Should kids really be coached for gifted programme? - There are parents who spend hundreds of dollars on courses to prepare their children for the Gifted Education Programme. But these courses can do more harm than good
Varsha Abdullah spent over $700 when she enrolled her eight-year-old son in a preparation course for theGifted Education Programme (GEP).
To this mother, it is money well spent.
'The only reason I sent him for the course is for him to be challenged,' said the 45-year-old chief operating officer of an insurance company.
'He gets bored with the usual stuff but is excited with new things. And he comes out happy after every class.'
Madam Varsha sees no harm in putting her child through such enrichment courses.
But some parents, such as Madam Teo Wei Ling, 42, would never dream of it.
The stay-at-home mum was going through the papers earlier this month when she came across advertisements byprivate learning centres peddling preparatory classes for the GEP selection test.
Her younger son, Edwin, an Anglo-Chinese School Junior pupil, was among 3,000 Primary 3 pupils shortlisted for this test- which took place two weeks ago. He had already made it through the first round of a screening test in August, which isopen to the entire Primary 3 cohort.
Out of curiosity, she called to inquire. One centre, which claimed that half its pupils make it into the GEP, charged $1,500for an eight-hour preparation course. Another advertiser charged $1,200 for eight hours.
'It's even more expensive than a business course. For that price, they said they would teach them how to tacklethe questions.
'That angered her enough to write to The Straits Times' Forum page questioning whether the naturally talented requiredsuch courses and whether the rich who could afford them had an unfair advantage over those who could not.
'Why push them? If you can make the cut, you can. If not, never mind. There are so many more things in life,' she said.
Her letter drew several responses, all in support of her view.At least three private learning centres and a handful of private tutors offer GEP preparation courses that aim to getthese Primary 3 pupils into the programme in Primary 4.
Experts will say that giftedness cannot be taught and these centres are merely training kids to be 'exam smart' inpreparing for the GEP tests.
Private tutor Kelvin Ong, who said that he was a former GEP teacher, is unapologetic about his coaching courses.
'You expose them to the type of questions they'll be tested on. Then they won't freak out. It's about being exam smart,'said Mr Ong, who gives his pupils past papers to practise on. As a GEP teacher, he used to invigilate the screening tests.
He coaches his pupils - whom he charges between $250 and $400 per two-hour lesson - throughout the year inEnglish Language and Mathematics and is 'very focused in getting them through the tests'.
'If you're willing to pay, that's the objective you'll meet,' he said, adding that he screened the children before deciding ifhe would accept them.
He claimed that all 10 pupils he coached this year got through the first round of the GEP screening.
Each year, all Primary 3 pupils are invited to take a screening test in August, which comprises an English and a Maths paper.
About 3,000 pupils will qualify for a selection test in October, where they will sit for an additional paper, General Ability,which will test their problem-solving and reasoning skills.
Only the top 1 per cent are invited to join the programme in Primary 4. Most pupils take up the offer. Currently, there arenine primary schools that offer the GEP.
The GEP comes with certain privileges, which explains why parents are eager for their children to get in: Class sizesaverage about just 25 compared to the usual 40 in a class. Pupils would also enjoy a more enriched curriculum.
The Education Ministry also specially selects the teachers for the GEP.
But not all parents want their children to be in the programme.
Madam Sharon Lee Sui Yi, 37, whose son just sat for the selection test two weeks ago, is against preparing her childfor these exams.
'Sometimes in our eagerness to give the best to our children, we lose perspective of what education is all about and thespirit of what this GEP is,' said the stay-at-home mum.
Even though her son, Jeremy, is keen to join the programme, she has spent a lot of time moderating his expectations.
'The reality is, it's not going to be easy being in GEP. If you're the last few to squeeze in, you'll have a tough time.
'The Education Ministry and school principals echoed this concern and said that parents should not 'hothouse' their children.
'Giftedness cannot be trained and preparatory classes cannot enable a child to perform at a level beyond his capacity,' saida ministry spokesman.
By sending their children to these prep classes, parents may actually be doing more harm than good, since a child whogains admission into the GEP through intensive coaching may not be able to cope with the programme's demands, she said.
While there have been cases of children who have asked to leave the GEP for various reasons, those who do becausethey cannot cope with the enriched curriculum are 'very few', said the ministry.
The principal of Morris Allen Study Centres readily admits that while he cannot increase his pupils' intelligence, he canmake them more confident and improve their scores.
Mr Morris Allen, who teaches a two-week GEP prep class every June, exposes the kids to all sorts of IQ puzzles -words, pictures, numbers - to prepare them for the General Ability paper, which tests their problem-solving aptitude.
He also teaches them about time management, so that they do not panic and stumble or waste too much time onquestions they cannot answer.
Of the 22 pupils he had last June, almost all got through to the second round. Eleven of them returned three weeks ago fora revision course.
He charges $30 an hour for the 20-hour course.
'It's just familiarising them with the unfamiliar,' said Mr Allen, who sources cognitive ability tests from other countries forhis pupils to practise on. He has been running his centres for 15 years.
But former Raffles Girls' School principal Carmee Lim does not believe in private enrichment programmes because theyare geared towards academic excellence.
'Giftedness applies to many areas, not just in academics. Unfortunately, in Singapore, we define giftedness purelyby academic standards,' she said.
Rather than stretch pupils in every subject in the gifted programme, she prefers that children grow up in a moreholistic manner, exposed to music, art and other such pursuits.
Being labelled a high-flyer at such a tender age may not be a good idea too, said Associate Professor Lee Wei Ling,director of the National Neuroscience Institute, in a letter to this paper.
She wrote: 'Some develop a superiority complex feeling that the non-gifted belong to a lower class of the human race.
'Well-designed IQ tests are fairly accurate in predicting academic success. But success in real life depends on manymore characteristics: determination, resilience, forming healthy interpersonal relationships and ability to notice and seizethe opportunity when it comes.
'Dr Simon Siew, a psychologist in private practice at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre who has seen several teenagersfor stress-related illnesses, cautions against stressing out children with such enrichment courses.
'Young children are already very stressed by the achievement system and these additional classes might becomeanother source of pressure for them.
Additional reporting by Nur Dianah Suhaimi and Debbie Yong
Why push them? If you can make the cut, you can. If not, never mind. There are so many more things in life.' MADAMTEO WEI LING, a parent
'You expose them to the type of questions they'll be tested on. Then they won't freak out. It's about being exam smart.'MR KELVIN ONG, private tutor
Sunday Times, The (Singapore) - Sunday, October 28, 2007
Author: Tan Dawn WeiMADAM