The GEP has recently come under attack once again and many people have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. One of them is NCMP Yee Jenn Jong of the Worker's Party who propose scrapping the programme. You can read his piece here.
Every time I hear of such calls, I feel indignant, especially when it's clear to me that the person asking for it actually has very little understanding of the programme. I don't presume to judge Jenn Jong's intentions but his piece is so rife with error that I feel compelled to dispute it.
What GEP's really about
First and most importantly, the GEP is NOT about accelerated learning for the PSLE. It is a curriculum that is designed to stretch the minds of intellectually gifted kids, to pique their curiosity and expose them to a series of topics that is usually beyond the conceptual level of mainstream kids. While it still teaches the PSLE syllabus, it covers a heck of a lot of out-of-syllabus stuff.
Eg. for English, the kids learn different genres of texts, such as crime, biographies, etc and are taught to write in these styles. For maths, the kids learn things like ancient number systems, Fibonacci numbers and nth term series. Intellectually gifted kids are able to grasp and enjoy this level of challenge precisely because it's pegged at their level of ability and tailored to how their brains work.
The GEP does not hothouse kids for the PSLE. In fact, it might surprise most to know that because of the expanded curriculum, significantly less time is allocated to PSLE drilling compared to mainstream classes. Only in term 3 of p6 do the GEP kids get down to doing extensive exam papers in preparation for this exam. Therefore, it's ludicrous to say, "see, the GEP isn't effective cos the GEP kids don't do better in the PSLE than mainstream kids." That's not the purpose of the GEP to begin with and rightly so.
I find it contradictory that some of the critics of our exam system who lambast it for being uncreative and rigid then turn around and accept the very benchmark they criticise as the yardstick for ability.
Second, there's a lot of misunderstanding about the concept of "gifted kids". As we all know, there are many types of gifts - music, sports, art, etc. Intellectually gifted is one of these gifts. I'd written about this way back in 2008 here. Researchers refer to the intellectually gifted as the top 1% in a cohort where the giftedness manifests itself at about age 9 and that's why MOE restricts the GEP to 1% and why the test is done at the end of p3. It's certainly not an arbitrary figure aimed at grooming a bunch of elitists.
I think the problem in our society is that academic smarts is prized so highly, above all else. When we have a special music programme for music talents or a sports programme for sports prodigies, no one clammers to get in or rants about the injustice that only a select group can gain entry. Yet there has been hue and cry over the GEP and its "unfairness" that only 1% have access to it.
I see it clearly because I have one child who's intellectually gifted and one who's not. And it's important to know that I don't consider one better than the other. I recognise that they have different talents and I also know that the GEP is not suitable for someone like Andre.
Simply put, the curriculum is not designed for kids like him and if we are to force MOE's hand to extend the GEP to significantly more than 1%, in other words, include kids who are not intellectually gifted, we're pushing kids into a programme that does not benefit them. In fact, they will likely feel stressed out and maybe develop low self-esteem cos the curriculum is beyond them.
The value of GEP
Why is the GEP necessary to begin with? Mainly because studies have shown that gifted kids who don't have access to special programmes for them generally display negative outcomes. They either dumb themselves down to fit in with others or become social outcasts because they're considered "weird", and they end up under-achieving. I won't elaborate as I've written about it before here.
Again, to use the same parallel, you'll be better able to help a music prodigy's talents blossom under a specialised programme than in a mainstream curriculum. Likewise, intellectually gifted kids are more productive in a programme tailored for them. I saw this first-hand with Lesley-Anne.
The GEP offers the kind of education intellectually gifted kids need. The problems people have with GEP are issues like labelling, the seeming exclusiveness, elitism, etc, which actually have nothing to do with the efficacy of the programme itself.
Some may argue that gifted kids already have a genetic advantage and therefore should not be given differentiated education but this to me, sounds Communist and smacks of reverse discrimination. Calling for the GEP to be scrapped for the sake of superficial equality is meaningless and benefits no one. I think sometimes, the GEP is an easy target and political one cos it benefits only 1%. If you call for it to be abolished, you'll probably get 99% of the popular vote. But it doesn't make it right.
To me, the solution is MORE differentiated learning, not less. Ideally, we should have different pathways tailored towards those good in sports, those good in art, those good in maths, good in English, etc. I know we now have SOTA and the Sports School but I guess the difference is that these are available only at the secondary school level. While I don't endorse specialisation at too young an age as some of these talents and interests take time to develop, perhaps there could be more avenues to identify and cultivate a diversity of talents in primary school instead of the relentless and narrow focus on the four examinable subjects.
Bringing back the true purpose of GEP
In the meantime, what can we do about the bad rep of GEP? One of the areas I feel MOE can re-examine is the GEP's associated privileges. GEP kids are given advantages such as access to a special DSA category (while it doesn't guarantee you a DSA spot, it certainly increases your chances compared to mainstream kids applying through the Academic route) and an EESIS scholarship if you get to a secondary school with a School-based Gifted Programme (SBGE).
It's privileges like these that have raised the desirability of the GEP and spurred many parents to treat it as the instant highway to success. This has led to a proliferation of GEP coaching classes which I've always maintained, sabotage the integrity and intent of the GEP, and possibly skew the population of students who enter the programme.
Attitudes don't help either. GEP students tend to be treated as prized possessions in a school (possibly cos they're expected to turn in stellar results for the school). I've heard that the GEP classes in one school are housed in the only air-conditioned block. I know some teachers constantly compare GEP and non-GEP kids in all areas, which only serves to create a very unhealthy rivalry (I'd written about it here).
So my suggestion is this: revert back to the main objective of the GEP and that is to provide a type of education that allows the intellectually gifted to thrive. Remove the associated privileges and then maybe we'll be able to cool the GEP fever. We need parents, teachers and students to accept that the GEP is not "superior", just different. Only this mindset can evoke real collaboration and teamwork.
This is my first article on the GEP in a long time as Lesley-Anne has graduated from primary school for almost 3 years now. So in that sense, I've no vested interests in defending the programme. If anything, I'm opening myself up to attacks from naysayers. However, as a parent whose child has experienced the GEP, I see its tremendous value and I feel strongly enough to speak up for it. I know other GEP parents who feel the same way.
As a friend said, the angst possibly comes about because the current mainstream primary school syllabus is so stifling and far from ideal, that the GEP becomes an even more attractive route. I agree - I've often wished that Andre had the opportunity to experience an education system that was less rigid and encouraged his creativity.
The way forward then is to focus on improving the mainstream syllabus, not attacking the GEP. Let's not degrade ourselves to the point where if we can't have the ideal situation for all, then everyone should be equally miserable. Scrapping the GEP would be cutting off the nose to spite the face - everybody loses.