Examinations and the evolving economy

A recent news report touched on the issue of tough school examinations that appeared to result in high student failure rates. In contrast, national examinations like the PSLE appeared to be easier.  A former primary school Level Head, Albert Koh currently teaches in a secondary school.  In this concluding part, he links examinations to the larger economy and sounds a reassuring note on the issue.



Education in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, served different economic needs. In those early years, Singapore’s economy was mainly based around manufacturing and it was important to educate a workforce that would help fulfil that need. The education then was based on raising the literacy rate and providing the general knowledge and skill sets needed for Singaporeans to do well in that type of economy but that is not possible today.


Preparing for current industry needs

The economy today, which revolves more around innovation and creativity, needs a workforce that has different skill sets from the previous generations; we need people who not only have the knowledge but the ability to apply that knowledge in different situations, and at times to even come up with new methods and areas to apply them. Thus students today are taught skills in schools, that their parents then had to learn out of school. When parents look at the questions their children have to answer, their reaction is based on their memory of education experienced in their own school days, and it can  be hard for them to reconcile with the fact that what their children are doing now is different from their own school years of the past. In almost every single case, questions which parents find tough are indeed meant to be tough but with a little bit of thinking and time, their children will find them manageable.

Children can cope

The brouhaha after every major examination in recent years can be attributed to parents’ worry that due to these ‘tough’ questions, their children would not do well and thus lose out in the ‘rat race’. This is understandable as every parent/teacher want the best for their children/students. But looking at the results every year, students generally do not seem to suffer for the tough questions.

At the end of it all, the results do really reflect the ability and the amount of practice the students have put in. Parents can be assured that the setters will always try to set a fair examination paper that includes questions on concepts and skills taught, and at the same time, there will be a few tough ‘thinking’ questions to differentiate the abilities of the students. For our part as responsible partners in education, parents and educators have to ensure that the students not only remember what they are supposed to have learnt but that they also know how to apply or use those facts.