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A level or Diploma?

images taken from CJC &Ngee ANN Poly


I have been in the teaching profession and I have taught in both JC and Polytechnic. So in this post I am sharing my personal views and experiences on the two different education path.

I hope everyone has obtained the desirable O level results and for those who have performed well enough to be eligible for JC and Polytechnics, now is the time to make an important decision: JC or Polytechnic?

Here I will be doing the comparison between the two education paths on the following aspects:

a) Objective of JC or Polytechnic education

b) Study / Assessment system

c) Learning environment

d) Opportunities available

a) Education objectives

A level education:

Alot of initiatives are rolling out to shift the focus of A level education from national examination. However it does not change the fact that A level education is pre-university education. In other words the purpose of A level education is to prepare students for university admission. 

Polytechnic education:

The main objective of polytechnic education is to train students to be "work ready" upon graduation. While there are still written tests and exams, a big portion of the curriculum is hands on training to master a specific skill. 

b) Study / Assessment system

A level education:

In A level, students will take on less number of subjects compared to O level. Hence the students will narrow further the subjects they are interested in. However for almost all the subjects, the content is still pretty theoretical and the content is still pretty broad as A level content serves as a pre-requisite for various university courses. It is not surprising that many A level students are still not sure exactly which course they are going to pursue so they choose subjects that provides the foundation knowledge to various university courses.

For example, students studying H2 physics can have the option of enrolling into a course under Science faulty of Engineering faculty.

While there are many internal examination in an A level institution, what matters is the grades from 1 single examination: A level examination. In other words, students have to cram all the things they study in the 2 year programme and there is only 1 sitting for the exam, 100% weightage. Therefore this makes A level examination highly stressful and the stakes are high.

Polytechnic education:

For polytechnic courses, students will need to choose a specific area to pursue their studies. For example, a student will need to decide if he/she is going to enroll into specific courses such as Engineering, Food Science or Digital Media. Hence the scope of study is more focused compared to the A level.

The teaching is focused on training the students to be "work ready" and not "scoring A in exam". Hence how well a student perform is pretty much determined by the student themselves and not teachers "forcing" students to study and score As or Bs.

Students who excel in their course will also have opportunities to enroll into universities and the SIT is setup specifically to provide university courses for polytechnic students. However based on my own knowledge, if a student wish to enroll into NTU, NUS, SUTD, they might have a higher chance through the A level system as it seems like there are more vacancies allocated for the A level students. 


There is no national examination for polytechnic and that makes the assessment less stressful. Furthermore they follow a modular system, which is basically having an examination every 4 months compared to 1 single exam in 2 years for A level. So the key idea is that students are assessed in segments and instead of betting on a single sitting, a polytechnic student needs to perform consistently throughout the entire 3 years (6 semesters).

Apart from the paper assessment, a large component of the GPA grade is contributed by projects and lab work. Hence students who are not that capable in written assessment can also perform well under the "hands on" component.

c) Learning environment

A level education:

Most A level institutions (except private schools such as MDIS) are uniformed institutions. Students will have to observe a high level of discipline such as attire and also attendance.

Under such environment, the school teachers will be on a close watch out for students and most teachers will be "pushing" the students to study hard, regardless of what the students want. This is because one of the main KPI for the school and the teachers are the A level grades. Hence they are only interested mostly in the percentage of As and Bs and less on students' own expectations.

Students studying A level are usually the top 20% of the O level cohort, so the spectrum of the academic ability level is narrower compared to the polytechnic students (read below), which also means the competition is more intense for A level compared to O level.

Polytechnic education:

In polytechnic, the discipline level is pretty lax, as long as you do not commit crimes. Students can dress in their own clothes, dye their hair as they wish and also they are officially permitted to skip a certain percentage of the lessons. Hence students studying there and wish to excel must have a high level of self discipline in order not to fall into the "dark side".

The academic ability level of polytechnic students is pretty diverse, with students coming in with O levels, or some students enrolling through "Poly Foundation Program" straight after N levels, and a growing portion of students coming in from ITE after Higher Nitec. This means that a student will be exposed to a more complex student environment and he or she must be used to handling different types of students and also all kinds of peer influence.

Since polytechnic examination is only an internal examination, the results is not the core KPI. Instead students' feedback on the module might be more important as the examination grades. For polytechnics, one of the main KPI is "Polytechnic Employment Survey" in which the graduated students will feedback on the course they took, how fast they are employed and also the salaries.

d) Opportunities

The main advantage of polytechnic education over A level education is the greater number of opportunities to go for internship training in external companies and also the number of overseas trips available for exchange etc. This is primarily contributed also by the students' fees (which is much much higher than A level).

However this also mean that if a student excels in a polytechnic course, he gets the chance to go to an overseas company or institution for a semester internship which has a significant contribution to the future resume. Such opportunity is very rare, if not non-existent in the A level education.

e) So....JC or Poly?

A level education:

This path is suitable for students who scored well for O level (Raw L1R5 of 15 and below) who can handle theoretical studies and written examination. It is also suitable if the student does not have a precise idea on the course of study he or she wants to pursue at the moment.

It is also suitable for students who are willing to undergo the high level of stress and have a resolution of "die die must go university", especially in NUS, NTU or other prestigious overseas universities.

Polytechnic education:

This path is suitable for students who have a very clear idea the scope of career he or she wishes to pursue in the future. It is also suitable for students who do not like to be studying from books and have some talent in hands on skills.

A student in polytechnic must have a high level of self discipline, as they have to be independent in their studies since most lecturers will not be pushing them to score A. Students who have scored very well in O level and wish to pursue the polytechnic path have a pretty high chance of being the top 5% in their cohort and many great opportunities will come as compared to studying in an A level institution.

Students who are not confident of surviving A level course even though their L1R5 allows them to enroll might want to consider the polytechnic path. Simply because a polytechnic diploma has more worth than an A level certificate, especially when it comes to looking for a job should this student decided not to pursue further studies in a university.

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