Studying at the ITE: The Point of No Return in Singapore?

Photo by Fab Lentz on Unsplash

Have you been warning your child “not to get into the ITE?” Or have you heard of secondary school teachers doing so?

For those unaware, ITE stands for the Institute of Technical Education, and not “It’s The End,” as some fear. Over the weekend, it became the subject of a viral storm, thanks to shared conversation screenshots of a tutor berating her ex-student for studying at the ITE. Even if we doubt the authenticity of the screenshots, we can concede that regardless, the bias towards ITE students is real.

If you take away nothing else from this episode, please remember that you should never disrespect your child, and no adult has the right to shame your child either — such adults should be firmly told off.

However, do parents and educators have a point when they say that “by not gaining a place in a polytechnic, the future of ITE students looks grim?”

First, let’s understand the qualifications that an ITE student is working towards. 

For Secondary 4 students who are in the N(A) stream, and considering the ITE, they can:

  1. Pursue a National ITE Certificate (Nitec)
  2. Enrol in a Higher Nitec course that will eventually lead to a diploma, through the Direct-Entry-Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP)

The ITE admits about 14,000 students each year, and about 30 percent of ITE students who graduate with Nitec certification do not seek further qualifications. This is something that our Ministry of Education hopes to change, by providing more places for Nitec holders in Higher Nitec and diploma programmes. Although some students may not qualify to enter Higher Nitec or diploma programmes after completing their Nitec certification, they can clock up work experience to have a better chance of meeting admission requirements in the future.

So let’s say, at least for now, that your teen wishes to stop studying after receiving a Nitec certification. Whether or not the outlook is “grim” depends on what you have in mind. Perhaps, what most of us want for our children is the ability to find fulfilling work, as well as lead fairly comfortable lives. We may differ on what a comfortable life should look like, but we would probably be concerned about the salary scale of ITE graduates.

The ITE has provided the mean gross monthly salaries of its 2020 Nitec graduates on its website, and these numbers range from S$1,832 to S$2,097 across industries. In comparison, those graduating with Higher Nitec qualifications reported making between S$1,933 and S$2,615 (health science).

If you compare this to polytechnic graduates, survey results released last year showed that the median gross monthly salary for polytechnic graduates was S$2,400, with health science graduates commanding the highest median monthly salary (S$2,600).

A longer-term survey, which tracked ITE graduates from 2007 to 2017, found that these graduates were making a median monthly salary of S$3,000 — more than double of their median starting salaries as fresh graduates, which back then was only S$1,200.

What you feel about the above salaries will depend on your personal expectations. But in the first place, how easy is it for ITE graduates to land jobs? The current reality is that Covid-19 has complicated the job search for all fresh graduates, whether they hold degrees, diplomas, or a Nitec certification. An ITE graduate told Today that he rejected a “lowball” offer of S$1,800 by a construction firm, as he could earn twice that amount working as a GrabFood delivery rider. And although there is a Workforce Singapore agency that provides support to unemployed Singaporeans, with career counselling and access to employers via job fairs, the work of actually finding work will still be up to the individual.

To answer the question of what salary is “enough” for a young person, a practical parent will consider the cost of living in Singapore. If you intend to discuss these matters with your teen, try using cost-of-living estimates by financial sites such as MoneySmart as a starting point. For instance, is your teen needed at home to boost the household income, or does he or she intend to move out after graduation to experience independent living? Is your teen content to stick with public transport, or are there dreams to own a car? What would an ideal social life look like? And although it might be far too early to think about marriage and owning a home, what is the amount of money needed for this next stage of life? It is always better to have discussions based on facts, rather than perception.

Raising Teens To Succeed In Life

If you are feeling worried or conflicted about your teen’s decision to enter the ITE, remember this piece of advice by Harvard educator Ronald Ferguson:

“Each one of us has our own destiny. It’s not about somebody else’s notion of what success is. It’s about the notion of success that each of us… comes up with.”

He also gives an equation for success, which he believes parents should focus on:

Smarts + Purpose + Agency = Fully Realised

According to Ferguson, “smarts” refers to the ability to make sense of a set of ideas or facts, “purpose” is about having a sense of direction and the inclination to set goals, and “agency” is the initiative and resourcefulness to pursue those goals. 

A person who is “fully realised” is one who can make the most of his or her human potential to lead a fulfilling life — beyond career advancement. To get our kids and teens to this point, there are essential roles that parents can play, and you can read more about these roles here.

The other factor that you can look at is your home environment: is your home conducive for growth and development? Perhaps this is something that you can change, for the better. Children who grow up in homes with “toxic” stress — due to, for example, financial strain — will find it difficult to thrive in school as their chronically elevated stress levels can disrupt the development of higher-order mental abilities, such as the ability to focus or commit new knowledge to memory.

As parents, we can do our bit to change toxic stress into tolerable stress, and the way to do this is to build a supportive relationship with our children. Giving physical affection to your teen, helping him or her to name and express negative emotions, and doing what you can to provide a safe space will help to mitigate the impact of events that may be out of your control. If we consider it our parental responsibility to create the optimal environment for our teens during their season of exploration, we will realise that we can still make a difference, and we should never stop trying.

Parents: did you study at the ITE? We would love to hear from you. Connect with other KSP members and share your experiences here!