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A mildly grouchy screed about the Gifted Education Programme

Cross-posted from my Facebook, where it lives as a friends-only note.

Preface for non-Singapore readers: This piece assumes a mild level of familiarity with the Singapore education system. The Gifted Education Programme, introduced in Singapore in 1984, is a selective scheme for high-IQ children that over its history has taken in 0.5 to 1 per cent of each batch, offering them specialised education and higher teacher-student ratios. (Note, I repeat, high-IQ children. This does not automatically translate to high levels of anything else, a fact that is often forgotten.) As of roughly five years ago, the centrally-run GEP exists only at primary school level (P4-6); previously, it was at both primary and secondary school levels but was phased out as secondary schools introduced a broader range of programmes for high-ability students. 
Not long ago, I finally finished Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. The finer points of the novels don’t need to be discussed here and everyone should read them anyway, but a chunk of the trilogy is set at Brakebills College, a highly selective, first-rate college of magic. It’s possibly the only North American college of magic in this particular universe, as Unseen University remains firmly in Discworld (phew) and Hogwarts appears to be a part of those halcyon Empire days in which a young British wizard could go round the colonial world post-O.W.Ls and work for Gringotts Bank as a curse-breaker.

In any case, over the two and a half years I took to read the trilogies, I could not get it out of my head that Brakebills shared many characteristics with the Gifted Education Programme (GEP for short) in Singapore: selective, exclusive, arcane, and no one beyond the GEP really knows what goes on in the programme…which is why so many misconceptions exist about the GEP. I can’t really blame people; there’s so little information and so much misinformation. While doing a little research for this piece I went and looked on the truly terrifying Kiasuparents forum…never going back there.

A little back story: From Primary 4 to Secondary 4, 1994 to 2000, I was in the GEP. At the end of Primary 3 I blithely went off to take the first round and then the second round of tests. I don’t recall the second-round tests as being particularly gruelling, just a couple of hours of puzzles in a breezy, sunlit room. (In fact, when friends with nine-year-olds ask me about the testing process, here’s what I tell them: don’t treat it as an OMGTEST DIEDIEDIE. Treat it as “Here’s two hours of puzzles and you literally have nothing to lose; go and have fun, and if all else fails, don’t despair! Turn your test paper into origami.”)

When the results came out and I got in, off I went. My parents didn’t know any better or worse, hadn’t really heard anything about the programme, and decided that it seemed like a nice opportunity for a kid to have. I was always a weird, awkward kid with my nose in a book, and a little apprehensive about leaving the friends I’d painstakingly talked into being friends with me (!) over three years, but when I arrived in P4 and later in secondary school I made friends who will be friends for life. Finally, for the first time in my life, I fit in somewhere that was not MPH bookshop or a library.

With that experience in mind let me try to fix some misconceptions. Sorry, I can’t fix any misconceptions about Brakebills though.

In recent weeks the GEP has been in the news, especially after it emerged that nearly two-thirds of current GEP pupils get some sort of external tuition.

– The GEP caters to middle/ upper-middle-class kids who can afford to get external tuition or enrichment from fancy places like the Learning Lab.
This is true to some extent. Sure, 2/3 of GEP pupils have external tuition, and half live in private housing – well above the 1/5 of the overall population who live in private housing.
However, that still leaves 1/3 of children who don’t get tuition, and 50 per cent who live in HDB flats. I don’t know how much the two overlap, but I’m willing to bet the answer is ‘at least some’.

– They’re going to succeed anyway. Or ‘if this is the top 1 per cent of the cohort, why are they only within the top 10 per cent of each PSLE cohort? Does this mean the GEP is underperforming?’
Don’t be ridiculous. First of all, grades are not the sole purpose of education. Neither is ‘success’ (when it is defined narrowly as grades). Failure teaches you more than success does. I feel like this is one key lesson of the Magicians trilogy too, by the way – its protagonists, despite being very smart and capable, grow up far more and learn far more by having risked and failed repeatedly than by having sailed through life. And isn’t that a very adult lesson to learn? Sadly some people here have never learnt it.
By the way, people who are successful (conventional definition: doing well in exams, rising fast through the career ranks, earning lots of money etc) are often smart, but not all people who are smart are successful. Nearly all people who are very good at basketball are tall. Not all tall people are good at basketball.

– Why don’t you just let them skip a grade?
The GEP is not about covering more material in a shorter time. It’s about learning to be self-directed and develop your own interests. Besides the regular schoolwork, my primary-school classmates and I also…
…built shoebox dioramas and wrote poetry by way of doing book reports
…learned about pi, the history of the number zero, and how to calculate the height of the school flagpole with a shadow and a protractor
…designed a haunted house and turned our classroom into one for a school fun fair, figuring out how to darken the windows (black rubbish bags), what crazy-ass costumes to wear, and how to position ourselves for maximum scare factor
…fed the fish in the school fishtank and cleaned it of snails every week
I’d say that’s a pretty normal (and awesome) childhood. What’s more, I still had time to go to the library every couple of weeks, and play badminton and 3D Tetris (really have to love shareware…yes this was the 90s) with my sister.

– Being intellectually gifted means you’re good at all academic pursuits.
HAHAHAHA I really have to laugh when people assume this. I’m not going to lie, I was a complete flop at physics in secondary school, a massive deciding factor in what stream I applied for at junior college. (Goodbye, chemistry. *wistfully*) In JC I floundered through two years of History before finally cottoning on just in time for the A levels. While devoting all my study time to struggling to get an A in History, I neglected to study for Maths and wound up with a C. In my case being intellectually gifted means that I am a little better with words and maybe a little faster to grasp new concepts (but not necessarily better at remembering or applying them) than the average chipmunk.

– If a kid tries and fails to get into the GEP their delicate emotions will be damaged.
See above on failure and success. Maybe it’s true that the implicit message children receive when they don’t get in is that they’re not good enough. But how they react is entirely up to them – whether to cry and stop trying altogether, or go off and develop their own skills and interests.
By the way, these days we don’t praise children for being smart. This leads to children who give up far too easily when they think they might fail at something. These days we praise children for trying hard, which leads to resilient children who keep trying.

– And then if they get into the GEP they might be a small fish in a big pond, whereas they might have topped their ‘normal’ primary school.
Again, did we say that topping the class was the point of primary school? What ultimate life value or lesson is there in easily topping the class?
I don’t know about you, but I really like being a small fish in a big pond. I don’t like being too comfortable. I like being challenged and I like doing things that are a little bit difficult for me, a little bit out of my comfort zone, such as trying to learn R programming. Not long ago I wrote my first story for Foreignpolicy.com. Might have looked easy, but it took me five rounds of edits.
A lot of us seem to feel the same way. In this essay for Shin Min Daily News, my GEP ex-classmate writes that the programme challenged her – an inveterate daydreamer – to sit up and pay attention in class.
You know what else it taught me? HOW TO BE ORGANISED. (Ex-classmates: hands up if you panicked every time you had to submit your files with the content page.)

A semi-valid criticism:
– If you get into the GEP at primary school, you are set for life.Unfortunately education in Singapore seems to be very path-dependent, with very little ability to move between paths. It does seem to be true that if you get in at primary school, you are more likely to attend a through-train school that gets you straight to the A levels and from there to a top university – just because your peers around you are doing the same. But so what? Does it make you a kind or generous person? Does it make you a person with passions, ambitions, or a conscience? Does it make you a person I can respect? None of this is guaranteed.

These days I don’t remember, or even know, what schools my friends came from any more. I don’t really care, either. If we get along, none of it matters.

Two valid criticisms:
– If it’s good enough for the high-IQ kids, why isn’t it good enough for the rest?
I am really grateful for my terrific time in primary school, and I’ve always wished that the same opportunities for individualised, specialised teaching could be offered to every child in Singapore.
If every school is a good school, why are some classes in some schools getting more resources and more teachers than others? Why shouldn’t they all get the same resources? The solution is not to take resources away from one set of children in the GEP, but to offer the same resources to  all children. A level playing field doesn’t mean cutting down a few, it means that every child deserves to be lifted up to the same level.
I realise this is a huge sum of money – if you offered the same resources to the 99% as you did to the 1%, you’d be spending 99 times more. But if we as a society consumed less tuition and enrichment classes (or if some of those private tutors actually paid their taxes, AHEM), we’d have more to spend on the public school system.
The Singapore education system, I’ve realised, is fantastic for the exceptional child, but really lousy at addressing the needs of the median child. Every child deserves better.

– It doesn’t groom risk-takers, status-quo-questioners, anarchists, or disruptive innovators.
I’ve never heard this one from anyone else, but it’s my own observation really. Correction: it doesn’t groom enough of these people. Neither does any other aspect of the Singapore education system or Singapore society in general. (I don’t know if that means I’m expecting too much of the GEP??)
Sure, we had classroom debates and literature teachers who opened our eyes to different ways of looking at things. I don’t know if that necessarily translated to ‘real life’ or if we, like so many of our peers from those “top” schools, became risk-averse Organisation Kids, taking scholarships and becoming civil servants, lawyers, doctors and consultants because that was the safe default option. (What’s an Organisation Kid? See this Vox piece and the original 2001 one. There are civil servants, lawyers, doctors and consultants for whom their job really is a calling (…consultants??…) but if you drifted into one of these because you had the grades and it was a relatively stable, safe bet, you’re an Organisation Kid.)

In the end, most people in Singapore have no idea what the GEP does or what it is for. I’m not sure I do either. But I know that my own time in the programme was a fabulous childhood, and seems to have produced a reasonably well-adjusted adult.

What other questions do you have about the GEP? I’d be happy to answer, but you should keep in mind that this is my perspective only.

Edited to add a few more things.

– GEP segregates students so that they never rub shoulders with peers from different academic backgrounds.

This is semi-true. I would argue that today’s through-train system harms integration more than the GEP – which after all is only 1 per cent of students overall, and maybe 10 to 15 per cent of the school cohort in a school offering the programme. In the past, by the time I got to RJC, probably 20-30 per cent of the cohort was not from a Raffles school. (Sadly, some of those who came from elsewhere felt like they never fit in.) Today, with through-train? They’re all from Raffles schools. Can you see the problem here? In that sense also there’s even more riding on the PSLE today than there was 15 or 20 years ago, and I really worry about that too.

– The GEP fosters elitism.

Semi-valid criticism. If you can’t tell which of your friends was GEP or not, the GEP has not fostered elitism. On the other hand, I’ve seen forum letters from JC students complaining that their JC looks like a dump compared to the ITE and why should the ITE get such nice facilities when JC kids will be leaders of Singapore? (OK, here is the problem…stop telling kids that they are going to grow up to be Singapore’s leaders, they are misinterpreting it as a given. The other giant flaws in that logic are 1) ITE kids will never be Future Leaders and 2) Future Leaders of Singapore ought to be given a red carpet and an air-conditioned bubble. Who says? Buzz off and start from the bottom.) I hope that brats like this are few and far between. Again, if you never rub shoulders with people who are different from you, you might develop a bit of an elitist mindset. I don’t know how to fix this but someone clever ought to go and tackle this.

– I need to send my child for special prep tuition so that she can get into the GEP.

This is not a problem caused by the GEP in and of itself, but by the way the programme is  structured and marketed.

This is a problem caused by people assuming a lot of the above: that getting into GEP will set you up for life (not really true but it looks that way from the outside), that being surrounded by brighter peers will motivate a child to work harder (maybe true some of the time, but actually only if those peers are within reasonable reach), and that the GEP will make my child smarter (I’m not a psychologist and therefore cannot tell you to what extent IQ is pliable).

Actually, the underlying problem here is that people think the GEP and academic streaming is the be-all and end-all, the One True Way to get your children to succeed in life. If everybody else thinks the same way, who can blame parents? It takes really special parents to say ‘screw this nonsense, I will trust the school and teachers to provide the education that my child needs, and do my best to provide opportunities that foster my child’s development. I will trust that my child will turn out fine eventually, whether he makes it into all these special programmes or not’. It takes a tremendous amount of trust. And when even teachers themselves don’t trust in that, we are in huge trouble.

Also, 1) you can’t always buy opportunities, and 2) opportunities don’t always come in the form of commercial classes or even school programmes. Maybe they come in the form of a grandparent who will take a kid to the library every week and give him their own library card so he can borrow double the books. Or an older sibling who is hugely into music and patient enough to teach a younger sibling how to play the guitar. Or family camping trips to the beach with picnics and kites and games and all your cousins at the same time. I dunno, make up your own.

PPS: The underlying underlying problem is actually widening inequality. So the popular perception is, if you don’t make it to GEP/ top school/ other special programme, you are stuck. Actually you are not stuck if, as my ex-colleague put it in a lovely essay about not having a university degree, you don’t take no for an answer and keep asking nicely.