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Understanding different streams in Secondary Schools

This articles help parents and students in understanding different streams in Secondary Schools.

The PSLE exams is a hurdle in itself. What’s the next challenge for Primary School Graduates? Selecting a Secondary School. Naturally you will aim to pick schools with a high COP (cut-off point), as they are thought to be the most sought after. The “Top Secondary Schools” with a “better quality” of curriculum and school experience. With every year’s release of PSLE results, comes the burning curiosity of finding out how each school ranks. For Secondary School Rankings in Singapore, check out our articles: 2018 Secondary School Rankings / 2019 Secondary School Rankings in Singapore

Clearly, a few schools have emerged as the Top Secondary Schools in Singapore. Before we jump in, here’s some useful information to understand the types of programmes that the Top Secondary Schools in Singapore offer. Along with the different academic streams in Secondary School. However, this current approach to streaming will be phased out by 2024, to be replaced by Subject-based Banding, or SBB. Be sure that we’ll let you in on the latest news when this happens! To read more on Subject-based Banding (SBB), click here.

Secondary School education in Singapore is split into four main different tracks or academic streams. Integrated Programme (IP), Express Stream, Normal Academic (NA) or Normal Technical (NT). Apart from that, Secondary Schools also offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Special Assistance Plan (SAP) programs.

Understanding different streams in Secondary Schools

Integrated Programme (IP)

The Integrated Programme or IP provides a “fast-track” for students that are shown to perform well. This programme integrates Secondary and Junior College (JC) education. Secondary School pupils can immediately move on to JC without having to take the GCE O-Level examinations. Students in the Integrated Programme take either the A-Level examinations or other Diploma qualification examinations at the end of their IP programme. This programme is mostly only offered in the top schools, with higher cut-off points and a challenging curriculum. Students who are naturally gifted and/or book smart thrive in such an environment. A word of caution – be sure that the A Level route is inline with your future plans. If not, you’ll have a tough time leaving the Integrated Programme and switching to a conventional O Level or Polytechnic route.

Express Stream – O Levels

The Express Stream or Express course is a four-year programme leading straight to the GCE O Level examinations. O-Levels, or officially known as the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (GCE O-Level) examinations. This is an annual national examination that is taken by both school and private candidates in Singapore. You can find information about the 2020 O Level examinations timetable here.

The O Level examinations is the most commonly taken Secondary qualification in Singapore. After completing your O Levels, it gives you the option of continuing your studies in a Polytechnic of Junior College. It’s not that one path is better than the other – it really depends on what you’re looking to pursue. Going to a Polytechnic is great if you’re sure about the potential career path to embark on. Or if you’re set on pursuing a particular specialised course. Polytechnic courses are on average 3-4 years long. For Junior College, you’ll move on to take the A Levels at the end of 2 years of study instead.

There’s also a possibility of entering a Junior College via the Integrated Programme (IP) if you do very well for your O Levels. However, these IP schools might already have a large number of spaces reserved, for their own affiliated students that went through the Integrated Programme from the Secondary level.

Normal Stream

The Normal Stream is also a four-year programme offered in Secondary Schools. However, instead of directly leading to the O Level examinations, Normal Stream students take the GCE N Level examinations at the end of four years. Students in the Normal stream take either Normal (Academic) N(A), or Normal (Technical) N(T) curriculum. As the name suggests, N(T) students take subjects with more technical nature, such as Design and Technology (D&T).

A fifth year leading to the GCE O Level examinations is available for N(A) students who perform well in their N Levels.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

Similar to the Integrated Programme (IP), the International Baccalaureate (IB) is also a 6 year course. Secondary School students complete the IB programme at the age of 19. How is this different from the IP or O Level / A Level route? The International Baccalaureate programme offers and entirely different syllabus from the other routes. Equipping students with critical and independent thinking, very early on in their youth. Like it’s namesake, the programme is claimed to have a more “global outlook”. The IB route may be a path to consider if you’re looking to study overseas in the future.

Students can expect more hands-on projects, with a mix of Science, Arts and even Philosophy subjects. Focusing more on “inquiry” than the memorising and drilling of key concepts and formula. This offers a more well-rounded education, with more subjects offered. Giving you more options when picking a University course in the future.

This doesn’t mean that there are no examinations involved. Students who take on IB at the Secondary level go on to take a IB Diploma, the A Levels equivalent. Both A Levels and IB qualifications are equally recognised when it comes to University applications. Daily homework assignments may also hold some weightage in overall grading, so expect to be extra attentive in classes!

Special Assistance Plan (SAP)

The Special Assistance Plan (SAP) is a programme in Singapore that was first introduced in 1979. SAP schools are most commonly referred to as “Chinese Schools”. Very apt, since the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) is meant to encourage bilingualism. Namely in the use of Mandarin, teaching students an emphasis in “traditional Chinese values”. This caters to academically strong students who excel in both their Mother Tongues as well as English.

A school can offer both SAP and the Integrated Programme. These schools include Hwa Chong Institution, Nanyang Girls’ High School, Nan Hua High School and Chung Cheng High School, just to name a few. Schools that were historically founded and funded by the Chinese community during the pre-war formative years of Singapore. Curriculum was initially taught in the Mandarin language.

Currently SAP schools only cater to those studying the Mandarin mother tongue. Future SAP schools for other mother tongues are in the works.

To enter schools through the SAP programme, you must have scored at least an “A” grade in both English and Chinese for your PSLE. As a result, you will be expected to continue taking Higher Chinese as a core subject.

Understanding different streams in Secondary Schools

Our children spend their crucial teenage years in Secondary School. Choosing the right school is definitely important! However, make sure to look at other aspects when shortlisting Secondary Schools to enrol your child in. Time spent in Secondary School is going to play a significant role in shaping their personality and character. Results aside, look out for schools that fulfil your child’s interests and learning pace. Most importantly, helps your child reach their fullest potential. Of course, understanding different streams in Secondary Schools will help you to match the appropriate stream to your child’s learning character. Also, we’ve also sought feedback and reviews from parents and alumni of Secondary Schools in Singapore, check them out here.

We hope this information will help you and your child make an informed decision. Best of luck!

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Jach is one of the Co-Founders of Learnable. Jach aspires for Learnable to not only equip students with academic knowledge, but a thirst for progress and self-improvement. Likes affordable buffet dinners and petting dogs! Contact
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