Viewing the Normal (Technical) stream with a different lens

The three streams of Singapore’s secondary education system have been hotly debated since… well, forever. Because of this filtering system, some will be better off than others, in terms of opportunities. Added to that, there are social labels that distinguish the streams from one another.

For these reasons (and then some), parents often worry about their kids going to the Normal (Technical) stream after their PSLE.

But, what if I told you that there is a different way of looking at kids from the N(T) stream? That through this lens, we can mold these kids and project them beyond our wildest expectations?

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Providing some context first

All Walks of LifeAs an educational therapist who has helped kids and teens from all walks of life, I tend to see their problems differently. It’s what I’m paid to do, after all.

About 15% of the 70+ students I’ve helped are/were from the N(T) stream. It’s not a huge sample size, but having interacted very closely with all of them, it’s given me a lot of insight as to what makes them tick.

More importantly, it’s helped me to see how students from N(T) don’t necessarily lose out to their peers from other streams. In fact, there are benefits to being in the N(T) stream. Without further ado, let’s dive into them.

1. Students from the N(T) stream have many opportunities to build up a network of contacts.

In this post-modern world, a bachelor’s degree is insufficient to landing a dream job. Other factors come into play too, and one of the most important is to have a reliable network of contacts. All working adults in Singapore should know this. Contacts and friends will help you with references, drop you the occasional lobang, etc. Knowing the right people in the industry also helps you with lateral and upward mobility.

NetworkingHow does this relate to students from the N(T) stream?

After their GCE N Level exams, these students will go on to ITE for their Nitec cert. In the process, they will have opportunities to go for attachments and networking sessions.

These opportunities help students to understand the realities of the working world. Moreover, they allow students to meet new people, including professionals, mentors and potential partners. Pragmatically, these are resources that students can potentially tap on once they’re ready to join the workforce. If they play their cards right, it can give them an edge over their peers from other educational pathways.

2. The gentler pace of the N(T) syllabus grants students more time to develop their self-identity.

With sufficient encouragement from parents and teachers, we can really help steer these kids to find their niche.

Developing our self-identity is an important part of the growing-up process. It’s integral to becoming a confident, mature, and critical thinker.

In fact, the famous psychologist Carl Jung remarked that “who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” In our competitive pursuits, we often forget to reflect on ourselves. Many times, we don’t question our goals and motivations on an existential level.

This doesn’t present itself as a problem until the second phase of life, when we have to decide on our career pathways. It’s at this point when a lot of undergrads and fresh grads start to ponder what their degrees, diplomas and certs are really worth.

“Did I study the right thing?”

“Do I really want to be an economist for the rest of my life?”

However, for those taking the N(T) > ITE > Polytechnic > University route, the learning curve starts off gentler. Typically, there is less emphasis on academic work, and more on courses, workshops and camps to help students find their niche.

As such, N(T) students have more freedom to explore the world, to find out what they’re truly good at.

This is the same when they move on to ITE. A lot of my ex-students have told me how excited they were to go for attachments. One ex-student found fulfillment when he was attached to a hospital as part of his nursing course. Another ex-student was attached to a gym to help with logistics. He too found it a very enriching experience.

These opportunities, as well as the gentler learning pace, can help your child to develop a sense of direction, to find their strengths and weaknesses, and to better understand themselves. With sufficient encouragement from parents and teachers, they will be able to find their niche.

3. Diplomas, degrees and a cushy job — these are all still within reach.

One of the most common concerns among parents I’ve spoken to is that they worry their kids will always lag behind their peers from the Express and N(A) streams, should they choose the N(T) route. They worry that their kids will never be able to go to university.

Heck, it wasn’t too long ago when ITE was known as ‘It’s The End’, a sardonic appellation made popular by Jack Neo’s “I Not Stupid“.

However, the truth couldn’t be further in today’s Singapore. We currently have SIX universities (whereas 20 years ago we only had THREE). Comparatively, the annual enrollment of university students has also dramatically increased.

Additionally, ITEs are gearing up their students to enter polytechnics (which are themselves prepping students for university).

The main reservation here is time. Objectively, students from the N(T) route will graduate from a public university later than those from N(A) and Express. Despite that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a couple more years. Really, there’s no need to rush, especially when you consider that your child will be in the workforce for the next 40 years of his/her life.

4. Grit as a by-product.

While the N(T) syllabus has a gentler learning pace, it’s not necessarily easy from the student’s standpoint. Some end up in N(T) because of a learning difficulty (e.g. dyslexia). Others may have faltered in their studies due to negative external influences.

Regardless of what the cause is though, we can say for certain that many of these students won’t have it easy.

In fact, the best badge of honour that successful students from the N(T) stream can boast about is that they would have had to work much harder than their peers from other streams.

Their journey is thus more likely to help them develop grit, a trait that can take them far in life.

Grit is supremely important as a trait that helps one to overcome treacherous obstacles. Any employer worth its weight in salt will want its employees to possess some grit.

In fact, the best badge of honour that successful students from the N(T) stream can boast about is that they would have had to work much harder than their peers from other streams. They are pretty much starting a race at a disadvantage, and still coming out on top.

If such students aren’t role models deserving of being looked up to, I don’t know who is.

5. It all adds up.

I know it can seem like a hopeless situation to be in, being a student from the Normal (Technical) stream.

After all, it seems like one’s hitting rock bottom.

However, that is never the right attitude to have, no matter one’s aptitude level.

In fact, this is typically what I tell my students from N(T):

“You’re not going to fall behind your peers in N(A) and Express, because at the end of the day, you can get similar certs if you put your mind to it. You’ll also be enriched with experience, grit, and people who will lend you a hand along the way. So, you may think you’re at the bottom of the barrel now, and perhaps you’re right. However, once you’ve hit rock bottom, the only other place to go is up. You just need to get your act together, sort your problems out, and keep your head above the water.”

I don’t sugarcoat my words. I’ll call a spade “a spade”. And if you’re the parent of a student from the N(T) stream, I want you to know that at the end of the day, your child’s experience will add up to be something much, much more, when he/she experiences the first taste of success in life.

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Addressing a few concerns

Having said all of the above, I imagine parents will still have a few lingering questions:

“How can my child succeed when he just seems so hopelessly unmotivated in his studies?”

Motivation is a complex factor, but as far as Singaporean kids are concerned, we can probably agree that it comes from three main sources: friends, family members, and oneself.

While you can’t change the disposition of your child’s friends, you can most certainly influence your child through your actions, helping him/her to make the right choices.

In fact, just being a good role model and maintaining a close relationship with your teen will help tremendously, in terms of getting them to be positive and to stay away from bad company (Raising Children Network).

Incidentally, among my own clients, those who are exceedingly close to their parents have also been the most motivated to do well. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but I haven’t come across them yet.

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“My child cannot even understand the basics of English/Math/Science! How can they succeed?”

I believe we have to first define what “success” is. Certainly, not everyone can make it to polytechnic, much less university. Teens have different learning profiles, after all. Some may have a learning difficulty, while others may not. Let’s not forget those with severe intellectual impairments too.

Put differently, one may be a better artist, while another may be a better businessman.

It’s therefore important to set expectations right. Regardless of your child’s neuroplasticity, it’s important to identify their strengths and weaknesses, then get the appropriate help for them so that they can excel where they should.

In other words: it’ll take a lot to convince me that that one is “a hopeless cause”.

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Concluding words

Having your child join the Normal (Technical) stream can be worrying for various reasons; I’m not going to touch on them here because that’s a whole other discussion altogether.

However, whatever your concerns are, bear in mind that if you believe in your child’s strengths, if you believe that your child HAS the potential to do well, then that’s really all there is to it. Sure, they will take more time to ‘get there’, and you’ll need to put in effort to build your child’s self-esteem. However, in the end, it’ll be a worthwhile journey for your child when you consider the rewards of contacts, self-identity, grit, and overall experience.

Enjoyed reading this post? Found it insightful? Follow Swords & Stationery, the world’s first game-based remediation programme for kids with specific learning differences, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest for the latest learning tips, strategies and discussions.


Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one. He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.

26 thoughts on “Viewing the Normal (Technical) stream with a different lens”

  1. hi,

    my daughter is in nt stream and doing her n level exam this year.
    I just realised there is no path for her to go beyond ite!

    I would like her to go to polytechnic at least.
    The pfp and pdd are meant for na stream only.


    • Hi Kah Leong,

      There are a few pathways that your daughter can consider to go from Sec 4 Normal Technical to Polytechnic:

      1) The first is to go from NITEC to Higher NITEC, before moving on to Polytechnic. This will be a total of four years—two for NITEC and another two for Higher.

      2) The second is to go straight from NITEC to Polytechnic. This will take only two years, but will require the child to have a substantial GPA (3.7-4.0). Also, not all polytechnic courses are offered for students taking this route.

      Regardless of what path your child takes, encourage her to be positive and to play an active role in shaping her future. It’s important that she recognise this isn’t a dead end, but is instead an alternative path that she can capitalise on, for instance to expand her network or to gain more worldly exposure.

      Best of luck!

        • Hi Mrs Aziz, thanks for reaching out. It’s too early to tell how SBB will affect students at the moment, but I certainly think it’s a step in the right direction, especially if students are strong at a subject and are capable of taking it on at a higher level. I’ve had N(T) students who weren’t from a school that offered SBB, but they had attempted N(A) papers (just for fun) and had found them very doable. I’ve also had students who preferred the pace of a lower academic level (e.g. preferring N(A) material to that of Express). There are thus a lot of layers that will affect how students take to subjects at a higher level, but from my observation, this system will most likely benefit students who have every determination to challenge their status quo. It can also only be a good thing to get students of different ability levels to mingle with one another, in the spirit of learning tolerance and empathy.

          Hope this explanation helps!

  2. Hi Shaun,
    Would like to explore if there are other options other than ITE or polytechnic after NT? How about private schools or are there other places which offer vocational training which the NT cert will come in useful? Or is the NT cert only good for ITE progressions.

    • Hi Mrs Tan, one can certainly do a private diploma as an option (e.g. Kaplan). On the ITE pathway, one can also try and apply for a place at a local polytechnic after completing their NITEC course (2 years) if their GPA is good enough.

  3. Hi there, is there any difference in the N level cert for NA and NT?
    I saw some options of going foundation certification after N level for private diploma. The eligibility criteria indicates
    2 GCE ‘N’ Level (Grade A-D or Grade 1-5)

    • Hi May, yes one key difference is that for the N(A) cert, it allows students to directly enter polytechnic via the Polytechnic Foundation Programme. For students planning to take a private diploma, both N(A) and N(T) certs may qualify (though it depends on the school of choice and the student’s results).

  4. Hi Shaun,

    Many thanks for your prompt reply.
    Does that mean N(A) and N(T) exam papers are the same and will be getting the same N level certification?

    • Nope, the syllabuses are very different. The short of it is that the N(A) Level syllabus has more in common with the O Level syllabus, sharing the same subjects but with the difficulty level slightly scaled down. The N(T) Level syllabus, on the other hand, is even more pared down—students don’t do Continuous Writing or Situational Writing for English Language Paper 1. Instead, they have Form Filling, Guided Writing and Functional Writing (which is similar to Situational Writing for N(A) and O Level students, just with more prompts).

      Hope this helps! 🙂

      • Staying on this topic, wouldn’t SBB subjects for NT students made not meaningful? While they do the NA equivalent English, they will never get around to sitting for it at the o levels because they leave the school at Sec 4 while the NA students proceed to Sec 5. How does the SBB English measure up at Sec 4 N level for NT students then?

        • I guess that’s the elephant in the room. At present it *may* put them in a better standing when enrolling for certain courses in ITE, but that’s probably about it. Personally, I would also add that doing N(A) English could help N(T) students to build up skills that are essential for higher education and even “adulting”, provided they are able to keep up. This is especially so for students with dyslexia, who need the exposure to a wider range of vocabulary to brush up on their literacy skills.

  5. Hi Shaun,

    Can i know what the options/paths for my kid now in Sec 2 – NT doing SBB to go poly, having subjects for NA – English & Science ( Physics and Bio.), and NT – Math & MT . Both NT subject – Math & MT he have been doing well with 75/100 above. Any chance he can take NA full cert. in Secondary, Since he do not take Geography, History or Literature in Sec.2 NT.

  6. Dear Teacher Shaun,

    I think it is likely that my daughter will get into the N(T) stream, she’s having her PSLE now. Later on, is there any option for her to get into JC, or is that option only available for Express stream students? If she studies well in technical stream can she take O- levels and apply to study into JC? What would be the requirements for getting accepted into JC?

    Thank you very much for your guidance.

  7. Hi teacher Shaun

    Chanced upon this website while trying to google some information.
    My daughter is in sec 3 this year and has been in NT since sec 1 and every year she misses the mark to be promoted to NA (sec 1 and 2 65%) but this year her results improved and her school is offering her the option to be “promoted” to NA but she has to be in sec 3 again next year albeit at the NA level.
    May I ask for your advice whether is it better for her to take up this option and waste 1 year. Or shall she proceed to 4NT?
    She is currently taking 2 SBB subjects at NA level and her results are:
    1. English SBB NA – 53%
    2. science SBB NA – 75%

    My worry is humanities subject requires a lot of writing and she is not particularly strong in English as you can see above. Kindly give us your advice. Thank you.

    • Hi George, yes you’re right, humanities subjects can be tough for students transitioning from NT to NA. Not saying it can’t be done, but it’s a huge jump in difficulty. It is best to talk to your daughter to see what she’s comfortable with. If she’s willing to put in extra effort to familiarise herself with these new subjects, then it might be worth a shot.

  8. Hi Teacher Shaun,
    My son has just collected his PSLE results and he is offered the N(A)/N(T) stream. Which stream should I let him take up? What are the factors to consider in making our decision? Thank you.

    • Hi Naemah, N(A) is closer to Express than it is to N(T). The syllabus is more rigorous, testing deeply on both skill and general knowledge. As such, it is better to discuss it with your boy and see if that is the pathway that he prefers. You can even download and compare N(A) and N(T) papers to better understand what your boy may have to deal with over the next four years. Hope this helps!


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