Part 2: The Core – Academic Considerations

Having proposed a possible approach to making the decision in the last instalment of this article, the following three instalments will discuss a few substantive considerations. These cannot possibly cover exhaustively the myriad of unique factors at play, neither should the factors discussed be accepted as universal advice. Rather, they merely represent the views and recommendations of our editorial team, some of whom have taught O- and A-level students for many years, and some of whom are still well-acquainted with the ins and outs of A-level life, having passed that milestone not so long ago.

This, our second instalment of the series, will consider factors in JC choice that will affect your ability to achieve arguably the central aim of JC life, namely the level of academic performance required to move you to the next step. The next instalment will consider the Co-Curricular and leadership scene that, officially, supplements the academic curriculum, but which can be at once of great import to some, and yet of little consequence to others in the fulfilment of their dreams. Last but certainly not least, our fourth and final instalment will consider the factors of the JC’s career guidance ecosystem, which can make or break tertiary applications, as well as the nebulous factor of ethos which has potentially lifelong effects.

Academic: Different Strokes for Different Folks

“…schools’ academic achievements are often more a reflection of their selectivity and the resulting quality of their intake than the actual quality of their teaching.”

First, one’s academic outcome does not necessarily follow from his school’s academic ranking and absolute achievements. This is chiefly for two reasons. One, schools’ academic achievements are often more a reflection of their selectivity and the resulting quality of their intake than the actual quality of their teaching. It is unsurprising that a student with 2 aggregate points at the O-levels has a far higher likelihood, ceteris paribus, of scoring 90 rank points in the A-levels than one with 20 aggregate points. Even with ordinary teachers and a less-than-ideal syllabus, the student’s ability to self-educate, or, indeed, to afford comprehensive private tuition should lead to results that are not that far off the mark. It is therefore also unsurprising that a school comprising mostly 2-pointers should attain great achievement in the A-levels, with this being little reflection of the quality of teaching or, indeed, the ability of an underperforming student to uplift himself. A better measure of the quality of teaching and learning might be achievement relative to other schools with comparable O-level cut-off points. A school that sends a substantial number of 20-pointers to local universities is arguably doing much more academically for its students than one which consistently underperforms other 2-point schools, despite the latter’s numbers still being higher than the national average.

“While being taught in a manner more suited to higher achieving students may sound like fun and a great privilege, the reality may well be that the fewer contact hours, faster pace of teaching and less time spent on fundamental concepts may prove counterproductive to someone who needs to learn at a slower pace.”

Two, schools tailor their syllabi and teaching styles to their cohort, which may result in mismatch with students who enter JCs that do not usually cater to students with their level of achievement and preparedness. Indeed, this is the fundamental premise of academic streaming, that students of different abilities learn and should be taught differently. While being taught in a manner more suited to higher achieving students may sound like fun and a great privilege, the reality may well be that the fewer contact hours, faster pace of teaching and less time spent on fundamental concepts may prove counterproductive to someone who needs to learn at a slower pace. More extreme accounts of intense peers and intimidating teachers stunning weaker students into silence may not directly relate to pedagogy, but, if true, show that academic performance is affected by many diverse and sometimes insidious factors. Of course, there is nothing to say that a student with the right personality and learning style cannot flourish in a school that appears to be out of his league. Still, the determination of academic fit requires consideration of one’s learning style and how it coheres with the school’s teaching style, and not just numbers alone.

Syllabi: The Secret Sauce for Social Sciences

“Subjects with little wrong but a great deal “less right” require both faculty brilliance and predictive capacity to a degree arguably not required for subjects with singular right answers. Both traits contribute to and are reflected in the quality of a school’s particular syllabus.”

Second, while good syllabi are important for all subjects, the author is of the view that they are more important in Arts subjects than in Hard Sciences. Essentially, there is only one possible way for an electron to move in a particular situation all around the world, but there are so many ways to answer a History or Economics essay, and some “correct answers” are clearly more effective than other “correct answers”. Subjects with little wrong but a great deal “less right” require both faculty brilliance and predictive capacity to a degree arguably not required for subjects with singular right answers. Both traits contribute to and are reflected in the quality of a school’s particular syllabus, including its “tacit components”, or the specific “ingenious points”, techniques and tricks for students to reduce their margin of error and distinguish themselves. The need for a sterling syllabus is particularly acute when the “explicit and tacit syllabus arms race” has led to examiner expectation of argumentative points and evaluative angles in subjects like History that cannot reasonably be generated independently by all but the brightest of students in order to even warrant an “A” grade that was attained by more than 40% of the cohort in 2010. Aspiring Arts students, some of whom seek to progress to the finest law schools, universities and liberal arts colleges in the world, should be alive to this and seek the school with the best possible syllabus—however difficult that might be to ascertain. If in doubt, or if your JC cannot fulfil your needs, there are tutors who have studied or even taught from strong syllabi in elite schools, and who are willing to impart such powerful force multipliers to those who may have stumbled into the wrong choice at an early stage.

The IB and Its Specific Value

“The IB should really only be taken if the student is willing and able to obtain a scholarship or alternative finance for a future overseas tertiary education.”

The third consideration concerns the International Baccalaureate (IB), initially only offered in international schools but now offered to students of the Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and the Saint Joseph’s Institution in addition. Many have sung praises regarding its high mileage overseas, and indeed, many overseas schools view this qualification in significantly higher regard than the traditional GCE A-levels. Oxford, for instance, is happy to grant interviews to applicants with forty points, while some London schools are willing to accept scores of less than that. The above schools all require at least three A-grades at the A-levels. Across the Atlantic, the admission grade floors, and indeed the entire admissions process, are less clear cut, but anecdotal evidence exists of 41-pointers, admittedly with blockbuster CVs, being admitted to Yale. However, the converse is true of local schools, with the informal cut-off points for NUS Law and Medicine at or in excess of 42 points, compared with 85 rank points for A-level holders, which roughly translate to 3 H2 A-grades. (No official cut-off points are published for IB holders due to the difficulty of deriving meaningful statistics from a limited applicant pool.) Considering the increased demands of the IB syllabus, including, inter alia, Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay components and a substantial community service requirement, the decision between IB and A-levels is by no means fool-proof, and the IB should really only be taken if the student is willing and able to obtain a scholarship or alternative finance for a future overseas tertiary education.

Thus far, we have discussed what is arguably the central focus of a JC education. Yet, the subject of our next instalment, Co-Curricular Activities, is, for some students at least, misleadingly named. How much or little time and effort to put into this aspect, and how to get the most mileage from your precious CCA, leadership and CIP efforts? Do stay tuned.

How to Choose the Right JC

Part 1: A Systematic Approach