Chew Wei Shan’s facebook post on meritocracy and elitism clearly made a lot of people very uncomfortable, especially those of a certain socio-economic status (SES). She didn’t pull any punches in her sharp, self-aware commentary on the divisions in our schools.
In the other corner, are these feeble attempts to examine things superficially instead of structurally, as seen in this well-meaning but hopelessly misguided and cringeworthy Channel News Asia video (I’m not sure it would do the term justice if I called it a documentary).
But on the plus side, at least the folks at CNA were brave (as far as ignorance can be a type of bravery in itself) in tackling a previously taboo issue (“there is no poverty line in Singapore, and the streets are paved with gold…“) and now the question is how to elevate the conversation on being “atas” beyond dull defensiveness and bitter recrimination.
It’s the silver bullet for just about everything in this country – is blamed for worsening the class divide. Everything from:
- a Secondary 3 Social Studies guidebook that spelled out the traits of people who were high or low SES,
- the elitism of top schools like Raffles Institution,
- or the sold-out play “Normal” which explores the cost of academic streaming,
our education system is the whipping boy for the current stratification of Singaporean society.
In a perverse game of snakes and ladders, schools are viewed as either stepping stones to university heaven or slippery, scaly slides down into vocational school hell. But why?
Every School is a Good School
I’ve taught in a variety of schools (government, govt-aided, independent, private, pri, sec, pre-u), and spent some time in the Ministry of Education (MOE). All publicly funded schools receive more or less the same amount of funding; and almost all the teachers and principals are hired by MOE and centrally posted to schools on the basis of need.
In addition, the Singapore government has spent and continues to spend billions of dollars on:
- renovating and rebuilding all schools,
- buying the best ed-tech money can buy,
- training and retaining (through salaries that are amongst the highest for educators anywhere in the world) good teachers and school leaders,
- funding CCA programmes, student leadership development, overseas trips and community engagement programmes,
- providing financial assistance, bursaries and Edusave contributions so that no student is denied education because of financial reasons,
- promoting specialised areas such as science and tech, sports, the arts, special needs education and vocational training through the set-up of specialised independent schools and the development of niche programmes in mainstream schools.
- funding life-long learning through schemes to help working adults in continuing education.
And this list could go on and on.
And as a result, we do have an education system that is quite robust, one that we can be rightly proud of, especially when lined up against many of the anaemic, chronically underfunded education systems around the world. I remember attending a course on assessment in Boston 2 years ago, and it was sobering to listen to the struggles that American teachers and school administrators go through just to get the basics done in school.
And yet, this same lauded education system is caught squarely in the crossfire of the class divide debate. Is the flak fair? Yes and no.
YES – Class Divides
While our schools, in terms of curriculum, funding and teachers are generally the same, the students can be worlds apart.
Our schools are already stratified, and it is getting worse. They are stratified by all the proxy indicators for wealth in Singapore – housing type, language, race, culture, parental occupation.
And why so? Because our education system privileges the rich, at the point of entry.
In primary school, entry is primarily based on connections (alumni, grassroots leaders, parent volunteers) and proximity to home. High-SES parents are likely to be alumni of popular schools or they are more likely to be able to afford being parent volunteers. They are also more able to afford buying property just to be within the 1km radius of the school.
And once you get into a “good” primary school, the belief is that it sets you up for life, in terms of the peers you interact with, the company you keep. I remember one of my bosses at MOE exclaiming during a discussion on “elite” and “neighbourhood” primary schools that all parents were not really interested in a school’s programmes (for all programmes and curriculum in every primary school is more or less the same), but they wanted to choose the peers that their child interacted with. And these parental prejudices are a reflection of the prejudices and stereotypes that unfortunately still exist in Singapore.
In secondary school, entry is based on your Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-score. This simple, merit-based system should be fair right? No it isn’t. Again, wealthy parents have the financial firepower to hothouse their children to PSLE and beyond. There is no shortage of learning labs to turn Frankensteinian “F”s into angelic “A”s. There are even reports of parents quitting their jobs to stay at home and coach their kids. That is something parents who are financially secure can well afford to do.
And so money indirectly buys grades, buys places in secondary school. Rinse and repeat for the O Levels into JC entry and then again for holy grail of our entire education system: university entrance.
This sorry state of affairs is compounded by another hurdle – language. English is the medium of instruction in our schools. It is also a major stumbling block for students from non-English speaking homes, who, are often low-SES. Rich kids have phonics classes from the time they can crawl. Poor kids come to Primary 1 unable to scrawl their name. This language gap dogs students throughout their academic years, affecting both self-esteem and ability to comprehend material.
The over-representation of low-SES students in the academically weaker streams in Primary and Secondary levels and the over-representation of high-SES students in “better” schools (autonomous, independent) would suggest that somehow, in our wonderfully efficient and fair education system, poverty makes you stupid and/ or lazy.
And of course, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve taught many, many low-SES students who knew very well that the only way they were going to make their families lives better was through doing well in school. Good grades was their golden ticket out of squalor. But now, it is an increasingly rare one.
NO – Class divides beyond the school
However, it’s not fair to blame MOE and the legions of school leaders and teachers who struggle each day to make a difference in the lives of their students because they are up against a society that is deeply unequal. To every kid that they do help upwards and onwards, well done. But the slope is getting steeper.
The stratification we see in education today is but a mirror to societal schisms in Singapore. And until we take serious steps address those inequalities, education will continue to be a seductive sedative to shield us from bitter inequalities our students face beyond the school’s gates.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Really?”
The most important thing I’ve learnt from being a teacher in Singapore for the last 15 years (teaching at Primary, Secondary, Junior College levels and in both Government and Independent schools, MOE HQ and now in a private international school) is the importance of “learning how to learn”. Kids who figure out how to do that are a little less unprepared for the real world.
To do this “learning how to learn” well, students need to have a a good understanding of:
- the fundamentals of language(s), numbers (which is but another language) and logic.
- how to sift through information, facts, data, concepts, arguments, theories.
- how to piece them together and take them apart.
- how to share perspectives with others, argue and agree to disagree.
- the world around them, past present and where we might be headed in the future.
These skills are fundamental to the education of all students in all our mainstream schools, and not just for those in upper-tier, elite programmes (however you wish to label them: Independent, Integrated Programme, IB, Express stream, Higher, Gifted etc.)
At the moment the system is great at churning out students who excel at taking tests but are awful at learning how to learn. And can you blame the kids?
We’ve built an education system that is primarily designed not to teach, but to sort (hence the test-taking expertise and hydra-like tuition empires).
In doing so, we’ve distorted fundamental drives in education. Students don’t learn to discover, they learn to avoid failure. Teachers don’t teach, they reverse engineer assessments, machine tool model answers and drill their students to parade square precision.
Discovery is messy, slow and riddled with necessary failure. The path to success is paved with Popular 10-year series assessment books.
We’ve built a system that celebrates the top 25% (those who make it to local universities), and in doing so throws shade on the remaining 75%. (And think about it, if you’ve gone though school hating school, as an adult would you be so keen to go back to school/training under the SkillsFuture programme that encourages adults to go back to train and learn?)
Our education system has fundamentally not changed after the 1979 Goh Keng Swee shakeup. It’s still pretty much the same system now as it was back in the 80s and 90s.
Except that now got internet.
Except that now the world has changed radically. (Except for Mahathir)
The govt. has been cautious because education is political kryptonite and the denizens of KiasuParents.com will confirm complain if any changes derail the carefully laid plans for their DDs (darling daughters) or DSs (dear sons).
But meanwhile, rolling off the assembly lines of our every-school-is-a-good-schools are intellectually-stunted, partially-literate, docile toad-in-a-wells…
… who are really good at taking tests.
Update: I wrote this note on Facebook in June 2018. In Oct 2018, the Ministry of Education in Singapore announced a slew of changes to the way student assessment will be done in schools.