A new pass mark – nothing!

As someone who has never seen any reason for passing or failing kids, especially in junior grades, and also who doesn’t see the motive behind judging little ones, I am encouraged by what the Singaporean government is doing.

The Swiss-based World Economic Forum (WEF) says that the small Asian nation ‘will no longer compare students’ performance to each other’. The reason for this is that there is a need to show that ‘learning is not a competition’, according to the country’s Ministry of Education.

In South Africa we are falling over each other trying to place kids in schools each year because we haven’t built enough. We also argue endlessly about the roles of Sadtu and Cosas. Ill-discipline in our schools was topical after a student stabbed a teacher in class. Now, a few weeks later, this is almost forgotten.

While we are busy reacting and haggling, other countries are already on advanced chapters preparing for the future. They realise that reacting to change instead of leading change could be their downfall.

Singapore is serious about preparing young people for the future. In this regard, it says report books will no longer show students’ position in the class to let pupils focus on their own progress and to discourage unhealthy comparison with peers.
Moreover, students aged between six and eight will not have any exams. Instead teachers will use assessments ‘to check for understanding and give feedback’. Mid-year exams will also be discarded altogether for some older students too in order to free up more time and space in schools, allow students to adjust to new subjects, and to motivate self-learning.

As a former British colony like South Africa, Singapore has rightly identified the limitations and shortcomings of old methods of teaching and assessments. Our obsession with a ‘pass mark’ means that thousands of pupils fall through the cracks.

Also, the eminence of matric exams is challengeable in that the entire 12 or so years of schooling is decided by six exams. Failure to pass has potential of disrupting a child’s future.

It is quite disappointing to hear adults arguing about a pass mark of 30% rather than asking for innovative ways to get the best out of our children through education. We somehow think that a successful future lies in good marks. This may not be true.

The Singaporean Ministry of Education says it wants to reduce excessive focus on marks and help students meet the challenges of an increasingly complex world ‘by becoming lifelong learners’. Schooling is about learning rather than getting good or bad marks.

Lifelong learning ensures that the students are always ready to learn something new to increase their knowledge and understanding. There are no limits to learning and access to knowledge must be freely available to all.
The Singaporeans predict that by 2022, ‘the job skills we need will look very different with soft skills – like creativity or leadership – likely to increase in importance’. As a result, the ministry estimates that employees will need an extra 101 days of retraining and upskilling.
It is no wonder Singapore continues to surge forward economically and the likes of South Africa do not progress forward. The problem lies in our approach and understanding in terms of what needs to be done to make our country ready for a future that is forever uncertain.

Singapore holds a distinction of being the only country in the world that was forced to have independence without asking for it. After independence from Britain in 1963, Singapore felt that its future could be more secured if they merged with neighbouring Malaysia.
But this arrangement was short lived. The Economist says that Singaporean politicians ‘chafed at provisions written into Malaysia’s constitution which granted the federation’s ethnic-Malay majority special privileges’. In August 1965 it was ejected by Malaysia.
When Lee Kuan Yew inherited the island after the unusual fallout with Malaysia it ‘was a fragile, poor backwater’. Strange enough the new state looked to Africa for inspiration. Raila Odinga recalled that ‘a team of Singaporeans came to Kenya to learn our lessons, since we were then a more developed country than they were.’

Many years later, Singapore is now one of the world’s top countries. Their solution was based on what they continue to do, forward planning and the ability to prepare adequately for the future. A simple thing like changing how education is delivered and its role in shaping the future are clear indications that that we still have a long way to.

Seeing my eighteen-year old studying for his matric exams, I am ashamed to tell him that he is growing up in a country that suffers from short-sightedness as we spend hours talking politics and less about his future. My heart sinks further when I think that his younger brothers too will also be following an uncleared path into the woods.

Our education system doesn’t deliver what we are told by experts. It is just plain outdated by probably three decades already and we are about to miss the future.
Unless we think hard about what we desire for our country, South Africa will stagnate and fall behind. Education and how we teach our children can set us on a great path to a brighter future. There is a lot to be learned from Singapore.

By Siyabonga Hadebe

Photo by Pixabay

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Uownit-SA is an online publication focused on collecting and publishing valuable and informed opinions from all the people of South Africa, published on the 15th of every month. Send us your views to

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