THE number of people here taking the O-level examinations as private candidates has fallen to a new record low, probably because they have more alternative options to further their studies now.
Last year, only 2,133 private candidates sat the exam, down from 2,615 in 2013, which was already the smallest number in the last 10 years.
The figure was consistently above 3,000 in the years before that, hitting 3,932 in 2011.
But the proportion of private candidates who attained at least one subject pass has risen from 76 per cent in 2003 to 90.3 per cent in 2013. It dipped slightly last year to 89.5 per cent. Nationally, 99.9 per cent passed at least one subject last year.
Mr Kenny Low, director of private school City College, noted that overall standards of private schools have risen, after the Council for Private Education was set up in 2009.
"After raising quality and weeding out schools, the ones left are perhaps the stronger ones," he said. "This may have played a part in driving up scores."
He said the drop in the number of private candidates could be due to the popularity of other pathways, such as private diploma and degree programmes.
Dr Ananda Rajan, principal of another private school, Penciltutor, said: "Private diplomas are popular as the entry requirements can be as low as three O-level subject passes. They also lead to degrees awarded by foreign universities but these are not always recognised."
Ms Ariel Chew, director of Inspire Education Centre, which offers private candidates a 10-month preparatory course for the O levels, said: "Some students may go overseas to study if their parents can afford it."
Mr Low said more students may be opting for the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). He said: "ITE's branding has improved in recent years. A major factor is the state's commitment to investing in its infrastructure. The type of courses offered now, like culinary arts, are more attractive and relevant."
Figures from the Education Ministry show that ITE enrolment has grown - from about 21,600 students in 2005 to more than 26,000 students in 2013.
The dip in the number of private candidates has hit City College, which now prepares more than 100 students for the O levels each year, down from a peak of 300 a year in 2006 and 2007. But other private schools that prepare students for the O levels said they had not seen a drop in demand for their programmes, possibly because more students were seeking help instead of studying on their own.
More students have higher expectations and want to better their grades so they can get into certain courses, the schools said.
These schools take in students who drop out of secondary school, or those who want a second shot at the O levels. They also help Normal stream students who hope to enter polytechnics here.
For instance, the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) College has seen enrolment for its O-level preparatory course grow by 22 per cent between 2013 and last year. It took in about 400 students last year and expects another 450 this year.
Penciltutor saw its intake of students in its O-level preparatory programme grow from 75 in 2012 to 98 in 2013. They pay $3,000 to $9,000, depending on the number of subjects they take.
The private school opened its third branch in Jurong last year, after one each in Yishun and Redhill. Dr Rajan said he expects enrolment to rise by another 25 per cent this year. At least 90 per cent of the students do well enough to enter the polytechnics here, he added.
Inspire Education Centre saw a 20 to 30 per cent increase in students in its O-level preparatory programme in the last three years.
About 30 to 40 per cent of its students passed five subjects, while 70 to 80 per cent obtained passes in three subjects.
Ms Chew said teachers help students to refocus on subjects they are weak at, through methods such as memory techniques. They also guide them in planning their study schedules.
City College's Mr Low said: "Students come to us because they want to have choice. It's not really about getting a certificate, but getting into a course of their preference."
Christy Ooi, 16, who signed up with Penciltutor to help her with the O levels this year, had done her N levels in the Normal (Academic) stream at Hillgrove Secondary School last year, but did not do well enough to progress to Secondary 5 to take the O levels.
She said: "I thought I could scrape through with minimal studying but, in the end, I couldn't. I will study harder now because I want to go to a polytechnic."
Another student, Julia Chow, 17, took the O levels after going through a 10-month preparatory course at MDIS College last year.
The former Normal (Technical) student fared well enough in her N levels at Riverside Secondary School in 2013 to transfer to Secondary 4 Normal (Academic) stream and then take the O levels after Secondary 5.
"But I wanted a shorter route," said Julia, who wants to study aviation management at Temasek Polytechnic this year. "It was quite hard at first to catch up on the O-level syllabus because it's very different from the N-level one. The teachers helped a lot by giving revision notes and the class size was smaller too. It was a better learning environment for me."