Commentary: Reducing available Primary 1 places could spur rethinking about school alumni
But it would be a pity if recently announced changes to the Primary 1 registration exercise discourage alumni from remaining active in their alma mater, says Cherie Tseng.
SINGAPORE: My husband and I both come from well-known primary schools.
By Singapore primary school admissions standards, we have pretty much hit the jackpot. When it comes to our children, we are fortunate not to be caught in the tidal wave of stress that usually accompanies Primary 1 placement.
When the first day of school rolled around some years back, it was a special feeling seeing our firstborn trot off to the same school I did, sing the same school songs, and later, even be taught by the same teachers.
I’d relished that school life and to see it come full circle with my children heading off on their own journey of discovery and development on those same grounds I’ve walked on all those years ago gives me an assurance they will be in good hands.
And thanks to Phase 1A where siblings of existing students get first priority, my other son got his place without having us to do anything more than sign a form. My third son would likely enjoy the same Phase 1A priority when his turn rolls around.
But for the vast majority of parents without any connection to certain primary schools, the stress is palpable, and they can lose sleep over the lucky draw that ends up being the only way to get into a school they desire.
TIES THAT BIND
Do Singaporeans only join their alma mater’s alumni group to get their kids into sought after schools? Even if they did, I can understand the deep desire for parents to want their children to have the best education.
But for many of us, the chance at deepening connections, broadening our network with fellow alumni and giving back to a school that has invested in us are worthwhile reasons to join, even outside of the benefit our brood gets in terms of admission.
I volunteer at my former all-girls’ secondary school despite not having a daughter. I do it because the school continues to have meaning for me. The community is rich in diversity and these enduring friendships have seen all of us through marriages, children, work, and life’s many challenges.
Similarly, an unmarried and childless friend is an active member at his former school and is often busy with sports related events—again, no child benefits from preferential admission but he finds it meaningful to help shape young lives.
Another friend, also unmarried, served on her alumni executive committee first as treasurer, then in higher office and now sits on the school board— she is hands deep in everything from events to fundraising for a school she has no offspring to benefit from.
She does this while balancing a challenging career. She tells graduating students that if they feel the school has been good to them, they should return the favour regardless of future admission benefits.
Parents like me are lucky enough to have gone to these schools. Mind you, many were perfectly “ordinary” in our time. To want to continue this unbroken link is not just a desire to place our children in “good schools”.
For some, being part of the same school is part of a family legacy and history. Just attend a major rugby or football game and you’ll see extended families gathered, cheering for sons and grandsons, wearing school colours.
It is not uncommon to see four generations of old girls – as I did at a recent alumni event—come together.
REDUCING PRIVILEGED ACCESS
But there’s no denying the growing sense in Singapore that priority to alumni goes against the principle of equal opportunity.
There has long been public feedback arguing for the removal of priority admissions for children of alumni members altogether because “one of the perpetuating vestiges of meritocracy lies in our education system, where branded schools give preferential admission treatment to offspring of alumni”, according to one passionate Straits Times forum letter written in 2018.
Another letter writer from that same year puts it more bluntly, arguing that “being born lucky is not a talent worth rewarding”.
It’s little surprise, really, that then Minister for Education Lawrence Wong announced reviews to the admission programme in May, which culminated on Thursday (Sep 9), where the MOE announced adjustments to Primary 1 admissions.
Notably, MOE is striking a middle ground and collapsing the currently split phase 2A1 and 2A2 for parents with alumni, community, and other links to the school into a single category and moving 20 seats to Phase 2C for families with no prior links to the school.
The distinction harks back to 1999 when the 2A1 and 2A2 priority split was initially introduced to encourage stronger alumni and community support for schools.
The fresh changes strengthen neighbourhood links to the school, to address the more recent concerns of parents being squeezed out of Phase 2C, even those living within 1 km of their home, because those places were snapped up in earlier phases.
RETHINKING THE ROLE OF ALUMNI AND VOLUNTEERING
These changes will have an impact on access to Primary 1 spots for alumni but instead of looking at it as merely cutting the numbers, schools and alumni parents can take this chance to rethink the role alumni links play in our education eco-system.
Are alumni even giving back something to the school? To what extent are they helping to improve outcomes for current students, help craft programmes or use their skills and talents to raise the school’s standards? After all there is no shortage of parents who want to volunteer, and every school has different criteria and standards.
Even if the schools in question can benefit from more volunteers, this whole enterprise can sometimes look like a transactional exchange.
It is impossible to argue against the benefits of a more accessible, open, and inclusive school system, or indeed, for society. Arguably, if we want to snuff any advantage one child might have over another, we would have to go even further to review whether places for Phase 2B (for those with religious, community and school volunteer links) and Phase 2A should also be whittled down further.
After all, parents have been known to change where they attend religious services to benefit from admission priority and being born to parents of certain dialect groups is a case of luck too.
RETHINKING ALUMNI ACCESS
Reducing special access via the alumni pathways into primary school could force a school and its alumni to rethink their role and purpose, far beyond the reaches of being an admissions meal ticket.
It might require some soul-searching for alumni who have been capitalising on their special access pass and think of how they want to give back, so the school, teachers and students benefit.
Schools too have to look at who they admit – opening up more slots for those who bring something to the table who can create a brand new generation proud to be part of a community and give back. The challenge is how to do this without alumni asking for a pound of flesh in return.
It’s a mixed bag of challenges and it will be tough to find clean solutions that will please everyone, as the MOE rightly pointed out.
Aiming to equalise the playing field is important but hopefully, in the process, the worthwhile reasons why some parents like me who want to enroll their children in schools they went to will not be sacrificed altogether.
Cherie Tseng is Chief Operations Officer at a local fintech company, a mother of three and editor with The Birthday Collective.