Commentary: For greater social mobility, should the role of privilege in our education system be reassessed?

Commentary: For greater social mobility, should the role of privilege in our education system be reassessed?

No system should stop parents from investing in their children, but any system should attempt to minimise inequalities, says Channel NewsAsia's Bharati Jagdish.

SINGAPORE: As Primary One (P1) registration season descends upon us again, heated discussions will likely abound about the admissions process, its fairness, and whether there needs to be a serious relook at the process.

Parents who are concerned about getting their children into popular schools next year are, no doubt, bracing themselves for the exercise.

Those who are alumni of popular schools often feel they can rest easy.

However, the process often invites the opprobrium of those who don’t have connections to such schools. But since 2014, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been setting aside at least 40 places in every primary school for children without a prior connection.

From 2019, all affiliated secondary schools will have to reserve 20 per cent of their Secondary One places for incoming students who do not have any affiliation priority.

No doubt, this in turn causes some stress for those with connections who might feel like they will have to compete for fewer places. 

As such, perhaps we need to reconsider what constitutes a good school and whether all this stress is warranted. 

Reasonably, we can’t expect public policy to meet the specific desires of each and every citizen. However, it could at least be aligned, in this case, with the larger Singapore narrative of justice, equality and meritocracy. 


In this context, we should note that prior connections remain part of the equation, albeit to a lesser extent. 

P1 registration is taken seriously because the advantages that those with alumni connections have don’t end at the primary school level. The issue arises again if their desired secondary school has an affiliated primary school.

primary school students first day of school 2018 (1)
A primary school student reading in the school hall. (File photo: MOE)

In spite of recent changes, some parents still report losing a place at schools nearest to their homes to those who live much farther away - simply because those children have alumni connections.

Considering the vital discussions Singaporeans have been having lately about inequality, privilege and social mobility, perhaps prior connections should not be a factor in school admissions at any level.

READ: Can education fix inequality in Singapore?

READ: Are we missing the point of education?


Of course, if changes to the system are made, alternatives would need to be put in place.

So, how should entrance to primary school be determined?

Over the years, we’ve heard suggestions such as a pure ballot-based system or even a pure proximity-based admissions process. 

Schools in wealthier neighbourhoods would generally be populated only by students from wealthier families.

We are already seeing unintended consequences insofar as the high demand for places in top schools can result in rising property prices in the vicinity. Some parents have moved just to be near a school. And others have apparently abused the system by lying about their addresses to help their child get into a popular school. 

In many cases, qualified and deserving students living in less affluent areas may have to travel a longer distance to these schools. Therefore, many end up not going there. 

HDB flats in Toa Payoh file
High demand for places in top schools can result in rising property prices in the vicinity. (Photo: TODAY)

This would not be an issue if every school was seen as a “good” school - and if all of us believed it.

It is the competition for places in particular schools that leads to angst and arguments over admissions criteria. 

Our definition of what is the definition of “good” needs to be broadened as well. It shouldn’t merely be brand-names or schools that accept students who do well in the PSLE, but should constitute well-resourced schools that can bring out the best in every child.

READ:A commentary on parents' struggle in picking a 'good school' for their child.

However, considering the status quo, at least the admissions process needs to be as equitable as possible.

Perhaps the key to greater social mixing and mobility lies in ensuring a healthy residential mix of people from diverse backgrounds - something that the HDB is working on - and relocating popular schools so that everyone - including those from vulnerable backgrounds - have convenient geographical access to them.

In this case, proximity-based admissions may not be tantamount to deepening social stratification.

However, changes could go even deeper.

Even priority admission to top primary and secondary schools for those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds misses part of the point. 

Much has been said about wealthy families’ ability to afford tuition and other extra-curricular classes and courses, and how this gives children a leg up academically, and even when it comes to schemes such as the Direct School Admission programme. 

No system should stop parents from investing in their children. But perhaps there should be greater recognition that kids from families which cannot afford such assistance could be on the backfoot in the classroom, and that any system should attempt to minimise inequalities.

Generic preschool image. Photo: TODAY
A child doing homework. (File photo: TODAY)

Financial assistance and bursary schemes for top secondary schools have been enhanced.

The Government also aims to level the playing field from preschool in order to tackle inequality by doubling its annual spending on the preschool sector to S$1.7 billion in 2022.


But several researchers have pointed out that investment in education alone is insufficient to blunt the impact of privilege. 

This is why the discussion could be widened beyond the narrow sphere of where our kids go to school and who gets to go to the ‘best’ ones.

Family circumstances can affect a student's performance in school. In the case of low-income families for instance, if parents can't provide their child with permanent and stable housing, it could affect the child's study environment and in turn, affect his or her ability to do well in school. 

Therefore, policies need to go beyond education to ensure that such children don't, in day-to-day living, suffer the effects of vast disparities that could unduly disadvantage them when compared to children from more privileged backgrounds.  

Can the state do even more to diminish the disparities?

Considering recent debates on social mobility and inequality, society might be ready for a deeper discussion on bolder changes to diminish the role that privilege plays in the success of future generations.

Bharati Jagdish is the host of Channel NewsAsia's On The Record, a weekly interview with thought leaders across Singapore, and The Pulse, Channel NewsAsia’s weekly podcast that discusses the hottest issues of the week.

Source: CNA/nr