The Singapore education system can make a person unfamiliar to it feel like they are stuck in a never-ending labyrinth. But I shall try my best to help you understand it - first in a general context, next in the ASEAN scholarship context.
There are many ways you can categorize secondary schools in Singapore, but I shall attempt to split them into two branches: Integrated Program (IP) Schools and non-IP schools.
These schools are known as the more "elite" schools of Singapore that take in students with a higher PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination = UPSR equivalent) aggregate score. Students going through IP will not have to take the O Levels at the end of Secondary 4. Instead, they will be posted directly to the affiliated Junior Colleges (JC) to continue their pre-university education which will culminate in them sitting for the A Levels or International Baccalaureate exam.
Because these students do not have to spend time to prepare for the O Levels at Secondary 4, their curriculum will be different from those students at non-IP schools. IP students will have more time to dabble more in depth in their subjects and learn new things out of the typical school syllabus. So these students may have more opportunities to engage in scientific research and other academic competitions than their non-IP counterparts.
Some IP schools include:
- Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls' School leading up to Raffles Institution (Junior College)
- River Valley High School
- Hwa Chong Institution and Nanyang Girls' School leading up to Hwa Chong Junior College
- Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and Methodist Girls' School* leading up to the International Baccalaureate at ACS(I)
- Dunman High School
- Victoria Junior College
- Singapore Chinese Girls' School, CHIJ St. Nicholas Girls' School, Catholic High School leading up to a new yet unnamed JC.*
- and more.
*These are new IP schools that will take in their first IP batch in 2013.
This branch can be split further to schools with only the Express/Special stream and schools that offer Normal stream as well. For ease (and my sanity) I will only explain the Express/Special stream because the Normal stream is not applicable for ASEAN scholars.
But, just a simple overview. Express/Special stream students take a four-year secondary school course that will culminate in the O Levels at the end of secondary 4. Normal stream students take a five-year secondary school course which will include N Levels and O Levels as well if they perform well.
There is no big difference between being in the Express stream or the Special stream. I'm not sure, but I believe that the difference would be in the mother tongue subject you take. If you take a Higher Mother Tongue subject, you will be in the Special stream. If you do not take a Higher Mother Tongue, you will be in the Express stream. I studied in a school whereby I had classmates from both Express and Special stream studying together. Like I mentioned earlier, there is no big difference between these two streams.
Depending on the school you go to, the number of subjects you are allowed to offer for O Levels will differ. Some schools only allow students to take 7 subjects. Some allow a maximum of 10 if you prove that you can cope. Some schools make it compulsory for scholars to take up a third language, some schools have no such requirements. Some schools require you to pass English to be promoted to the next level, and some don't.
Some schools offering IP also offer the O Level track simultaneously such as Singapore Chinese Girls' School and Anglo Chinese School (Independent).
From Secondary School to JC
MOE will convert your O Level results into a point-based system - where the lower the points, the better. To qualify for a JC (and to retain your scholarship if you are a secondary school scholar), you must obtain 20 points or below with a pass in English. The minimum number of points you can get is actually 0! Let me explain how this points are calculated.
The online system will take your six best subjects and convert them to points. For example, A1 = 1 point; C5 = 5 points and so on. This system is known as the L1R5 system. In Singapore, people usually ask, "so what's your L1R5?" and you'll answer correspondingly with "7 points" and whatnot. However, there are certain distributions in which these subjects are chosen from. The L1R5 must include:
- One language - either English or a Higher Mother Tongue
- One Science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Combined Science, etc)
- One Math (Additional Math or Elementary Math)
- One Humanities (Geography, Literature, Chinese Lit, History, Combined Humanities, etc)
- Two other best subjects.
Note: subjects offered differs from school to school.
You may notice that based on these six subjects, you minimum L1R5 would only be 6 points! How on earth can someone get 0 points. This is where bonus points come in play. There are various ways you can obtain bonus points. Two most common ways of getting them include taking a higher mother tongue and accumulating CCA points.
What is Higher Mother Tongue? In Singapore, a second language (mother tongue) is compulsory for all students. For Malaysians, we can either take Malay, Chinese or Tamil depending on our race. If you are a Chinese that studied in a kebangsaan school, then Malay would be your mother tongue. Better students and most scholars will take their second language at a higher level - Higher Mother Tongue (HMT). For students taking HMT, you will be required to sit for the normal level mother tongue O Level Examination at the end of Secondary 3. If you manage to obtain a B3 and above, then you will be allowed to continue studying HMT, which you will take with the rest of your subjects during the O Level at the end of Secondary 4. If you manage to pass HMT (meaning a C6 and above) you will be awarded two bonus points. This means that if your original L1R5 score was 15, with two bonus points it will now be 15 - 2 =13. Another advantage of taking HMT would be that you will not be required to take a second language in JC, which is compulsory for those not taking HMT.
Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) are also given a grading system in Singapore which will translate into a grade. For example, if you win a National level badminton competition, you will be awarded 3 points. If you clock in 100 hours of community service, you will be awarded 5 points. All these points will add up to give you your grade. I think it is 15 points = B3; 20 points = A2; 25 points = A1. If you get a B for CCA, you will be awarded one bonus point. If you get an A (regardless of the numerical number after it), you will be awarded two bonus points.
As you can see, the average student would have the chance of obtaining 4 bonus points from these two components. To obtain 6, would be rare and would require you to enter special language programs in various JCs (e.g. Malay Language Program in Jurong Junior College). Assuming you do very well and get 6 points for L1R5 originally (all subjects A1), and 4 bonus points giving you the final L1R5 of 2, you will be eligible to qualify for all the JCs in Singapore. Different JCs have different cut off points that changes from year to year. Also, admission to JCs typically require scholars to have lower L1R5s than Singaporeans. For example: the cut off point for Singaporeans to ACS(I) is 5 points. However, scholars wishing to enter ACS(I) would have to score 2 points to be admitted.
As of 2011, there are approximately 19 junior colleges offering the A Levels and one offering the International Baccalaureate.
Students will be required to take 4 A Level subjects, out of which at least one must be a contrasting subject. Meaning, if you are a science student, you are entitled to take 3 science subjects (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Math) and 1 humanities subject (Geography, Economics, History, Literature, etc). This requirement is the same for humanities students. Some students take 2 of each, which may be permitted by their schools.
Apart from these 4 subjects of your choice, all students must take General Paper (GP) or Knowledge Inquiry (KI, which is a little like philosophy or IB's Theory of Knowledge) and Project Work (PW). In PW, basically, you will be given a problem which you must work in a group to come out with the solutions for. PW is completed at the end of your first JC year.
A Level subjects are offered at two levels - H1 and H2. H1 covers less content while H2 is generally more difficult and more content heavy. At the end of the day, your A Level grades will also be converted to a credit-ish based system for entry into local universities. H1 will yield less credit than H2. Excellent students can offer a subject at H3 level. In H3, you will study in depth about a particular field of your chosen subject. For example, Proteomics in H3 Biology or Pharmaceutical Chemistry in H3 Chemistry.
International Baccalaureate is offered to scholars at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent). For more information on the IB Diploma Program, click here. Alternatively, if you have a specific question regarding the IBDP, you can comment down below and I'll get back to you! ;)
Schools for ASEAN Scholars
It is getting increasingly rarer for scholars to be posted to IP schools. The reason lies in that these schools conduct their own scholarship programs to recruit their own scholars (known as school-based scholars). Each school is rumoured to have a quota for the number of scholars studying there. Thus, this quota is usually filled up by school-based scholars, leaving few, if any, places for ASEAN scholars. This is the same for top JCs. Especially for Pre-U scholars, places for scholars in top JCs will most likely be filled up by their own IP scholars as well as secondary school scholars who have done well in their O Level examinations. As I have mentioned before, thus far, there have been no Pre-U scholars sent to ACS(I) for the IB. This scenario may repeat in other JCs from year to year.
I have known a few scholars who felt disappointed about the school given to them by MOE. Some felt that these schools were not "good schools" and does not match up to some of the reputable big names like Raffles. I wish to tell you that it does not matter which school you are posted to; as long as you are open to new things, your experience in Singapore will not be discounted.