IT IS mid-afternoon on a Friday when many children are relaxing at the end of the school week.

But in an air-conditioned classroom at enrichment centre The Learning Lab, seven children are debating the adequacy of the global response to the radical group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The children are just 10-year-old Primary 4 pupils.

The fact that they are tackling such a difficult topic at such a young age would surprise many people. Yet an even bigger surprise rears its head – why are they taking extra classes at a private centre? They are, after all, from the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) which, through a screening test at the end of Primary 3, selects the top 1 per cent of the cohort, or about 400 to 500 pupils a year.

The Learning Lab says it coaches 460 GEP primary school kids, almost a third of pupils in the programme each year. Another centre, Mind Stretcher Learning Centre, says it has an enrolment of 450 GEP primary pupils.

Going by the figures from these two centres alone, two-thirds of primary-level GEP pupils are taking extra lessons outside of school. Most of those at The Learning Lab take two or three 90-minute classes a week. Three such weekly classes add up to about $900 a month.

The pupils say they are there because they want to, and not because their parents asked them to.

A typical comment: “The classes are interesting and help me keep up with my classmates who are all very smart.”

But if the GEP is working well, why do these pupils need extra classes? And if they require and receive stimulation from extra classes, do they still need the GEP?

Many also point to the fact that the majority of GEP pupils come from advantaged backgrounds. They have been put through hours of enrichment classes in speech, drama and music, ballet, phonics and Kumon maths, just to name a few. And, of course, there is private tuition as well.

As parent Alan Ong, 36, says: “Should public money then be spent on extending their advantages further?”

Supporters of the 30-year-old scheme say it is essential in helping the nation’s brightest sparks burn brightly, but naysayers believe the extra resources it soaks up would be better spent on less privileged children.

Hothousing required

UNDER the GEP at nine primary schools – Anglo-Chinese Primary, Catholic High, Henry Park, Nan Hua, Nanyang, Raffles Girls’, Rosyth, St Hilda’s and Tao Nan – pupils are supervised closely by teachers in smaller classes.

They cover the same syllabus as their peers in the regular mainstream programme, but at greater depth and with more emphasis on creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving.

The GEP was run similarly in secondary schools hosting it until the six-year Integrated Programme (IP) was introduced in 2004. Under that, secondary school students can proceed to junior college without taking O-level examinations. Schools use the time freed up to stretch students further. These schools began to run their own GEP and not the Ministry of Education (MOE) one, which was phased out in secondary schools in 2008.

Those who have been through the programme are thankful for it. They say it nurtured their intellectual curiosity and pushed them to go further in their studies.

But they are ambivalent when asked about the scheme nurturing leaders who will go on to give back to society.

One, a scientist in his 30s, says: “That’s a tall order. I really don’t think you can nurture leaders through a school programme.”

Educators support the scheme. Ms Clarinda Choh, a veteran GEP teacher at Hwa Chong Institution, says: “It is a joy and challenge to teach gifted students. They are curious, learn fast, have outstanding memory, are able to reason abstractly and make unique connections among ideas. The challenge for a GEP teacher is to design lessons that will allow them to use all these abilities.”

Her principal, Dr Hon Chiew Weng, says: “I call them ‘special needs’ kids. If we believe in a differentiated education to bring out the best in our students, then definitely these students need to be taught differently. If not, we would be wasting their potential.”

Research has shown clearly that the intellectually gifted need a high degree of stimulation to bring out their best, he notes.

This echoes MOE’s rationale for launching the GEP, says education policy expert Jason Tan at the National Institute of Education.

The belief is that children have varying abilities and each has to be nurtured to bring out his full potential – especially important to Singapore, a small nation that can rely only on human resources.

On MOE’s website, GEP’s goal is stated as: “To develop intellectual rigour, humane values and creativity in gifted youth to prepare them for responsible leadership and service to country and society.”

Going by GEP students’ results, one can argue that the scheme has been successful in helping them make the most of their potential, Associate Professor Tan says.

The MOE says that, as a group, GEP students have performed well in the national exams.

About 90 per cent scored within the top 10 per cent of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) cohort, and about one in two had four H2 distinctions in their A-level exam.

Since 1991, close to half of the President’s Scholarships – 44 out of 99 – have been awarded to GEP students, the MOE says.

It adds that it does not have current data on the professions GEP graduates pursue. Checks by Insight on more than 40 of them in their 20s, 30s and 40s show that many go to university and then join the civil service and statutory boards. Some go into research and academia, while a few become doctors, lawyers and teachers. A few GEP students, however, have not lived up to these expectations. At least one got into trouble with the law and ended up serving a jail term, and another was a porn star in the US.

Widening social divide?

THOSE opposed to the GEP worry about it creating elitist students who are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary folk.

For example, in 2006, a GEP student, the 18-year-old daughter of a Member of Parliament, in her blog, told another blogger concerned about job security to “get out of my elite, uncaring face”.

If students are treated as elite, they are likely to grow up believing they are better than others, Straits Times Forum readers wrote in response.

A mother-of-two who did not want to be named tells Insight of her daughter’s experience a few years ago at a primary school offering the GEP. She pulled her mainstream daughter out of the school after two GEP schoolmates called her “spastic” for failing her maths.

The businesswoman explains that even though the GEP pupils were made to apologise, she took her drastic step because “I decided I didn’t want my daughter in a school with such kids”.

MOE has tried to address this. In the mid-2000s, in a bid to increase interaction, GEP pupils were placed in mixed classes for non-academic subjects, where they spend up to half of curriculum time.

Then Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that a sense of responsibility and belonging to society had to be inculcated in GEP students early for them to contribute to society.

Asked about GEP students giving back to society, the MOE says that based on its 2005 study, more than half said they were involved in community activities not organised by their schools.

Some people ask why GEP students deserve the extra spending of tax dollars and the smaller class size of 25, while their peers have to make do with classes of 40.

Many also ask if the GEP might further widen the gap between children from well-to-do homes and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ms Linda Heng, 33, a mother of two mainstream primary school children who is unable to afford the fees at The Learning Lab, says: “I was surprised to see so many GEPers and IP kids there. What is the point of GEP when their parents are well able to provide them with all this extra mental stimulation outside school?”

Data of recent years shows a disproportionate number of students in top schools are from affluent and educated backgrounds.

At top secondary schools with the IP, which most GEP students join, more than half have parents who are university graduates; the figure is about one in 10 for those in neighbourhood schools.

At six top primary schools – of which five offer the GEP – only four in 10 live in HDB flats, when the national average for all primary schools is eight in 10.

But MOE says GEP participants make up just a small fraction of students in top schools. The GEP draws students from a range of primary schools and more than half live in HDB flats, it says.

MOE did not reveal how much more money is spent on GEP students than their mainstream peers. It would only say that each programme, including the GEP, “is resourced on a needs basis”.

When it last released figures in 1998, it said educating a regular primary school pupil costs $3,138 a year, while a gifted one costs $4,300. The costs of educating a regular secondary school student and a gifted one were $4,600 and $6,100 respectively then.

Still, even if recent figures for GEP students are unavailable, consider this: The cost of educating a primary school pupil more than doubled from $3,600 in 2004 to $8,700 last year. For a secondary school student, it rose from $5,700 to $10,800.

Another often-heard criticism of the GEP is that it has become a conduit for the IP. Most GEP pupils gain places in the IP at top secondary schools through the direct school admission scheme, even before they take the PSLE.

This has fuelled the demand for GEP preparation and tuition, which could give children whose parents can afford such lessons an edge from having more exposure to, and practice of, GEP topics. It raises questions such as: With all that GEP prep, might some of those who make the cut not be truly intellectually “gifted”?

Separately, Prof Tan says: “We have limited resources, so we have to ask ourselves if… the money is better spent on the GEPers who are already way ahead in the race of life, or on the kids who are lagging behind because of physical and learning disabilities or a disadvantaged home background?”

The MOE stresses that many teaching approaches for GEP students have been adapted to benefit a wider group of students. For example, several neighbourhood primary schools, such as Junyuan in Tampines and Lakeside in Jurong, have, with the GEP branch’s help, started programmes for high-ability pupils.

Going forward

THOSE opposed to how GEP is run now have put forward some suggestions for improvement.

For instance, do away with GEP in a select number of schools and have programmes in all schools for pupils of high ability. At the secondary level, the IP can well stretch the gifted students.

Prof Tan notes that the MOE has taken an eclectic approach in educating the gifted and tweaked the GEP over the years to suit changing circumstances and needs.

“The GEP should now be relooked through a new lens, taking into account the new concerns in education, such as slowing social mobility,” he says.

But Singapore must always have programmes to nurture the best and brightest, he adds.

“We must never become a country where young people with exceptional talents shy away from standing out and wanting to go further. We must be a country that gives them every chance to reach for the skies. It’s just a question of whether it can be done better, differently, to suit our needs now.”

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