So I had been told that Little Wang's school does not have any co-curricular activities for Primary One students. CCAs are for the older kids (I believe they start in Primary Two or Three).
However, Little Wang comes home with a stack of application forms yesterday. "Daddy, look", he says. These application forms are not for CCAs. They are for optional courses, outside the usual school hours, but conducted on the school premises.
I browse through the forms and I am very impressed. The range of optional courses is wide. For example, there's speech & drama; a variety of music classes (guitar, cello, violin, keyboards, drums); and art courses.
Furthermore, unlike most of the CCAs in my day, these optional courses appear to be well-organised and conducted with some genuine expertise. They are not conducted by the school's own teachers (whose specialties are really teaching English, Maths, Science and 2nd Language, not other things). Instead, external service providers (for example, full-time music teachers at music schools) will come to the school to conduct these courses.
As I had mentioned, the courses are optional. Almost all of them lead to some form of a final examination conducted by some independent external body. However, the application forms make it clear that the activities are optional, and the exams are just as optional. Students can come to participate just for fun and enjoyment.
I start thinking that perhaps the education system has really changed a lot. Maybe it's now really focused on learning and all-round development, not just grades. Perhaps it really is striving to make schooling an enjoyable experience for kids nowadays.
Then suddenly, I notice the acroynm "DSA" on one of the application forms. The form says that one of the objectives of the course is to help students succeed with the DSA process. Ooooh, I see.
For those who don't know, DSA stands for Direct School Admission. It is still relatively new and was an invention by ex-Education Minister Tharman. Tharman's vision was to create an education system with "alternative avenues of success". He didn't want an education system where everyone was constantly just fretting about grades, grades, grades. The DSA was one of his ideas.
Basically, the DSA allows schools (such as secondary schools) to select and admit students on selection criteria other than formal academic grades (such as PSLE results). What are those other selection criteria? It depends on the school. Schools participating in the DSA have the discretion to set their own DSA criteria, and to select and admit a certain number of students every year, based on those criteria.
For example, one school may decide that its criteria is "sports excellence in soccer, basketball and tennis". Another school may decide that its criteria is "music and drama" or whatever. The DSA has become quite widespread. According to the Education Ministry's website, there are more than 60 secondary schools in Singapore participating in the scheme.
So now it has become possible for a Primary Six student to secure a place in a good secondary school, even a top secondary school, even before the student has taken his PSLE examination. (DSA admission results are announced, before the PSLE exam season begins). Clearly, this can go a long way in making the PSLE a less stressful and traumatic experience for some little kids in Singapore (not to mention their parents).
Overall, I think that the DSA is an excellent idea. Among other things, it provides some encouragement to parents to allow their children to pursue their hobbies or interests (apart from merely making them study their school subjects). Now parents, for example, may be more willing to allow their young children more time to paint more pictures or play more soccer or join the Boy Scouts. That's because all these activities all have some potential of helping the children to get to the next stage of education (i.e secondary school).
However, one can also see how the DSA can backfire. Arguably, this has already happened.
All these years, the traditional problem in Singapore is that the system (and that includes parents and teachers) pushes students too hard towards academic excellence (i.e scoring A's for English, Maths and Science etc). Now, however, if the DSA backfires, it will be because the system pushes the students too hard towards academic excellence AND something else.
Soon Singapore's stressful paper chase may become not just a chase for A's in English, Maths and Science. It will also become a stressful chase for that certificate that proves you can play the piano or sing and dance or swim well.
After all, your place in a good secondary school could well depend on that.