IP or O levels?

Recently, there’s been quite a fair bit of talk about the Integrated Programme (IP) and how it measures up against the established O levels for secondary school students. Generally, there has been concern that parents are too quick to sign their children up for IP schools and are “gravely mistaken” that IP is the better choice for their children. Essentially, the question boils down to whether IP is for everyone.

As the 2nd batch of IP students from Victoria Junior College (class of 2006), I shall give my penny’s worth.  Since I can be considered “pioneer” of the IP initiative, I have been closely observing the transformation of IP in Singapore’s education.

As mentioned by MOE, the IP targets the top 10% of students that are clearly university bound and allows them to bypass the O levels, freeing up time for them to pursue other academic rigours. To be honest, this is a brilliant idea in theory. I think many secondary school students can empathise with the months spent nearing the end of their 4th or 5th year in secondary school drilling and preparing for the O levels. If we were to take away the O levels, up to half a year of time could be freed up for students. And this was precisely why I decided to take up the IP.

During my time, there were few “full-IP” schools. If I can remember correctly the only full-IP schools at that time was the Raffles family and Hwa Chong Institute among others. The IP was a very exclusive and somewhat prestigious course to be in. I had to take 3 entry tests and pass an interview before being offered a place in the VIctoria Integrated Programme (VIP). The number of applicants were overwhelming with up to 70 applicants vying for a seat. As of now, many other schools have taken up the IP initiative and become full IP. Meaning students from that secondary school would be exempt from the O levels with their PSLE scores being the entry criterion.

In my opinion, full IP schools using PSLE grades as a entry requirement is a disastrous idea. If I extrapolate the rigours of the VIP to other schools, I believe that many students would not be able to handle the demands of the IP. The IP was designed to stretch a student’s potential and push them to greater heights. In my batch, even the brightest felt challenged and “stressed”. And these students have stellar PSLE scores, scored remarkably for the 3 entrance tests as mentioned. I was not among the brightest, just a small fish in a big ocean. My point is that if IP was made too readily available to students, you have to “dumb down” the programme, to make it more manageable to weaker students but at the cost of not stretching the brighter students.

I am still in favour of making the IP an exclusive programme with stringent entrance tests and interviews not because I am “purist” or elitist but I believe this is the only way we can fully develop the brightest students in Singapore. On the other hand, schools that offer the tried and tested O levels should be value added. What separated the VIP from my other secondary school counterparts were many programs to develop self-awareness, social skills, financial literacy amongst many others. So if mainstream secondary schools were to offer these programs (which some already do), that will close the gap between IP and mainstream schools.

Another point raised in the papers was the issue of independent learning. The author of a forum article claimed that IP students got their smarts from tuition classes and thus discriminates students from less fortunate backgrounds who are unable to afford tuition and called for a survey of IP students as to whether they still required additional tuition classes. As per what the author mentioned, there indeed has been a proliferation of tuition centers and teachers offering IP-specific tuition. Back in the days, our IP teachers in school told us it was “futile” to search for “IP tuition teachers” as there were none. The VIP taught a very special curriculum for its languages, humanities and sciences that few, if not no tuition teacher can prepare a lesson for without foreknowledge of the VIP curriculum. And thus, only very few of us had tuition, with their tuition teachers helping where they can. However, I feel that the author’s point is somewhat invalid as many other O level students have tuition as well, not to mention for A levels where both IP and mainstream students end up studying for. Tuition is part and parcel of a student’s life, to seek extra help is normal. Even IP students are not exempt from needing academic help. Although I agree that tuition is costly and some may not be able to afford it, there are other ways of finding help, through school teachers, seniors in school or friends in their community (I know many friends who offer to tutor their younger counterparts for free). The misconception is that tuition = good grades. A student’s intellect does not depend on tuition but for his thirst for knowledge which brings me to my next point.

I believe that the IP isn’t all about grades, it’s about attitude. Of course, you require a certain level of intellect and smarts (which I mentioned above is not because of tuition) but the student has to be able to take charge of his own learning and continuously seek to improve himself. Students in the IP don’t always get flying colours for tests and exams even though they’re “smarter”. It’s how they pick themselves up from failing a test, finding out why he flunked and doing better the next time around. I dare say that this attitude is not common among students nowadays. With the whole emo culture and “sian-ness” going around, it has become the teacher’s work to motivate the students to do better in the next assessment. The IP student is expected to wipe his own tears, lick his own wounds and prepare to run harder for the next race, all by himself. Of course, the IP is not such a cold and dark place, there’re fellow friends and tutors to turn to if the student finds himself at rock bottom, somewhere I’m familiar with. 

And there’s the thirst for knowledge, a hunger to find out more about what was taught in the classroom. My bunch of friends and I joined competitions to test our mettle on top of our demanding curriculum out of love of knowledge. Although we did not win, we walked away with a wealth of information and skills gained from merely participating. 

Finally, what are the ill effects of a student who lacks the calibre but joins the IP? No doubt he will benefit from the additional non-academic modules as mentioned but what he will lack is the firm academic base that he will need before moving on to A levels. When this student starts his JC education, he will end up being at a greater disadvantage than his O level counterparts who have been drilled and well versed in their academic base. Imagine the IP education as a very long treadmill where all the students start running in the middle. After awhile, the bright students start running up the treadmill, the “okay” students stay where they are, matching the pace of the education but weaker students start sliding down the treadmill and some even get thrown off. These weaker students are the ones who jeopardise their A levels with a shaky academic foundation.

At long last, I conclude that PSLE may be an indicator of a student’s intellect but the IP is more than just grades and brains, it’s about attitude too and that’s something no amount of tuition can give you. Therefore full IP schools are a bad idea unless there are stringent selection processes. Parents shouldn’t blindly chase the IP dream because it may seem “prestigious” and jeopardise their children’s A levels.