SINGAPORE: Capping achievements and limiting opportunities at the top in a bid to close the achievement gap runs against a fundamental philosophy of Singapore’s education system, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament on Wednesday (Jul 11).
Speaking in response to a parliamentary motion filed by five Nominated MPs on “Education for our Future”, Mr Ong explained that the easiest way to close this gap is to cap the top, and some suggestions raised in public are pointing in that direction. This includes banning tuition and enrichment classes, or redistributing resources from popular to less popular schools.
But he stressed that it is better to lift the bottom, and his ministry’s resourcing of schools reflects this approach.
In a wide-ranging speech outlining the key principles of the education system, Mr Ong revealed that the highest level of resourcing – about S$24,000 per student – goes to specialised schools like Crest, Spectra, NorthLight School and Assumption Pathway School. Students in the Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic) streams get about S$20,000 and S$15,000 each in resources respectively.
In contrast, a student in other courses in a Government, Government-Aided or Independent school would receive under S$15,000 in resources.
Furthermore, he said, MOE regularly rotates its staff to ensure that good performing teachers and principals are well spread across different types of schools.
The Public Service Commission (PSC) also reaches out to students from different schools, and has been paying special attention to applicants from lower income families. As a result, he said, the percentage of PSC scholars from two junior colleges – Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution – has come down to 60 per cent last year, compared to more than 80 per cent in 2007.
Interview techniques are also being adjusted, he added. “Recognising that students from poorer backgrounds tend to be less articulate, the Commission is assessing candidates beyond their communication skills, but on the substance of their ideas and thinking.”
‘SIGNIFICANT OUTCOMES’ IN LIFTING THE BOTTOM
The Government’s approach in lifting the bottom, said Mr Ong, has resulted in some other significant outcomes. For one, he said, opportunities that were once regarded as only available to students from more affluent backgrounds have become more broadly accessible.
Most schools now organise overseas learning experiences, and schools offer a wide variety of co-curricular activities (CCAs), such as fencing and sailing. NorthLight School also has an equestrian programme for its students.
There are also smaller class sizes for the weaker students.
Mr Ong explained that the additional resources for specialised schools and students in the Normal stream come partly in the form of additional teachers.
“There is sometimes still the perception that students study in one class and it is of a certain size,” he said. “The reality is that students now regularly move around and join different groups, and there is no single class size.”
“With good teachers, smaller class sizes help the students.”
To lift the bottom, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim also noted in his speech that MOE is committed to ensuring equal access to opportunities for every child, from pre-school to adulthood.
He talked about how his ministry is investing in three groups of students: Those from disadvantaged families, high-needs learners and students with special education needs.
TWO PARADOXES OF EDUCATION
In his speech, Mr Ong highlighted two paradoxes of education: meritocracy and inequality.
Meritocracy, he explained, has uplifted many families over the decades, and these families spare no effort investing in the abilities of their children. But this has resulted in students from affluent families having a head start, and doing better than their peers from lower-income families.
“Meritocracy, arising from a belief in fairness, seems to have paradoxically resulted in systemic unfairness,” he said.
As for inequality, Mr Ong explained that as more poor families are successfully uplifted, those that remain poor face more difficult challenges, which are translated to their children’s performances in school.
“So the more we uplift poor families, the greater the achievement gap between the rich and poor.”
Mr Ong noted that as these paradoxes are confronted, questions are raised about whether MOE’s policies and approaches have run their course, and whether a “fundamentally different approach” should be taken – where some sacred cows will be slaughtered.
“It depends on which cows you are thinking of slaughtering,” he said. “For some, my answer is No”.
The “sacred cow” of PSLE, he said, has survived for some “very valid reasons”.
“But what I think we need to do is to reduce the stakes of the examination, and there must be many ways we can do this,” he said.
He agreed that PSLE is not a perfect system, and does add stress to some parents and students. “But it happens to be the most meritocratic, and probably the most fair of all imperfect systems,” he said.
“If we scrap it, whatever we replace it with to decide on secondary school postings is likely to be worse.”
There was another suggestion, he added, of setting a quota for low income students in popular schools. But he stressed that many popular schools are already making extra efforts to attract eligible students from low income families. “And we should encourage them to do more,” he said.
“But setting a quota sends the wrong signal,” he added. “I don’t think it is aligned to our societal ethos, and could even be seen as patronising.”
Rounding up his speech, Mr Ong said that tackling inequality is unfinished business. But he stressed that there is no contradiction between meritocracy and fairness, nor reducing inequality and raising collective standards.
"Instead, we should double up on meritocracy, by broadening its definition to embrace various talents and skills," he said. "We should not cap achievement at the top, but continue to strive to lift the bottom."
MANY DIFFERENT PATHS TO SUCCESS: INDRANEE RAJAH
Weighing in on the discussion, Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah stressed that like the various Members of Parliament who spoke in the debate, MOE is aligned on the various broad objectives that were brought up.
“We too want every child to have a bright future and to do well. Like the MPs who have spoken, we want them to have a wonderful school experience,” she said. “We are also concerned about the vulnerable, and we want integration and inclusivity to be at the heart of our education system.”
“Where we may differ in some aspects is on the strategies or solutions, but let me reassure the House that we are very much at one in terms of the overall aims and objectives of education.”
In her speech, Ms Indranee noted that much of the stress talked about is in fact driven by the assumption that there is only one path to success, which is the academic route. But in fact, she stressed that there are many different paths to success.
“Different children have different personalities, talents and abilities,” she said. “Some are more academically inclined, others are much better with their hands, or are more creative and artistic.”
Citing a report released by Dell Technologies which said that 85 per cent of the jobs in 2030 have not been invented yet, she said that future economy will be more diverse than today. And when the next generation of students enter the workforce, they may well take on jobs that have not even been conceived of today.
“For that, you cannot have a system that is one-size-fits-all. Nor is there any longer a single measure of success, and learning has to be lifelong,” she said.