I read with interest the many blogs and comments on the English O level - arguments about whether it should be dumbed down and there is even talk about abandoning the O level itself. I don't want today's blog to throw the subjects open but I just merely wanted to put forward my two cents worth.
This topic is admittedly not among my forte. I personally have no problem with the GCE O level itself or with the GCE O level English way back in the late 1970s. I did both English and English Literature at O level and English at A level as well and without sounding too conceited did well in all of them and taking them more than 30 years ago thus giving me no personal experience to make me say we should dumb down the GCE O level English or abandoning the GCE O level itself. The only note that I can make is that English is the world's current language of knowledge. Not being proficient in it will mean difficulties to many people who want to go further in life.
But with regard to the GCE O level - let me share something which maybe beneficial to the whole argument. I once had access to the public examination results data and I was asked to study the public examination results in Brunei between 1996 to 2000 for GCE A Levels, GCE O Levels, BJCE and PCE. I don't have the paper anymore but I have put some of the findings of the data and it is actually available as a powerpoint file on my website. Bear in mind this is old data and I don't have access to the latest data to show what the situation is currently.
For English at A levels, since the number of people who took it is quite low and only those proficient enough in it is allowed to take it, the failure rate (those failing to get at least Grade E) was only around 18%. Not bad. But for English at O levels, where the majority of students took it, it was the reverse. In those 5 year study, more than 85% of students throughout Brunei who took it - failed to get even a grade C. But then it wasn't just English, subjects where more than 50% of the students failed to get even a Grade C include Economics, History, Computer, Maths, Accounts, Geometrical and Mechanical Drawing, Commerce, Biology, Chemistry and Geography. The other subjects which people do well enough (more than 50% of students get a C at least) are Physics, Art, IRK, Additional Maths, Sastera and Malay (less than 20% fail). Physics and Additional Maths are quirks - only people good enough in Maths take it, so the vast majority are good and therefore have lower failure rates.
Like I said, this is old data and it's way out of date. I don't have access to the current situation to judge for myself what the situation is. But the present Education Minister himself said it a couple of weeks ago - only 18% of students passed their sciences subject. So I can safely presumed that it has not changed significantly.
Whatever it is we should look at this rationally, remembering that any education policy is a multi-faceted issue - is it the Education system? Is it the Examination system? Is it the schools curriculum? Is it the teachers? Is it the students? Is it the budget allocation? I remember blogging about how UBD is allocated $55 million annually for about 3,000 students but for the rest of the 150,000 students, the budget allocation is $474 million. Nobody commented anything then. Should we spend more money on university students and pamper them but who will be getting good money anyway after graduating as compared to giving more money to primary and secondary schools? There is an economic issue of private (university education) versus public goods (elementary education) here. Some would argue that private goods should be paid for (by the students) but public goods should be given free. Some countries like Australia has abandoned the GCEs and now concentrating on the Certs (I to IV where Cert IV is the equivalent of the O/A levels). Even in England itself, the arguments about GCE O level and A level are also being discussed. It would be interesting to take into account all these arguments. All in all, there are many issues and we should not take them out of context.
But whatever it is, I know the folks at Ministry of Education are very concerned and are doing whatever can be done. Unlike other policies which can be changed overnight, education as most social sciences policies are not easily changable. It's like this huge supertanker travelling through the ocean and even when the captain signals for the ship to stop, it will traverse for several miles with the engine off before even stopping. Let alone trying to get it to change directions. It would be wise to have cool heads think about this rather than just focus on one small aspect and lose sight of the whole picture altogether.