We ask #LifeBeyondGrades co-founders their most important skill

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Derek Ong and Charmaine Seah-Ong of the Singaporean social movement.

Images: Life Beyond Grades/Facebook

“I firmly believe that the number one skill that anyone can have is to be able to give a presentation.”

This is the reason Derek Ong wants his two young daughters to enter primary schools with strong speech and drama programmes. “Able to speak properly - this is a skill that, if you're going for a job interview, you're going to put yourself above anyone else,” he tells GovInsider.

The education system in Singapore is among the best in the world, according to international rankings. But its past emphasis on rote learning in classrooms may not have encouraged holistic development, critics fear. A 2017 OECD study reveals that Singapore students were found to have higher levels of anxiety tied to their academic performance than their international peers.

More and more, it is clear that it is an individual’s skills and qualities that will translate into success in the long-term, not their academic achievements, says Ong, one of five co-founders of the social movement celebrating ‘#LifeBeyondGrades’.

One score to rule them all

First, some context. In the past few years, Singapore’s education system has been undergoing a series of changes, designed to take some pressure off of primary school-age students. All this is happening against the backdrop of a broader national skills transformation movement, SkillsFuture, meant to encourage Singaporeans to reskill and upskill to remain relevant and employable.

Sixth-year primary school students sit for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) in four subjects: English, Mathematics, Science and their respective mother tongue. This is the first major examination that students take, typically at the age of twelve. Their marks for each of these four papers are added up to produce a three-digit score.

Students are divided into academic ‘streams’ based on these scores, with lower-scoring students learning separately from high-scoring ones. For many, this single number can be a stark representation of success or failure - despite the arguably negligible difference between a PSLE score of 230 and 231, for instance.

Recent years have seen debate on this emphasis on grades, which can place enormous pressure on young children. In 2016, the Ministry of Education announced that from 2021, this scoring system will be scrapped in favour of “wider scoring bands”, so as not to differentiate so finely between students.

The movement believes that this focus on purely academic success becomes clear once they leave school. “One of our local universities realised that their graduates were deemed as unhireable,” notes Charmaine Seah-Ong, another cofounder of the movement and Ong’s wife.
These graduates were “just smart on paper”, she continues, but did not necessarily possess emotional intelligence, or the ability to innovate. “They're always asking, ‘How do I do this, what do I do?’”

Another thing to consider is how this intense environment shapes the malleable mindsets of young children, which creates lasting effects into adulthood. “We are saying that the fact that we taught students that as long as they do well in exams, they will be successful, has made them extremely fragile,” Seah-Ong says.

More than a number

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​​​​A post shared by We are Parents (@lifebeyondgrades) on Sep 15, 2018 at 6:36am PDT

Ong and Seah-Ong, who run a creative agency, founded the #LifeBeyondGrades social media campaign along with three other parents. The group published 70 portraits and short essays showcasing a cross-section of locals across many walks of life - chefs, actors, photographers, musicians, entrepreneurs, and many others. In these portraits, each person holds up a sign displaying their PSLE score.

All of these individuals found success in their own way despite, in some cases, a score that would be considered less-than-stellar. There is Juffrie Friday, an internationally renowned photographer and videographer who once struggled in school. The same goes for local filmmaker Royston Tan, who has won multiple awards at international film festivals.

The message here, Seah-Ong says, is that “you cannot be defined by your PSLE score because there are so many people who did not do well, and who made a name for themselves”. “The intention of the movement is to stop this focus on the grades, show parents and children that there is more to life than just exams,” she continues.

And since the movement’s launch, even the Agency for Science, Technology and Research have come on board: “They shared three stories of different employees who didn't quite score well,” Seah-Ong explains. “It's quite interesting because the people that are there holding their scores, really low scores, but now they're working in A*STAR,” Ong adds.
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A post shared by We are Parents (@lifebeyondgrades) on Sep 14, 2018 at 4:58am PDT

Stay curious

Seah-Ong believes that it is essential that children are curious, so that they are more open to pursuing alternative careers later on. “It was the fact that my parents always encouraged my curiosity. That made me more curious and also adaptable, so I wouldn't be afraid to try something outside of what I studied,” she says.

Ong adds that adaptability is also key. In today’s world, there are fewer barriers to starting a business than ever before, with a wealth of free digital tools online, he believes. “You can market yourself literally for free.”

Other intangible qualities, such as flexibility and resilience, will help young Singaporeans continue to thrive, even as entire industries face disruption, the two co-founders believe.

Movements such as #LifeBeyondGrades want to show how “the huge chase for the A” is not everything. They show how Singapore civil society is opening up and enabling the creation of social purpose movements, partnering with government but separate from it. And they want individuals carve out their own version of success in these increasingly uncertain times.