The day draws near. This day, the PSLE Results Day, is all too familiar for parents in Singapore and needs no introduction. The results and the yearly sorting exercise of thousands of primary school children send many into states of mild panic with careful analysis of cut-off points, school research, strategies for application and thoughts about what this might mean for our children. 

Every year, we live to retell the tale: we are still that tiny nation that’s continually obsessed with big grades, one that houses a booming home tuition industry, and an educational system in overdrive. 

 In 2016, the Ministry of Education announced that “the T-Score Aggregate will be replaced by the PSLE Score, which is the sum of the AL for each subject. PSLE Scores will range from 4 to 32 – reducing the number of possible PSLE Scores to 29, from more than 200 T-score Aggregates currently.” This is a move in the right direction and commendable. However, it is left to be seen how this move might pan out in effectively releasing the pressure in the intense, high-stakes educational climate of Singapore.

Over the years, the T-score, has really sealed and defined our concept of education more than we realise. Many seem to have bought the idea that the score alone, is a huge indication of success. It is the impetus for some to improve and excel. For others, it drives them to outdo competition and gain that definitive edge that is worth all returns in time and investment, judging from the size of the tuition industry here.

The T score has caused the hearts of many parents to do curious flutter kicks and flip flaps. In it, lie glimpses of hope, pride, dread, doubt and fear. They indicate the start of a new beginning, one that seems to set forth a pre-determined course. These numbers are the aggregate of much toil, support and hard work. On their own, they have shifted family dynamics, routines and relationships in many households. 

The T score has captured the imagination of parents left to contemplate an expectation of the future and what it could behold. A future littered with “what ifs” for a life laid out in a reel of endless possibilities. Like a deck of cards, we’re not sure if we’ve played it right and if we would be dealt the upper hand. It’s the day of reckoning for some. For others, a wild card. 

The T score is also the way we have as a society, conveniently learnt to assign meaning: by making it easy to mentally sort, categorize, typecast the future of other human beings by a mere number. 

Not surprisingly, the T score has also taken hostage of many dreams. These numbers, have been given the power to cruelly differentiate – to sift the wheat from the chaff, the cream from the crop, the scholars from the farmers. There is no nuance in it. For some, these numbers elevate. For others, they are cold, hard numbers that offer no solace. As a whole, these numbers have fueled desires that can be inspiring, ambitious or punishing. We have, in fact, been taken captive by it—more than we should. 

Last month, a community group 100 Voices, came together to rally for a change of mindset and push forward the message that “grades aren’t everything”. Led by Mr Dean Yap, a stay-home father, 100 Voices is a laudable attempt to speak a new voice for success apart from the narrow definition of grades, numbers and t-scores.

The campaign seeks to share the stories of at least 100 individuals who can give testament to the fact that you do not necessarily need to be academically smart to excel and find success in the real world. These individuals, comprising both ordinary residents and well-known personalities, intuitively know and have personally experienced success in many different forms apart from conventional routes. The message is simply to celebrate our children’s progress in multiple facets, wherever they are on the academic ladder.

How can we take a leaf or two from this ground initiative in our response towards PSLE scores? 

How should we take this opportunity to expand on our narrow and limiting beliefs? 

How can we prepare ourselves to face our children, our nephew or niece, our student, our neighbour’s child down the street, so that we can be quick to encourage in speech rather than judge in our minds? 

How can we lend our voices to define a realistic and inclusive idea of success? 

More Than A Number

First, we need to understand and believe without a doubt, that our children are more than numbers. These test scores certainly do not represent the entirety of who our children are and what they can become. 

We have to internalize this fact more than ever. 

The road to education must first be a pleasurable journey of sights, sounds and wonder. It’s aim-to create a pool of cognizant, wholehearted individuals positioned to do better for society and the generations to come. If we take education like a mad sprint to finish and as an end on its own rather than a means, we will lose many precious opportunities along the way. 

Our children need time to pace, and discover where they fit themselves in this rapidly changing world. They need white space to explore in order to find real purpose and meaning. The T score is just a signpost along the way on that huge journey of discovery. 


A Broad Definition of Success

Next, we need to have a broad definition of success. One that not only celebrates success where it is evident and acceptable but also accords strength and value in making mistakes. Failure is a wonderful teacher whom we give less credit to, than we should. Some people take the longer route, and like the proverbial tortoise and the hare, there should be no shame nor stigma attached to that.

Don’t Take These Grades Personally

Lastly, and most importantly, we must be careful that we do not let this number take on more power and significance than it should. As parents, we need not take our children’s grades too personally. If our children are struggling, we may reflect and question our own efficacy and philosophy in parenting or we blame their bad habits. Most times, our pride gets in the way: we encounter brutal attacks on our own self-worth while squirming to find the right ways and methods to parent. We are aching from our harsh words and bowing at the burdens of our self-imposed expectations. 

Let’s be released from this weight. Let’s take the lessons and move on knowing that the true prize is not that medal or academic accolade, but the hearts and happiness of our children when they find their purpose and significance in life. Let’s have the assurance that if we walk wholeheartedly with our children, they will find their way. 

A good T score may make some immediately great. But for many others otherwise, it is merely the start of many great beginnings.