Last year, 126 secondary schools admitted 2,700 students through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme. This is a programme which allows students to secure a Secondary 1 place even before they sit the Primary School Leaving Examination.
The DSA was introduced in 2004 to let secondary schools broaden their admission criteria beyond PSLE scores. Schools can admit students strong in sport or the arts, for example, and do so even before the PSLE results are out.
According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), 60 per cent of students who secured places through DSA over the last five years live in Housing Board flats. This compares with 81 per cent of Singaporeans overall who reside in HDB flats.
It also said that of the 126 schools enrolling students through this scheme, 18 are Integrated Programme (IP) schools, which offer a six-year scheme allowing students to skip the O levels. But it declined to say how many of the 2,700 students were admitted to IP schools or the proportion of DSA students in IP schools who reside in flats.
The DSA scheme has quickly became popular as parents began to see it as a way for their children to enter schools that offer the IP.
THE MONEY ADVANTAGE
The DSA scheme and the profile of students who get into secondary schools this way came under the spotlight early this year when Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said in Parliament that it is an “open secret” that the DSA benefits children who have more resources from a young age.
She was referring to parents who engage coaches and send their kids to special classes to prepare them for the DSA. Denise brought up a valid point, but there is a more urgent reason why the scheme needs to be reviewed.
Not many people are aware of it, but some schools have been using the DSA scheme to admit students on the basis of academic strength. This includes admitting those from the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), an elite programme for the academically gifted.
Like Denise, I had been concerned about the lack of diversity in the top schools, so I cheered the move when the DSA scheme was launched in 2004. I thought – at last a scheme that allows secondary schools, including the top ones, to admit students based on not just their academic ability, but also their talent in sport and the arts.
It will draw a different group of students and inject more diversity into the student bodies in the top secondary schools. But sadly, within a few years, both schools and parents started gaming the system.