About 3 weeks ago, the results of the latest PISA international comparison study’s chapter on well-being were released. As usual, in the main part of the study, released last year, Singapore did extremely well. In fact the 5825 Secondary 3 and 4 students, including 290 students from International schools and Madrasahs, came top in reading maths and science, an amazing achievement. But now we learn that Singapore is also third from top in a less happy ranking: our students are more anxious about grades and tests than comparable countries, they are more anxious to be one of the best in their class, and they also report more ridicule (verbal bullying) and more ostracism (being intentionally left out by peers) (the detail is readily available on the web and from various reports on ST 20.08.17 and 27.08.17).
The Singapore Ministry of Education was concerned and said it was working to reduce the stress around PSLE and to training school staff to be aware of bullying issues. However, it also suggested caution about interpreting the results: the questions may not mean quite the same to students in different cultures. The MOE was also quoted as saying (ST 27.08.17) “Research has shown that stress at appropriate levels can be a motivating force to energize us for the challenges we face… While we are encouraged that our students are highly motivated to learn and achieve, we are cognizant that this must not come at the expense of their well-being. Hence, we put in much effort to help students understand the meaning of their learning, instead of just focusing solely on their achievements.”
It is salutary to be reminded that there may be a considerable price to pay for striving so hard for academic excellence, and that students at all ages continue to need to learn to support each other as well as better themselves.
Counsellors and psychiatrists are reported to be seeing more stress-related problems here in recent years. The support they provide is probably only a small fraction of what schools, parents and Singapore’s leadership can and must do. I welcome your thoughts and comments – in a busy world of many voices, what are the most important things we can do individually, as parts of families and as members of school and larger communities to help our students deal with their social relationships and anxieties?
Dr Tim Bunn
EdD, MSc, BA (Hons), PGCE
Consultant Educational Psychologist