So the big event next week will be the release of the O level results on Monday. If you’re a concerned parent/relative of a student getting his/her results next week or a (somewhat) clueless student wondering what you should do next, then here’s something to think about.

Disclaimer: I’m not writing this as an educational expert or someone who has a crystal ball. The following are just thoughts based on (1) my experience as an educator, (2) having been through a few rounds of Q&A with concerned parents and students, (3) a student once, (4) a working adult now and (5) an older brother whose younger brother is also going to be one of those getting his results. Once again, my thoughts are my own and in no way represent the official line of my school.

Phew, ok, now that all that is out of the way, let’s get started shall we? For the uninitiated, the O levels are a national exam that every Singaporean secondary school (the equivalent of junior high) student takes at the age of 16 in order to determine what his/her next path as a student should be.

It’s a big deal here in Singapore because most parents and, to a huge extent, students believe that in order to succeed* (i.e. get employed), one needs to go on to get a degree. And as usual, our school held our annual open house session where us lecturers have to entertain numerous enquiries that usually revolve around the same few things.

In light of that, I thought I’d share my answers to three commonly asked questions by clueless parents and kids.

#1 Should my son/daughter go to JC or poly?

Well, there isn’t an easy answer to this.

The answer is that it depends. A decade or more ago, the perception was that if you went to a polytechnic, you must have been not so academically inclined. I can safely assure most people that this is not necessarily the case today.

While the entry to a polytechnic course is based on the score for five subjects while entry to a junior college is based on six, I have many students who would have easily qualified for a JC if they chose to do so.

In my own case, I went to JC and did badly there due to a variety of reasons such as wrong subject choice and lack of motivation. In other words, the answer to the question depends a lot on which environment will allow the student to thrive?

Kids that have zero interest in the hard sciences shouldn’t be forced to go to a JC just because the perceived chance of getting into NUS, NTU or SMU is higher. In fact, the lack of interest might be the one hurdle they fail to cross and kills them instead.

On the other hand, kids that choose to go to a polytechnic because they think the course is easier may also be walking into a trap because once they realise that the environment can get competitive, they may easily get overwhelmed and subsequently drown when reality doesn’t meet their expectations.

#2 What’s the difference between [course A] and [course B] in [school X] at [Y Polytechnic]?

While current students from one course may tell you all the good things about their course, let’s also be aware of the fact that they haven’t been through a different course. In that sense, whatever opinions you get from any one student may be highly skewed.

Also, remember that students are going on to a high school level type of curriculum. Unless the course is vocationally specific such as Film & Media or Nursing, the stuff that they learn is going to be just a dipping-your-toes-in-the-water kind of level (think Business or Engineering courses). Furthermore, if the courses are from the same school, then you can be assured that the foundational modules will be pretty much the same regardless of course.

In other words, it’s not going to be the course that is a deal breaker when it comes to employment. Ultimately, it’s more important what your kid learns during his/her three years in the polytechnic. For example, if your kid learns to build a website with fully functioning web payment services, engages in trade by buying from an overseas supplier and selling it to local customers, having to deal with angry customers, make cold calls and pitches, graphic design etc., that’s much more useful that saying I graduated with a diploma in [A].

Having said that, similar courses across different polytechnics can differ in content and delivery. It’s quite an established fact that different polytechnics have different strengths (i.e. Poly X is known for their life science school while poly Y is known for their engineering school and so on). Is the difference a real outcome, a false perception or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Does the difference matter all that much? I shall sit on the fence for this one as I do not have the data to make a reasonable conclusion but suffice to say, differences exist.

#3 Should my kid study arts or science in JC?

This is some age-old myth about the science stream being better than the arts stream. Let me tell you why this is complete nonsense.

Unless you plan to become a researcher (which takes more than a bachelor’s degree) or engineer, everything else in the university is pretty much open to arts students too (e.g. Law, economics, business, humanities and social sciences). As far as I know, arts students have to do Math do, in which case, even a computer science degree is a possibility.

Of course, if your kid is good and enjoys the sciences, please do not deny him/her the pleasure of learning the subject at a higher level but please do not force the issue due to the myth that science students have an advantage over arts students. As far as I know, such advantages do not exist. In fact, kids who do subjects that they hate just end up having a bigger boulder to climb.

I hope that answers some questions that people might have. In sum, don’t buy into the myth of JC being better than poly or vice versa. It’s not like that at all. They are just different environments and different creatures thrive in different settings. Also, think long-term and not in terms of subject areas. There is NO subject area that is better than another. They just perform different functions in a diverse economy and society like ours. Lastly, for parents, your son or daughter may be clueless about what to do next but what makes you think you know any better? Don’t assume that father or mother always knows best. It may work for Kim but it certainly won’t work for you.


*I know many people will disagree with this definition of success but let’s not kid ourselves. Getting a decent job, getting married, having kids, paying for an apartment, enjoying the annual holiday abroad or two every year and owning a car are pretty much success factors for the average Singaporean. You may not agree with it but it is what it is.