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Life In The GEP: Everything You Need To Know

GEP

Will my child get into the Gifted Education Programme, otherwise known as GEP? How will it be different from the mainstream curriculum? Will it be stressful for my child? Should we prepare for it? How do I discuss this with my child in a healthy way?

With the GEP selections beginning in late August this year, some parents may have curious questions about what it means to be “gifted” in Singapore. We spoke to a mother of an 11-year-old in the GEP. Read on to find out about their family’s experience!

Did you think that your son would get into the GEP?

He has always been quite bright, in our opinion, but we thought we were just parents being naturally proud of our child. Due to my personal interest in board games, I started playing board games with my son since he was 17 months old. I assumed it was because of early and constant exposure, and that’s why he could play the games. Subsequently, his younger siblings could also play the board games at a young age.

Notably, my son also started reading early. I can remember him independently reading a children’s book when he was about four plus. But apart from the above, I didn’t see other signs that he would be deemed as “gifted.”

My sister, who has older kids, used to say that he would surely get into the GEP. My husband and I just laughed when we heard that, as it was a proclamation made when my boy was just five years old. At the time, primary school seemed so far away and it didn’t matter to us whether he did or didn’t get into the GEP, so we didn’t think too much about it.

All through lower primary (Primary 1 through 3), my son could cope well with his schoolwork. He hardly ever had to bring home any work to complete, as he had managed to do everything in school. I used to tell him that he should try to do that, so that when he got home, he could use the time to play with his siblings instead of doing homework. And so he did.

Back then, the only tuition class he had was for Chinese and we stopped that in P3, as he didn’t want to have it. I also felt it wasn’t effective for him. Despite doing relatively well in school, my son hardly ever got full marks for tests and exams. Consequently, he has never topped the class, and hence we didn’t get any invitations to Speech Day as he was never a prizewinner. He didn’t receive Edusave awards either. Because of this, I hardly had any expectations about him qualifying for the GEP.

Did you know much about the GEP at the time?

I had heard that the GEP was very good, in that they make learning interesting, by using different kinds of manipulatives and programmes, and that the kids were just more exposed to stuff. Honestly what I heard was quite vague. I had a general sense that it was an intensive programme that was meant to stretch a child to his or her fullest potential.

What were your thoughts when he made it through the first round of written tests?

In our experience, it’s not uncommon for kids to get through the first round of the GEP selections. In my son’s school, we heard that an average of about seven to eight kids per class got through the first round. Thus this gave my son—and us—the impression that it’s not that rare, and in that way it’s not a big deal as well.

I wasn’t surprised about my son getting through the first round. But I didn’t see it as much more than an ego boost. We’re Catholics, so as with all our life journeys, we approached this from a faith perspective. Before the second round of tests, we said to my son, “Let’s pray to God that you will get in ONLY if God thinks this programme is suitable for you.”

Also, we explained very clearly to our son what getting into the GEP meant. We didn’t want the message to him to be “If you’re smart you’ll get in, and if not, you’re not smart.” We reminded him that 99% of Singaporeans didn’t get into the GEP, including his parents! The fact that he got in simply meant that he met the criteria for the programme, and that it would be a more rigorous and intensive learning programme than what he went through in the lower primary years.

My primary concern was about whether he would be suitable for the programme, should he qualify for it. To this end, the Ministry of Education’s GEP Branch held a briefing for parents of those who got past the second round of tests and were invited to join the GEP. MOE seemed to have the utmost confidence in their GEP selection procedure. They kept assuring us parents that their selection process is accurate in sieving out the gifted ones.

How did you feel when he was accepted into the GEP?

I felt at peace. At that point, my son had dropped his Chinese tuition, so he wasn’t having any tuition at all. We don’t believe in GEP preparatory classes either, so he didn’t attend any of those. He got in on his own merit.

I believe that the chances of getting into the GEP are slim if you don’t have the natural aptitude. Most of all, we felt it was a clear stamp of approval from God, that the programme was suitable for our son.

With that peace of mind, we were happy for my son, and I asked him, “Do you want to do this?” He said yes. I told him, “It’s going to be tough. Don’t make mummy or daddy do your projects or your homework. You will have to be prepared for hard work, and be prepared to do it yourself.”

That was our only hesitation—the workload. We had heard some horror stories of how parents ended up taking over and doing homework or projects for their child. But I guess that was also true for kids in the mainstream.

In any case, we did not want to have to take over our child’s work in any way at all, and we made that clear to him. He told us he understood that he would need to put in hard work, and he was willing to give it a shot. Moreover, he didn’t have to switch schools, so we didn’t have to worry about adjusting to a new school.

I would say we were very matter of fact about the whole thing, and it wasn’t something that we celebrated at all. Well, my dad did give him $10 for getting into the GEP, which we all found hilarious!

How did your son feel about it?

He seemed quite nonchalant about it, but I could tell he was pleased. That said, he wasn’t boastful or showy. I asked him who else had gotten in and how had the school announced it. It turned out the school had handled it in a sensitive manner; they called the selected boys and spoke to them outside of class, where they handed them their acceptance envelopes.

He’s in Primary 5 this year. Tell us about his GEP experience so far.

On the whole, we feel that the GEP has stretched my son. Previously, he had coasted through the mainstream, and although he wasn’t a top student, he was doing well without much effort. Now, he has to pay attention in class, he has to focus, and he has to be mindful about putting in effort.

GEP

However, I must say that Primary 4 was horrible for us! It was an adjustment year, and it was a culture shock for my son.

The thing with the GEP is that they teach more—quantitatively and qualitatively—and they teach a lot faster. If you don’t pay attention in class, you can get lost very quickly. So, I think this was what happened: My son was probably still in his lower primary cruising mode, and didn’t pay extra attention in class, not realising that the lessons now were more intensive. His teachers now taught a lot more concepts in a lesson, at a much faster pace. Yet, he happily chatted with his newfound friends and found himself unable to keep up in class. This quickly spiraled downwards, coupled with a bash to his ego—he initially refused to ask for help!

The thing about some GEP kids is that they can be quite prideful. They’ve never had to ask for help prior to being in the GEP, but now they have to, and their ego takes a beating when they’re no longer sailing through everything. I was getting so many calls from my son’s teachers about him talking in class, and not asking the teachers for help. This was something I’d never experienced before—none of my son’s teachers in lower primary had ever complained about him talking in class. In fact, I told my husband, “He’s finally having a normal school life!”

That’s when I realised that my son found like-minded friends when he entered the GEP. For his first three years in primary school, I had never received any complaints about my son talking in class. But in Primary 4, every single teacher complained to me that he was talking in class!

In hindsight, I realised that he couldn’t really “click” with anyone when he was in the mainstream. One reason could be that I was very strict about his screen time, whereas his mainstream classmates were mostly avid phone gamers or console gamers. All the boys wanted to talk about was electronic games, which my son had little experience with. He did feel left out, especially during the Pokemon Go craze where he felt he couldn’t participate in that shared experience. But when he entered the GEP, he found that most of the kids there were avid readers, just like him. So he now had friends he could talk to, and connect with.

With lessons now being much more intense than before, coupled with him wanting to spend time talking to his new friends during breaks, he now had less time to complete his homework in school. Belatedly, it came as a shock to him when he found that he had to complete his homework at home. He complained to us, “I never used to have to do homework on weekends!” It was a sign of how he was struggling with the increased workload.

 How did you deal with this?

When I picked my son up from school, we would see some of his ex-classmates around—his friends who were in the mainstream programme. I would ask them if they had more homework this year, and they would say that they did. So I pointed out to my son that all kids in Primary 4 had more homework than before.

However, we could also tell that my son was really stressed over the sudden increase in workload, and we told him, “If you really cannot cope, you can drop out of the GEP and that’s fine with us.” But he said he wanted to continue because he liked his new friends.

The other thing we said to my son was, “Your actions determine the outcome. If you don’t pay attention in class, you can’t catch up and you won’t be able to complete your work. You need to focus and pay attention. Be disciplined and don’t allow yourself nor your friends to distract or be distracted.”

We didn’t try to hire tutors for him, or send him to any enrichment classes. We wanted him to seek help from his teachers if he had any issues. That was also the instruction given to us from his teachers—that he was to seek help immediately if he did not understand the topics taught on each day. I also had the impression that sending him to tuition classes would not help, as most tuition classes were based on the mainstream curriculum.

It was a bit disconcerting for us to see our son under such intense pressure, but we did think it was good for him to push his own boundaries and work hard. This was something he hardly had to do before.

However, we still felt at peace that this was where he should be, since we had God’s blessing on this. We prayed that it would be a phase that he would work through in time. And now that we are way into P5, we are happy to say that our boy has gotten through his difficult period in P4. He has adjusted well to the demands of the programme, and is now the happy boy he used to be. He is no longer as stressed out and tense as he was in the first half of his P4 year.

If curious parents were to ask you about the GEP curriculum, what would you tell them?

I would say that the GEP curriculum is deeper and broader compared to the regular mainstream curriculum. It’s meant to keep the gifted kids engaged and stretch them as far as they can go.

In many topics, they delve into the historical background. In Math, for example, they would be learning about the numbering systems of ancient civilisations. And they don’t just cover it as an “interesting to know” enrichment item—the GEP kids have to do homework on these areas as well.

Topics covered are also sometimes more advanced. My son, in Primary 5, is learning about topics which, in the mainstream curriculum, would be covered in Secondary 1 or 2. We know this because my husband is a secondary school math teacher.

For English, my son is an advanced reader, so no problems there. I like the way they approach composition writing, where they work through different genres, and submit about three drafts for each piece. Last year, he was working on “fractured fairytales,” and this year he’s learning how to write mysteries.

In the GEP, Social Studies is as important as the other main subjects. They have assignments, tests, exams, and projects on Social Studies, like any other main subjects such as Math and Science.

I should add that GEP Chinese is even tougher than Higher Chinese. And to top everything off, the passing mark for all subjects is 70%, not 50% like it is in the mainstream. I think you can start to understand why a 10 year old would feel immense stress upon starting on this intensively demanding programme in P4.

However, at the end of the day, GEP kids sit for the regular PSLE papers. This means that some GEP content will not be tested in the PSLE at all. The GEP is meant to keep these extremely high ability children interested in learning and bettering themselves. It doesn’t automatically guarantee that a child will do well in the PSLE.

Thus, for parents who think that getting into the GEP is a straight route to good PSLE grades, please think again. Such parents will be frustrated, as they will see their children spending time on topics, exercises, and projects that will definitely not be tested in the PSLE.

Any gripes about the GEP at all?

As mentioned earlier, our major complaint is that GEP Chinese is even more difficult than Higher Chinese. In general, for many Singaporean Chinese kids, regular Chinese is already a challenge. Besides, the GEP identification process only screens kids in English, Math, and General Ability (a kind of IQ test, conducted in English). The kids were not screened for Chinese ability.

We feel that the GEP curriculum is very demanding as it is, without having to contend with an extra high level of Chinese. GEP kids should be taking the normal Higher Chinese curriculum, and not an even more demanding course. This is a totally unnecessary source of additional stress that we should not have to deal with.

During the FAQ session for parents conducted by the GEP Branch, one concern voiced was about how hard it would be to stay in the GEP.

In the programme, the GEP Branch dictates that the “passing” mark is 70 percent for each subject. According to the GEP Branch, there was only one student who dropped out of the programme in each year (for the preceding years). They kept emphasising that drop-outs are rare as their selection process is very strict and has been finely honed throughout the years. But given that there is an increased curriculum load, a higher passing mark of 70% also causes a fair amount of stress in the kids and parents alike!

Any advice for parents whose children are eligible for the GEP?

I think parents should ask themselves if their children can thrive under pressure. If a child is doing well in school, getting all the prizes and opportunities, that will all change the moment he or she gets into the GEP with other high-ability children. For children whose self-esteem is fragile, they can take it badly, because they can go from top to bottom.  

The other concern would be the PSLE. I know of cases where GEP students didn’t do as well as hoped. Most of them do decently, but it’s not the stellar grades that you might expect. Parents should not think that being in the GEP is a guarantee of record-breaking PSLE grades.

In fact, being in the GEP is no guarantee of school “success” in the local sense. And when your child is in the programme, there are no dedicated assessment books or practice papers that you can purchase, so it will be up to your child to pay attention in class, ask for help from the teachers, and review the class materials before tests and exams. If a child is not naturally “quick” enough to keep up with the intensive pace of the programme, he or she will definitely suffer.

Do also note that there is no special treatment for GEP students in the PSLE. You will qualify for a school based on your PSLE results. Even if you’re going by the Direct School Admission route, you are on equal footing with everyone else who is DSA-ing. Another way of putting this is that there’s no prestige element to being in the GEP. Let’s say a GEP kid does badly and goes to a neighbourhood school—the “prestige” would be short-lived anyway.

How will you talk to your younger children about the GEP? Are you afraid they might feel pressure to follow in their brother’s footsteps?

My other two kids don’t really even know what the GEP is! My daughter only found out about it this year—she has a new classmate who transferred to her school because her older sister is in the GEP.

We will talk to my kids about the GEP only when they’re in their P3 year. We will explain to them that their brother is in this programme, and that they will sit for the same test, to see if they will get in. We will pray for the same thing: if God thinks it’s a suitable programme for them, they’ll get in. If they don’t get in, it simply means that the programme is not suitable for them.

I don’t think they will ask a lot of questions about this; it depends more on what the classroom sentiment is. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

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