A Year of the PSLE: One Mother Tells Us What It’s Been Like

Photo by LUM3N on Unsplash

If you grew up in Singapore, and you care about the Primary School Leaving Examination or PSLE, chances are, it is not ‘just’ an exam to you.

You may have memories of your own PSLE triumphs and disappointments, and it is likely that you still remember your PSLE score. As a Singaporean parent, how you frame the PSLE experience for your child will be coloured by your own perceptions, especially about the impact of the results on your confidence, and your subsequent access to opportunities.

This is why preparing a 12-year-old child for the PSLE can be an emotional experience for the entire family. In some ways, it is a test for parents as well, where we reckon with our anxieties as well as our values, and grapple with the weighty question of what constitutes a good life here in Singapore.

In 2021, there is the added challenge of sitting for the PSLE under a new scoring system, with uncertainty over how this may affect school allocation. For an insider’s view on what it feels like to face the PSLE this year as a parent, we talk to mother of three June Yong about her PSLE journey with her firstborn. June is a Channel NewsAsia contributor and freelance writer, with interests in educational therapy and counselling. Our conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How stressed are you about your first PSLE as a parent?

June: I would rate my stress level at around 6 to 7 [out of 10]. Although the PSLE is about three weeks away, I am generally still relaxed while trying to focus on what we can control. At this point for us, it’s less about how much revision you can squeeze in, but more about what kind of attitude we will have as we enter into this major exam.

From the get-go, we decided it was best not to overly pressurise the kids, but to let them grow at their own pace, and experience some degree of setback or failure. So from the start of this year, I’ve focused on fear and stress reduction, as well as understanding and managing emotions. This is critical for someone with my daughter’s personality, because she can be quite hard on herself and expects herself to do well, and at the same time, she’s transitioning into teenhood, which means some degree of angst and mood swings. If I didn’t help her to reduce her fears surrounding the PSLE, she might have been driven to procrastinate or avoid certain subjects, such as Chinese.

How did you try to make the PSLE more manageable for your daughter?

June: Apart from ensuring she had her basic needs met — sufficient sleep, screen time limits, nutrition, fun and relaxation — I spent a few months having bedtime conversations with her. Our conversations covered all the ‘what ifs’ in her mind: What if I don’t get the grades I want? What if I fail Chinese?

I also took this time to downsize her worries about the PSLE, by repeating statements like: The PSLE has very little to do with your choice of career or future success. The PSLE says very little about you as a person. A single exam can only measure how much you’ve mastered at that point in time; it does not measure a person’s self-worth.

I could see a change when she started to believe that the PSLE would not make or break her future, and that this exam would not measure her worth as a person. She was able to take things more in stride. When she struggled with certain topics, she was more open to press on, and less prone to negativity.

To be sure, it wasn’t an overnight change, but a step-by-step process.

This PSLE is significant because it will introduce a new grading system. Has there been a lot of anxiety in your parent circles about this?

June: I think there is always fear when something is new and unknown. Most people around me feel that it won’t be guaranteed that you’ll get your first-choice school, as it could fall on the ballot if a lot of students with good results apply to that school.

Do you also see the new grading system as a clean slate — at least for this year, kids won’t have to bear the burden of matching up to previous years’ standards?

June: Yes, but only to an extent. In the end, students will still carry this score around with them, although I hope it will not weigh too heavily on them, as it did previously with the PSLE T-score.

A homeschooling parent once told me that she felt it would be hard to escape from a fixation with exams in a school environment, because children and parents are potentially exposed to exam talk every day. Has this been your experience?

June: No, it hasn’t. I vaguely recall being invited to a PSLE talk held by the school, but I wasn’t able to make it. Nor did I feel a strong need to be updated on the nitty-gritty of the PSLE, such as the weightage of various exam components, to be honest.

From the child’s perspective, it could be slightly more [exposure]. But in these Covid-19 circumstances that we are in, schools may have also toned down their messages surrounding the PSLE.

Let’s talk about exam prep. How much tutoring did your daughter have to get ready for the exams, and do you feel that she could have done without the tutoring?

June: She has around two hours of Chinese, one hour of Math, and two hours of Science tutoring per week. The Science tutoring only started in Term 3 this year, when I felt she needed a bit of targeted practice to handle her open-ended questions well.

In hindsight, she didn’t really need the Math tuition, but I made the decision in February this year to sign her up, as I was worried about last-minute overwhelm for her. I feel better knowing that she gets some consistent practice and tips with her Math tutor, and this allows me to focus my time on Chinese revision, instead of feeling overwhelmed by a list of things that we’d have to work on together.

Did you implement any new home rules to ensure that your daughter will be in the best frame of mind for the exams?

June: She actually works best at night, and I try to be free for a portion of the night, say 8 to 9pm, so that we can work on some Chinese or just chat.

In our home, it’s no screens after 7.30pm, and balance is also key for us. Even when the prelims were nearing, we still tried to head outdoors and have family game time or TV time on weekends.

Are there moments where you’ve been tempted to ask your daughter to work harder or spend more time on revision?

June: I do nag at times, despite knowing that nagging can often backfire. I think these are moments where I need to remember to be as flexible as I would be in a work context, when a co-worker is facing tremendous stress. I should be willing to acknowledge that our children are still growing, they are still learning, and they will have their off-days.

Instead of nagging, I’ve tried to be aware of what motivates my daughter, and I’ve realised that she is extremely socially motivated. There was one day after the prelims, where she invited some friends over to play. The day before the playdate she actually tidied up her room, did all her homework — without my checking in — and even sanitised the tables. I joked that we should have her friends over every week!

Will the September holidays be mostly for relaxing, or reserved for last-minute revision?

June: It will be a bit of both. All work and no play makes our kids cranky, and we definitely want to have some fun as a family as well. Also in light of Covid-19, it’s been hard for her to be with her friends, so if we could have even one playdate during the holidays, that would be great.

With weeks to go before the actual papers begin, any pre-exam jitters, and how are you dealing with that?

June: At this point, we can’t wait for it to be over! At the same time, we know there’s still some ground to cover, especially with Chinese and Science. I’m feeling quite optimistic that she will get through it, just as she did with the prelims.

When I feel anxiety building up, I remind myself that we had decided not to allow the PSLE to dominate the fibre of our being and our family life. In our minds, we had already chosen to contain it in a box labelled ‘Academics’ and not let it grow to outshadow the other areas of our lives, such as personal development, family life, friendships, and spiritual growth.

One of the things I taught my daughter was a stress-reducing technique that I had used on myself as a teen. Before every exam or test, I would tell myself, “This is not that important.” This self-talk helped me to cope with the pressure, and go into the exam hall feeling more assured and focused on doing what I had to do.

I guess it is also apt that I should use the same tactic to soothe myself, now that the PSLE is really just around the corner.

The end is definitely in sight! Looking back, how would you sum up the year? Any life lessons learned?

June: This year has been dominated by exam after exam, and Covid-19. In a funny way, I’m glad that we had Covid-19 to take some attention away from the PSLE and work. And I think mental health has also become a priority for educators, so school teachers have tried to be more encouraging, less demanding, and more measured in their approach.

I’ve learned that it is futile to work against your child’s moods and inclinations. For example, if I am more planned and structured in my approach [to work], but my daughter is more free flowing, then it’d be me pushing a wheelbarrow uphill all the way. The more effective way would be to allow her to take the lead and decide what she wants to do and when she wants to do it, and also to work with her moods.

For my daughter, I would say she’s learnt to roll with the punches, to deal with the unexpected, and to — while complaining — get on with the programme. This, to me, is huge. Because when you think about future challenges, this is one of the key skills that one needs to keep going.

It sounds like you’ve really made efforts to keep a healthy perspective on the PSLE. Do you have a PSLE tip to share?

June: Well, the day before the Chinese oral exams, I reminded my daughter to just keep talking. I told her that the teachers yearn to give out marks — but you have to keep talking in order to give them a reason to do so. I wanted to address the possibility that she might be reluctant to say much, for fear of saying the wrong things.

Also, just before the prelims, a good friend reminded me: Make all the mistakes that you can make for the prelims, so that you can learn not to make the same ones at the PSLE!

Along the same lines, we should also allow our kids room to make mistakes at the PSLE, because they will learn from these mistakes, and hopefully avoid them in future when the stakes are possibly higher.

Have you thought about the six secondary school choices, or will you save that for after the results?

June: We are quite sure that my daughter will likely choose to go back to her affiliated school. We are supportive of this as we also see that she can thrive in a big fish-small pond situation, and she will hopefully be given opportunities to grow and serve there.

Do you believe in ‘worst-case scenario’ conversations and discussing what Plan B should be?

June: Yes, always plan for contingencies. And cover more score ranges than you normally would. It’s important for us and our children to know that there is always a way out.

What do you imagine Results Day to be like?

June: I envision it to be a happy and relieved moment. I hope my daughter will be able to receive her results in the presence of her good friends, as every one of us has had the opportunity to do so. To be able to laugh, jump, cry, or sulk together — I think it would be a moment to remember.

And finally, do you feel like you’re well-equipped to go through the PSLE again with your two younger children, after this?

June: Yes, I think so! Although that said, every child is different, and different needs and focal areas will likely arise. But our philosophy towards taking a longer-term, more skills-focused view of education will remain, and we will continue to support our children in whatever ways they most require it.