Cognitus Blog  >  After More Than a Decade of Subject-Based Banding in Primary Schools, Questions Remain

After More Than a Decade of Subject-Based Banding in Primary Schools, Questions Remain

Posted on: 16 Apr 2019

It has been more than a month since the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced the phasing out of streaming in Singapore secondary schools by 2024. In place of streaming, subject-based banding (SBB) will allow students to take academic subjects at G1, G2 or G3 levels that align with their readiness for the subject. The aims of this change are to meet the diverse needs of students, and to promote social interaction among students of different academic readiness and abilities.

Ostensibly beneficent, and promising to break down social stratification, why has this policy shift attracted some negative comments? We argue that the removal of Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams is a positive policy shift, but does not go far enough to assure parents that the change will meaningfully enhance their children’s academic develop and social experience in school.

MOE needs to understand that parents are very concerned about the following the questions:

  1. Will SBB reduce the level of stress in my child’s academic journey from Primary One to Secondary Four?
  2. Will the removal of streaming increase my child’s chances of success in school?
  3. Under the new system, will my child’s options increase after graduating from secondary school?

If the answers are no, no and no, then we are simply wasting time, and the government’s budget. There is no need to go too far to see the effects of SBB. It has already been implemented for more than a decade in our primary schools.

Subject-based banding, which was introduced in 2008 across primary schools, sought to recognise the differences in students’ abilities in various academic subjects. With the removal of the EM1, EM2 and EM3 streams in primary schools, subjects are offered to students at standard and foundation levels based on their mastery and readiness in the respective subjects. The removal of streaming from the primary school system has brought applause among parents and students.

Despite a decade of implementing SBB in primary schools, however, many questions have not been well-addressed. Over the years, the perception has been that, if a student takes a subject at the foundation level, his chances of opting for the Express stream in secondary school are lower than his peers who study standard subjects. They are somewhat ‘disadvantaged’ when they sit for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) because taking even one foundation subject means they are likely to be channelled to the Normal (Academic) stream. Because of that, students continue to seek additional help from tuition centres in order to do better in school.

If students take a combination of standard and foundation subjects, how would the new PSLE scoring system that uses Achievement Levels (AL) affect them?

Here is an illustration of two students’ PSLE AL scores with SBB:

Student A

Student B

English – Achievement Level 2

Mother Tongue – Achievement Level 1

Mathematics – Achievement Level 3

Science – Achievement Level 3

English – Achievement Level 2

Mother Tongue – Achievement Level 1

Foundation Mathematics – Achievement Level 3

Foundation Science – Achievement Level 3

Total: 9

What would the PSLE score for this student be?


There needs to be greater clarity and transparency as to how the PSLE score is calculated for candidates like Student B. What is the standard subject equivalent of an AL 1 for Foundation English, Mathematics, etc? SBB in primary schools might affect the level of secondary school subjects (G1, G2 or G3) that students are allowed to take based on the new SBB that will take place in all secondary schools from 2024. Eventually, will the policy open up or close off options for students?

Another ambiguity with the implementation of SBB in secondary schools is how schools will group students into their form classes. Schools may have the freedom to decide on the guidelines for classing students, but how transparent will the process be? Not only should schools communicate these guidelines to parents clearly, but also engage and consult stakeholders throughout the process.

SBB will give schools opportunities for greater flexibility to group their students, regardless of their PSLE score. Students with different levels of academic readiness have a higher chance of interacting with one another. But this is only true if the school takes in students from a range of abilities. What about schools which currently have only one stream? Will students who previously did not have a chance of being admitted into such schools be able to gain admission now?

To push for more meaningful change, it is timely for MOE to reconsider some other policies.  For example, under the current system, entry for students who come from affiliated primary schools is less demanding. If the aim of SBB is to allow for more opportunities for students of diverse academic and social-economic background to mingle, then this system of gaining admission through affiliation has to change.

In conclusion, while the introduction of the long overdue SBB in secondary school is something for students and parents to look forward to, some of these issues need to be addressed before SBB can create a new education landscape that eliminates unnecessary study stress, increases students’ chances of success, and lays strong foundations for a bright future.