Direct School Admission (DSA)

The Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme was introduced in 2004 by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to cultivate a flexible and broad-based education system in Singapore that looked beyond grades.The scheme gives education institutions, such as secondary schools and Junior Colleges (JCs), greater flexibility to select and admit students based on a holistic assessment of both their academic and non-academic talents and achievements.2 Additionally, the newly established Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) has replaced the Direct Polytechnic Admission (DPA) in polytechnics and has also been introduced to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).3

The decision to implement DSA was made in line with revisions made to the secondary and junior college (JC) school admission system.4 In March 2004, then Acting Minister for Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced that MOE had been embarking on various initiatives to provide students with a more flexible and broad-based education system that looked beyond grades. One of the initiatives was to provide schools with greater flexibility in student admission, allowing them to recognise a diverse range of academic and non-academic achievements and talents. This was already in place in both independent and autonomous schools, where admissions were largely based on merit but schools were given discretion to admit up to 10 percent and five percent of their respective intakes based on broader criteria, subject to conditions set by MOE.5 The Independent and Autonomous Schools schemes were introduced in 1987 and 1992 respectively, in line with the government’s plan to decentralise administration and diversify options in education.6

Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam concluded that the admissions policy in independent and autonomous schools had been successful and could be expanded to other schools. MOE sought feedback from over 1,200 teachers, parents and ex-students regarding the decision to broaden schools’ admission criteria of which a majority agreed that schools should focus on students’ holistic development by recognising special skills and talents aside from academic qualifications.

Changes were made to the university admission system in 2004, where the two state-funded universities, National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), were allowed to admit up to 10 percent of their intake based on their individual criteria.7 In the same year, MOE also revised the admission system in secondary schools and JCs through the implementation of the DSA scheme.8

DSA scheme
The DSA scheme allows students to secure early placements in their desired secondary schools and JCs based on their talents and achievements before taking the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and GCE ‘O’ Level Examination respectively.9 The scheme began in 2004 and was only implemented in seven schools offering the Integrated Programme (IP).10 Introduced in 2004, IP provides an integrated secondary and JC education where secondary school pupils can proceed to JC without taking the GCE ‘O’ Level Examination.11 The seven schools were Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), Dunman High School, Hwa Chong Institution, Nanyang Girls’ High School, the National University of Singapore High School of Mathematics and Science, Raffles’ Institution and Raffles’ Girls School. These schools were given full discretion on admissions.12 Additionally, MOE gave greater autonomy to both independent and autonomous schools by allowing them to adopt their individual merit-based admission criteria and doubling discretionary places to 20 percent and 10 percent of their respective Secondary 1 intakes from 2006 onwards.13 The DSA scheme was also extended to the JCs, which were allowed to admit up to 10 percent of their JC1 intake according to their individual admission criteria from 2006.14 In 2010, the School of the Arts (SOTA) joined the DSA scheme for JCs, offering direct entry to selected students talented in visual and performing arts to the Year 5 cohort.15

Niche Programme Schools
The DSA scheme was extended to Niche Programme Schools, which were formed in 2005 as part of MOE’s plan to encourage greater diversity in the secondary school education landscape by providing students with opportunities to develop various areas of excellence.16 Secondary schools with strong talent development programmes and good track records of achievements in their declared niches could qualify as Niche Programme Schools, subject to approval by MOE. These schools were allowed to admit up to five percent of their Secondary 1 intakes based on their own criteria through the DSA scheme, and received funding from MOE to build up their niche programmes and develop their students’ talents. MOE has invited applications from schools interested to establish niche programmes in subsequent years.17 As of 2018, schools participating in DSA have offered niche programmes in categories such as innovation and entrepreneurship, languages and humanities, leadership and uniformed groups, performing arts, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, sports and games as well as visual arts, design and media.18

Application and selection
Students may consider applying for secondary schools and JCs through the DSA scheme if they are able to identify a suitable talent development programme in their areas of strength and are willing to commit to develop their talents in that area. MOE also encourages parents and students to visit the schools directly or browse their websites to obtain information about the application and selection process. The selection process in both secondary schools and JCs differ across various schools and DSA areas. Schools may require students to submit a portfolio detailing their talents and achievements, academic results, co-curricular activity records, personal statement and/or character appraisals. They may also conduct interviews, selection camps and trials or tests pertaining to the talent area. Upon successful allocation to their desired schools, students will be required to submit an acceptance form to confirm their placements. They will not be eligible to participate in the annual Secondary 1 Posting Exercise or Joint Admissions Exercise (JAE) or obtain a transfer to another school after the release of their examination results.19

Students who are allocated to JCs can secure their placements if they meet the eligibility criteria for JC admission, which is a minimum score of 20 points (for their first language and five relevant subjects) for their GCE ‘O’ Level examination results.20 They are expected to stay committed to studying and developing their talents in the allocated DSA school throughout the course of their secondary or JC education. Students whose applications are unsuccessful will participate in the Secondary 1 Posting Exercise or JAE.21

Other Direct Admission schemes
Early Admissions Exercise (EAE)
Similar to the DSA scheme, the Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) is an aptitude-based system introduced in 2016 for graduating ‘O’-Level as well as final-year Nitec and Higher Nitec students from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) to apply in advance and receive conditional offers for admission to diploma programmes in polytechnics before obtaining their examination results.22 This scheme replaced the Direct Polytechnic Admission (DPA) scheme that had been introduced in 2007. The DPA scheme allowed polytechnics to select and admit up to five percent of their intakes based on students’ talents and achievements.23 Likewise, the EAE allowed polytechnics to admit up to 12.5 percent of their intake based on criteria beyond academic results.24 In 2017, the EAE was extended to graduating ‘O’-Level and ‘N’-Level students as well as Nitec students seeking admission to Nitec and Higher Nitec courses in the ITEs, allowing ITEs to admit up to 15 percent of their intake.25

Polytechnics and ITEs select and admit students based on their aptitudes and interests in their desired courses as well as talents and achievements in areas such as the arts, community service, entrepreneurship, leadership and sport, which may be determined through interviews, aptitude tests and student portfolios. Students would have to meet any baseline criteria or minimum entry requirements for confirmation of conditional offer. Upon confirmation, students will not be eligible to participate in the JAE, Joint Polytechnic Admissions Exercise (JPAE), Joint Intake Exercise (JIE) or any other polytechnic and ITE admission exercises. However, students whose applications are unsuccessful can then participate in these exercises to secure placements in the ITE.26

Recent developments
In 2014, MOE revised the DSA scheme to emphasise the importance of personal qualities by taking into account students’ characters, resilience and leadership as part of the admission criteria. This was in view of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s comment during the 2013 National Day Rally speech that the DSA criteria could be broadened to recognise students with special qualities. Changes were announced by then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in March 2014, who acknowledged the difficulties in quantifying personal qualities and assured parents and teachers that these qualitative aspects would be assessed based on everyday interactions with students over a sustained period in schools.27

Additionally, MOE has expanded the enrolment capacity allowed via the DSA scheme for various institutions. In 2017, it announced at its Committee of Supply debate that all secondary schools could admit up to 20 percent of their Secondary 1 intake through DSA from 2018 onwards. This would be an increase from the previous five percent cap for schools with niche programmes and 10 percent cap for AS, though not applicable to IS, which were already given a 20 percent cap.28 Additionally, the EAE intake for polytechnics was also to be increased from 12.5 percent to 15 percent from 2018 onwards.29 MOE hopes to expand opportunities for students who want to enrol in schools with suitable programmes to nurture their strengths, talents and interests.30

MOE also announced its decision to stop secondary schools from using general academic ability tests as part of their DSA selection criteria from 2018 onwards. Previously, schools conducted such tests to assess students’ general reasoning and problem-solving skills in order to ensure that students would be able to cope with the schools’ academic rigour while still developing their talents in niche areas. MOE scrapped these tests in view of criticism that DSA had deviated from its original intent of recognising students’ achievements in areas beyond academic ability and instead, provided students with outstanding academic results the advantage in gaining early entry into their desired secondary schools. Schools may continue to select and admit students based on interviews, trials, auditions and tests specific to the niche area to focus on identifying students’ areas of strengths and talents.31

Liviniyah P