Most Singaporean adults will remember how the education system assessed, branded and sorted them as kids. At nine, after just three years of formal schooling, they took a test that told them, among other things, if they are “gifted” or just an average learner. Three years later, at 12, they took the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), seen as a fatalistic, life-determining event where a three-digit score dictated which type of school you went to—“elite” or “neighbourhood”.

This form of categorisation, or “streaming”, has long been a cornerstone of the Singaporean education system now admired around the world. Singaporeans were typically streamed a few more times before reaching university. Each time, it determined the educational paths available, or unavailable, to them. Streaming ultimately became an inescapable part of schooling here, and it has its roots in the “Report on the Ministry of Education 1978”. Led by Goh Keng Swee, then deputy prime minister (and sometimes called the architect of Singapore’s economic, defence and education policies), the report is more commonly known as the “Goh Report”.

What Goh and his team found wasn’t promising. In 1970s’ Singapore, 60 percent of students who sat for the PSLE and the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (GCE) O-Levels failed one or both languages. Of Primary One students, 36 percent did not complete their secondary education, failing to receive at least three O-Level passes. Of Primary Six students, 33 percent in the English stream and 25 percent in the Chinese stream did not meet the minimum literacy requirement. More students either dropped out or failed out of school in Singapore than in France, Japan, Taiwan, and the UK.

This “failure to achieve expected standards” was one form of major education wastage in Singapore, reported Goh and his team. Low literacy rates combined with high attrition and the unemployability of those who had left school prematurely reflected an inefficient allocation of resources. There was also a wide variation in school performance, in terms of the passing rates of PSLE and GCE O-Levels results. Singaporean schools were performing inconsistently.

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