Education, Prose

Equity vs. Quality: Singapore’s in a league of its own

Tldr: The easy lie of meritocracy in education.

Yesterday at an educational conference in Singapore, World Edulead 2019, Professor Pasi Sahlberg, a well-respected educational researcher from Finland, shared about equity (fairness) in education systems around the world.

At one point in his presentation, (he was using OECD PISA results to compare countries), he asked the conference hall of about a thousand school teachers, school administrators, and education ministry officials from Singapore and abroad, he asked us to turn the person next to us and predict where our country would fall on a graph that plotted student achievement against equity of outcomes.

And by equity of outcomes, meaning that how much students could achieve regardless of family socio-economic status. A measurement of how much your family’s SES determines or doesn’t determine your educational achievement. A measurement of the extent to which kids from poor families are able to beat the odds stacked against them.

I turned to the person next to me and predicted that Singapore would probably do really well in terms of academic achievement (we are tops in PISA – tests in English, Maths and Science).

And I thought, maybe we wouldn’t do that fantastically in terms of equity, after all we all know (although that data is not publicly available) that students in Normal stream, in “neighbourhood schools” tend to come from lower SES families, while students in Express stream, in “top” schools tend to come from high SES families.

We know that richer families have the disposable income to spend on private tuition, enrichment classes and educational resources.

But I still believed while we would not be fantastic in terms of equity, we still shouldn’t fare too badly, considering how much we spend on public school education so that all our govt schools are well resourced, our teachers and principals centrally hired and trained, our curriculum kept up to date and responsive to the changing needs of the 21st century.

And on top of that, our network of school subsidies, bursaries and financial assistance ensures that no child is denied an education because the family cannot afford it.

So I was pretty shocked when Prof. Sahlberg showed the slides below. (The white dot in the centre represents OECD average, the different flags represent the country’s position on the graph relative to the average.)


The data shows that we really need to look beyond the soul-stirring stories and anecdotes told by ministers and reported ad nauseam in papers of the few, too few, kids who beat the odds.

And instead take a cold, hard look at data that shows that while we have fantastic educational achievements, the “value add” – to borrow a commonly used MOE term, in socio-economic terms is pitiful, and especially stark when compared to other Asian countries like Japan or South Korea or even our nemesis, Hong Kong (another former British colony/ city).

And the data suggests that now, at least statistically, the Singapore education system is not the magic bullet, the grand social leveller we have always thought and preached it to be.

As teachers and parents, as citizens, are we ready to question what has always been done, and what we need to do if we are serious about building a fairer society?

You can find the full deck of Prof. Sahlberg’s presentation slides at his website.

So what’s next?

I know of many dedicated teachers and school administrators who have students from poor families in their schools, and these teachers and principals try their darnest best to help those students do well.

Extra lessons, mentoring, enrichment, school based financial assistance, parent education programmes, home visits etc.

So this is not a condemnation of the Singapore Education System, but a questioning of what more can we do. Or maybe the solutions lie beyond education?


When I first wrote this post on Facebook, it was with the tldr “It’s all about the $$$$$$”. I later changed it to “The easy lie of meritocracy in education” because after much reflection, that’s really what we tell ourselves to sleep better at night.

As teachers, we tell ourselves, and our students, that if only our “weak” students worked harder, they would do well. If we ourselves came from modest backgrounds, we hold ourselves up as role models about how anyone can do it (even if inequality was not as great back in the 70s or 80s when we were growing up).

As parents, we pride ourselves on our children’s achievements, as evidence of their good upbringing, their good habits, their hard work and hope to high heaven that our dear darlings won’t have to mix with students from poor backgrounds.

As good middle-class students, we pat ourselves on the back for our achievements, and scorn the weak kids struggling in their scruffy uniforms and wonder why they won’t just iron their clothes.

As poor students, we’ve got so many reasons to not even try.

The lie we tell ourselves is that the playing field is level, no one owes you a living, pull yourself up by your bootstraps etc.

And after all, to complete the fiction, all we need to do is to parade that 1 taxi-driver-single-mother-living-in-a-one-room-rental-flat-student-yet-he-managed-to-get-PSC-scholarship and look now he’s a minister, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that anyone can make it in our system, just follow that rainbow.

As a country, we can and must do better.

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