well but on the other hand, the coach wanted him to step up on his training. The poor boy was torn. He eventually struggled through both.

kt said...

Dear Monica, thank you for sharing with us the real picture. I really have a feeling it gets worse each year based on what I observe and hear.
Parents want the best for their kids and sometimes in doing so, they forget the true meaning of education, sports, the arts, community spirit etc.
Is it right to say,
"I want my boy to learn sailing so that he can DSA into ACS"
"My child is good at basketball. Why didn't coach choose him for the school team?"
"My girl got 97% for Chinese at P2, she should be allowed to do Higher Chinese"
The real meaning of learning, be it academic or non academic, becomes warped.
It's dangerous to be narrow minded and to pursue our "wants" at all costs without any consideration to anyone and anything.
Worse, to be obsessed with getting into the top schools without understanding what the child will be going through and clueless about supporting the child other than sending him to more and more tuition & enrichment :-(

Rachel Tan said...

As always Monica, thank you for writing. You articulate pointedly yet beautifully the sentiments of many Singaporean parents.

I came into the DSA realization game too late. My kids are in P6 and P5 now and it is too late to beef them up in any DSA-able area to the better regarded secondary schools. There are moments I am filled with deep regret, that I had not equipped my child with enough. I would venture to say that behind most successful DSA applicants (whether it be sports, arts or academic route), there exists a machinery and support system that has nurtured the child quite intensively for the past few years.
But, what is ever enough, and when is ever enough. It is a humbling journey, going through the education system, and as you say, we have to trust in God’s provision, and not in our own strength of what constitutes enough, or our (at times poor) judgement. Through Him, we have peace and contentment. ‘Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment, I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.’

It isn’t only the end achievement that matters; the journey does too. No matter what a child has only one childhood and one’s childhood experiences will remain in the person’s sub consciousness for life. A bank of happy memories and strong relationships will go a long way to support a person through life.

My own children are not in a top primary school but on reflection, they have benefitted from being in this environment, where they have opportunities to experience little successes, serve in leadership positions, represent the school in little things here and there – they may not have gotten the opportunity in another time and place. We may have not clocked enough achievements for an impressive portfolio. But we will trust God to lead and to provide, while putting in our level effort.


monlim said...

Thanks for all your sharing! So many poignant stories.

Jeanne Koh said...

I think much of our children's behaviour is a reflection of their parents own. Kiasu parents breed kiasu kids. Parents who firmly believe in children growing up with spiritual values will raise different children. Our family has never placed too much emphasis on grades but each of the 3 boys has excelled in their own way. Even poor PSLE scores and 4 years in an average school produced o level scores for my 2nd son that allowed him to read at a JC of his choice. However he chose to go to a poly to pursue his interest in Psychology. It takes courage to allow our kids to strive for what they want, rather than direct them to follow the crowd. No regrets.

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