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PSLE lessons that matter

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MY parents were sitting at the back of the school hall when they saw me burst into tears. "What happened?!," they asked with horror, after weaving through what felt like a never-ending scrum of jubilant pupils and parents. This was, after all, a high-stakes day - the day my PSLE (primary school leaving examination) results would be released, and my educational path set for life.

"I got 206," I blubbered, devastated by that middle digit, the zero a gaping maw. While I didn't have an ideal score in mind, I knew that 206 was probably an atypical showing at my independent, all-girls' school.

But my parents, to their undying credit, didn't see disaster. They instead exclaimed: "Why are you crying, then?! You worked hard and you achieved your goal!" Wrapping me in a squishy hug, they reminded me that my score was good enough to stay in the same school - the principal target I had set for myself. Indeed, thanks to the affiliation system, I had only needed a score of 203 to make it back - in stark contrast to the required non-affiliated score of 250+ (if my memory serves me well).

For what it's worth, I went on to get 9 points at O-Levels, three As and one B at A-Levels, a First Class Honours in English literature at the National University of Singapore, and a Fulbright Scholarship to complete a Masters in arts journalism from Columbia University. I guess my Primary 6 teacher was right when she told my parents I was "a late bloomer".

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I'm not sharing this to echo a popular sentiment that's been making the rounds lately: that PSLE scores don't matter. I don't think that's true; in fact, I think it's a dangerous idea to peddle.

For one, Singapore's PSLE system has evolved through the decades (the National Library Board has an amazing webpage on the dastardly exam's history) - and it's unrealistic to assume that what held true 20 years ago continues to do so now. To say to today's 12-year-olds: "Hey, don't worry if you scored poorly; I did too, but look where I am now!" is to ignore the shifting realities that necessarily come with time.

For another, it's patently untrue to say that one's PSLE score doesn't matter. Even if there are now more pathways to success, the PSLE is fundamentally a placement exam - one that determines a pupil's educational track for his or her formative years.

And even when things go "wrong" - with a child sobbing over a sub-par score - it's a unique opportunity to learn life lessons.

Here, I offer three:

1. Post-mortems are always valuable. In the aftermath of that 206 score, I learned to evaluate my performance with a critical eye, and think about how I could better set myself up for success. For example, if it was my nerves that got the better of me, perhaps I could focus on ways to centre myself better before the next exam. If I had spent too many hours pirouetting away in a dance studio at the expense of my studies, perhaps I could figure out a more balanced approach going forward.

2. Shit happens. Maybe my score wasn't the result of my nerves or my love for extra-curricular activities. Maybe I truly studied as hard as I could, and still, things didn't work out. It's incredibly sobering to learn that hard work and the best of intentions don't innoculate anyone against life's vagaries.

3. Look at the bigger picture. I'll never forget the moment my parents told me to focus on what I had achieved, instead of mere digits on a piece of paper - I had, after all, met my goal of gaining admission into my school of choice, no matter by how slim a margin. I could also be proud of how much effort I had put in, even if it didn't pay off in the way I had wished. Their words sparked such a shift in perspective for my young padawan mind, and I've always tried to remember ever since that what matters is the endgame.

So yes, the PSLE matters. But we'd do well as a nation to remember that it isn't - and cannot - be the most important thing in a pre-teen's life. It may seem like a common-sense reminder (it actually felt daft to even type that out)... But sometimes, perhaps that's all we need to get back to the basics.

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