General Certificate of Education

The General Certificate of Education (GCE) was introduced in 1951 in the United Kingdom. In Singapore, GCE examinations have been conducted annually as part of the country’s national examination system since the 1970s. Held for the first time in 1971, the Singapore-Cambridge GCE Ordinary Level (O-Level) examination is the common examination taken by students at the end of secondary four. The Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (A-Level) examination was introduced in 1975 as the common examination for students at the pre-university level, followed by the GCE Normal Level (N-Level) examination in 1984 to provide less academically inclined secondary students with an alternative qualification to the O-Level certificate. In 2004, the Integrated Programme (IP) was introduced to enable academically strong secondary school students to proceed to junior colleges without sitting for the GCE O-level examination.

Historical background
Cambridge local examinations
The Cambridge local examinations, in the form of the Junior and Senior Cambridge examinations, were first offered in Singapore by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) in the early 1890s.1 The Junior Cambridge examination was conducted in the third year of secondary school, followed by the Senior Cambridge examination in the fourth and final year.2 The last Junior Cambridge examination was held for Singapore candidates in 1939, after which it was abolished following low demand for the certificate among students seeking work after graduation. This change in the examination system was also carried out to allow for greater freedom in the syllabus which was subsequently prepared by the respective schools. The Junior Cambridge classes subsequently became known as Standard Eight. The Senior Cambridge examination, which was also known as the School Certificate (SC) examination, was retained.3

Before the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), secondary education that prepared students for the Cambridge local examination was available in some schools. The standard of English-stream education in Singapore saw a significant improvement as a result of the Cambridge examination, and the secondary school curriculum based entirely on the Cambridge examination became the basis for entrance into Raffles College as well as the award of scholarships for further studies in the United Kingdom.4

While examinations in Singapore were conducted by the Japanese authorities during the Occupation years, the Cambridge examinations continued on a very small scale at the Sime Road prison camp. Following the return of British rule in 1945, the English-stream secondary schools – which provided for four years of education – resumed their classes and the Cambridge SC examination was restored. Students who performed well in the SC examination could progress to a two-year Form Six course to attain the Higher School Certificate (HSC).5

The use of the SC and HSC as common examinations in English-stream schools continued into the 1970s. The extensive use of these examinations during the postwar decades helped to build a core of English-speaking locals and established English as the main working language in Singapore.6

Education in vernacular schools
While Singapore was under colonial rule, the only vernacular education consistently supported and provided for free by the British authorities was primary education for the Malay community, which the authorities viewed as the indigenous population.7

Due to the small population of Indians, there were few Tamil vernacular schools in Singapore. Indian students in English-stream schools outnumbered those in the vernacular schools.8

The development of Chinese-stream schools was left largely to the Chinese community and funded primarily by Chinese merchants as well as other wealthy members of the community.9 The structure of these schools followed the education system in China, which comprised six years of primary school, followed by three years each of junior middle and senior middle school. Under the initiative of the Hokkien Huay Kuan, the British authorities conducted the first annual common examinations in 1935 for Chinese-stream students in the sixth year of primary and third year of secondary (junior middle) school.10 In 1961, the SC examination for Chinese-stream secondary school students was conducted for the first time. The HSC (Chinese) and SC (Tamil) examinations were subsequently introduced in 1963. That same year, Malay-stream secondary school students first sat for the Federation of Malaya Certificate of Education (Malay) examination. That examination was replaced by the Malaysia Certificate of Education examination in 1964 and the SC (Malay) examination in 1969. Starting in 1966, the HSC (Malay) examination was offered to postsecondary students.11

Emergence of national examinations
After Singapore gained internal self-government in 1959, a national education system was established. This was followed by the emergence of national examinations for school-leaving pupils at the end of their various stages of education. These included the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and the Singapore-Cambridge GCE examinations.12

Overview of the GCE
In the United Kingdom, the Cambridge SC and HSC examinations were replaced by the University of London’s GCE O- and A-Level examinations respectively in 1951.13

Being a single-subject examination, the GCE is typically awarded to candidates who have passed at least one subject. Thus, the number of subjects passed is a performance measure for GCE examinations. The SC and HSC, on the other hand, were grouped certificates that required candidates to pass a pre-specified number of subjects in order to attain them. For example, to attain the SC, a candidate had to have a minimum of six subjects passed with at least one credit or five subjects passed with a credit in at least two subjects.14

GCE O-Level
Introduction of GCE O-Level
The GCE syllabus was used for the first time in Singapore at two secondary technical schools located in Queenstown and Tanjong Katong.15 The schools’ first batch of students began their secondary technical education in 1956 and sat for the GCE examination at the end of their four-year course.16

In 1960, the common examination taken by English-stream secondary school students became a joint examination for the SC and the GCE. Specifically, the GCE was awarded to candidates who did not qualify for the SC but had attained credit in the SC for at least three subjects (a pass with credit in the SC was equivalent to a pass in the GCE O-Level examination).17 Holders of the GCE were permitted to take the HSC. The GCE was also recognised by the Singapore government as an alternative qualification for entry into government service and the Teachers’ Training College (now known as the National Institute of Education).18

From 1963 onwards, students were allowed to sit solely for the GCE examination, with the certificate being awarded to candidates with at least three passes.19 Then in 1965, the GCE was awarded for the first time to candidates who had passed with credit in the SC for at least one subject.20

In 1967, the Singapore government announced plans to change the examination system from the SC to the GCE for all four language streams.21 The change was introduced in 1971 when the Singapore-Cambridge GCE O-Level examination replaced the SC awarded by Cambridge for students in the English stream, as well as the Chinese, Tamil and Malay SCs awarded by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to students studying under those respective language streams. The UCLES was the examining authority for subjects examined in English, and the MOE for subjects examined in Chinese, Malay and Tamil, as well as English as a second language (prior to the introduction of English as the main medium of instruction in 1983, students could choose to study subjects in one of the four languages, and take English as a second language). A uniform grading system was adopted by the UCLES and MOE.22

The change from the SC to the GCE examination system was intended to bring about uniformity in testing among the four language streams, as well as encourage bilingualism and promote technical training goals through a balanced curriculum.23 The GCE O-Level examination has since become a part of Singapore’s national examination system, serving as the common examination for students who have completed secondary education. The certificate serves as a recognised academic qualification for pursuing higher education and seeking employment.24

Key developments
In 1975, elementary mathematics became the third compulsory subject – the other two being the first and second languages – for all secondary school students sitting for the GCE O-Level examination.25 In 1982, the MOE decided to allow the use of electronic calculators during the examination for relevant subjects.26

In 2005, the MOE introduced the O-Level School Initiated Electives (OSIE) to give students more choices and enable schools to develop their own curriculum niches. The OSIE are new GCE O-level subjects that can be taken in addition to, or in replacement of, subjects offered under the standard MOE curriculum. Since 2008, selected secondary schools are able to offer new O-Level subjects developed jointly with polytechnics. These subjects in applied disciplines, collectively known as Applied Subjects, seek to provide greater opportunities for students to pursue their interest in applied learning. The grades obtained by students for the OSIE and Applied Subjects can be used in the computation of O-Level aggregate scores for admission into either junior colleges, polytechnics or the centralised institute.27 At present, Millennia Institute is the only centralised institute in Singapore.28

Since 2006, Singapore has assumed greater control over the GCE O-Level examination. While the UCLES (known as Cambridge Assessment since 2005) continues to set the examination questions and mark the answer scripts, the MOE has taken greater responsibility for developing examination syllabuses and formats, setting standards and awarding grades. This step was taken to better enable the MOE to customise the curriculum and examinations to suit Singapore’s education needs.29

In 2013, the GCE O-Level examination became the second national examination after the PSLE to stop the practice of publicly announcing the top scorers. The change was implemented to encourage students to pursue a well-rounded education.30

The GCE O-Level examination continues to be conducted in Singapore annually. The joint examining bodies are Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) – a division of Cambridge Assessment – MOE and the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB), which was MOE’s Examinations Division prior to its formation on 1 April 2004.31 Students with the requisite GCE O-Level qualifications can pursue pre-university studies at either a junior college (two years) or the centralised institute (three years), both of which lead to the GCE A-Level examination. The polytechnics also accept GCE O-Level graduates who meet their admission criteria and wish to pursue practice-oriented training. In addition, GCE O-Level certificate holders have the option to take up technical or vocational courses at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).32

GCE N-Level
Introduction of GCE N-Level
In 1978, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee led a study team to identify the problems in Singapore’s education system. The team’s recommendations, as presented in the Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, included the introduction of a new education certificate known as the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) to provide students who could not pass the GCE O-Level examination with a lower qualification.33

Consequently, a new secondary education system was introduced in 1981 for students who were commencing secondary one. The system offered three streams of education. In the Special and Express streams, students would sit for the GCE O-Level examination at the end of secondary four. The Normal-stream students, on the other hand, would take the CSE examination in their fourth year. Those who did sufficiently well in the CSE examination could then proceed with their fifth and final year of secondary education before taking the O-Level examination, while those who did not qualify could continue their education at the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB), the predecessor of ITE.34

In 1983, the CSE was renamed GCE N-Level and the first N-Level examination was held the following year.35

Key developments
The Normal stream was further divided into two courses in 1994: Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic). The first was introduced to serve the needs of technically inclined students by preparing them for post-secondary education at an ITE. Normal (Technical) students take the GCE N-Level examination after four years of studies. Those that do well may opt to transfer to the Normal (Academic) stream.36 Under the Normal (Academic) programme, students can continue with a fifth year of secondary education leading to the GCE O-Level examination if they perform well in the N-Level examination.37

From 2004, selected students in the Normal (Academic) stream can take up one or two GCE O-Level subjects.38 Two years later, the same scheme was announced for those in the Normal (Technical) programme, whereby students may be nominated to study one or two Normal (Academic) subjects.39

Since 2006, schools are allowed to let their top students in the Normal (Academic) stream progress to secondary five without taking the GCE N-Level examination. This exemption is meant to provide these students with a smoother transition from N- to O-Level so that they are able to take part in broader learning experiences and better pace their learning over five years. In addition, instead of taking the GCE O-Level examination in secondary five, the top 10 percent of scorers in the GCE N-Level examination can choose to pursue a one-year foundation programme at the polytechnics from 2013 onwards, while the next 20 percent can opt for the ITE Direct Entry Scheme to Higher Nitec. These changes were made to strengthen students’ progression into post-secondary education and enhance their employability.40

Both the GCE Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic) examinations are held annually in Singapore, with the joint examining bodies being the CIE, MOE and SEAB.41

GCE A-Level
Introduction of GCE A-Level
A GCE examination for advanced students (then known as the GCE Summer Examination) was held for the first time in Singapore in 1960 and the candidates included former students of Singapore Polytechnic.42 The polytechnic had introduced the GCE course in 1957, but two years later decided to abolish the course and instead award its own diplomas.43

In 1973, the Cambridge HSC examination was replaced by the Cambridge GCE A-Level examination for students in the English and Malay streams, while the HSC Chinese and commerce examinations were replaced by the Singapore GCE A-Level Chinese and commerce examinations respectively.44 Second-language papers for English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil were introduced at the Cambridge GCE A-Level examination that same year, and students were given the choice to sit for them at either the A- or Alternative Ordinary (AO) Level. AO-Level subjects were of an intermediate difficulty, above O-Level and below A-Level standards.45

Two years later, a common Singapore-Cambridge GCE A-Level examination was introduced for the different language streams. This meant that all pre-university students sat for the common GCE A-Level examination, which was conducted jointly by MOE and UCLES.46 MOE was responsible for subjects examined in the mother tongue languages, while UCLES was the examining authority for all other subjects. Since then, the GCE A-Level examination has continued as the common examination taken by students at the pre-university level and has become a part of Singapore’s national examination system.47

Key developments
In 1979, candidates sitting for the GCE A-Level examination were allowed to use electronic calculators for the first time in certain papers.48

In 1983, outstanding students were given the option to sit for one or two GCE A-Level scholarship papers (known as “S-papers”) in the GCE A-Level examination. These papers were taken in addition to their standard four A-Level subjects.49 In 2003, project work was introduced into the GCE A-Level syllabus after a two-year trial period.50

As with the GCE O-Level examination, MOE has taken over the role of developing examination syllabuses and awarding the grades since 2002, with UCLES continuing to set the questions and mark the answer scripts.51

Following a review on junior college and upper secondary education by a committee led by then Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the junior college curriculum underwent a revision that led to a radical change in the GCE A-Level examination system. The revamped A-Level examination, first held in 2007, replaced the AO, A and S papers with three new levels of study: Higher 1 (H1), Higher 2 (H2) and Higher 3 (H3). Subjects under the H2 category are equivalent in demand and rigour to the previous A-Level subjects, while H1 subjects require half the curriculum time of H2. The H3 subjects build on the corresponding H2 subjects by providing more in-depth study in those areas. The revamp was introduced to provide a broad-based curriculum that nurtures students’ thinking and communication skills, as well as to provide greater flexibility to develop students’ strengths and interests.52

As in the case of the GCE O- and N-Level examinations, the GCE A-Level examination continues to be conducted in Singapore annually, and the joint examining authorities are the CIE, MOE and SEAB.53

Integrated programme
In 2004, the IP was introduced to allow secondary school students to proceed to junior college without sitting for the GCE O-Level examination. Freeing up the time needed to prepare academically strong students for the O-Level examination, the IP enables these students to benefit from engaging in broader learning experiences. Currently, the IP pathway leads directly to the GCE A-Level examination as well as alternative certifications such as the International Baccalaureate and the NUS High School Diploma.54