Unequal and excluded: Singapore’s first inequality

By Yong Sheng

I graduated this week. I read PPE at Oxford. A lot of my graduating peers, British or otherwise, may not have found their education here particularly spectacular. It is increasingly likely that their parents went to university; to them, graduating is a momentous but nevertheless well-defined life course.

Growing up, my family was solidly working class. My mum’s parents saw very little value in a female’s education, and quite literally threw the public secondary school fee – a tiny sum even for the 60s – at her. Needless to say she stopped at GCE A-levels and was obliged to start working to support the family. My dad did the then-equivalent of ITE, and then, only after a decade of work, finished a part-time diploma and BBA. My parents chose to delay marriage and childbirth to save up enough for a HDB public flat.

Things took a turn when my dad was retrenched during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 but secured a more stable managerial role after, allowing my mum to stay at home and care for the house and our education. As I grew up, we gradually became more middle class, but my parents’ ethos on our education and austere household spending did not change.

I came from a ‘neighbourhood’ primary school, and grew up under my mum’s strict supervision with the richly stereotyped “Singaporean” formulation. Like so many other “tiger mums”, she pushed me hard – a solid daily regimen of homework, extracurriculars, and so on. This helped me succeed academically beyond what my social class background would usually suggest.

What worries me is that my experience is increasingly unique among children growing up in households with working class or ethnic minority origins. Singapore has a growing problem of class and race inequality in its public education. A lot of the latter disparity can be explained by the former, like many other postindustrial societies. We see this in the income disparity across and within schools, and also in the geographical dispersion of “elite” schools.

Types of inequality

These inequalities take three main forms. First, inequality in grades. Children from poorer class backgrounds tend to have lower academic performance – whether in alphabetical grades or the new PSLE “Achievement Levels”. Parents in service classes have more resources to provide direct cognitive benefits like intellectual stimulation from books at home, nutrition, and coaching. Or they can pay others to do it for them, explaining the booming demand for the tuition and childcare industry. More indirectly, service-class parents can afford a home environment conducive to developing their child’s non-cognitive advantages, from motivational support to guidance on how to behave toward teachers and peers in school.

Second, the inequality of progression: keeping grades constant, how much more likely are children from higher income families to progress to the next level than their lower-income counterparts? Directly, parents who are better off are also more networked and successful, and pass these benefits to their children by the ‘old school tie’, connections to internships and graduate positions. They also tend to have higher academic and career ambitions of their children. Seeing education as a collective family mobilisation effort, they increase their children’s admission chances by relocating near competitive schools or volunteering in school.

More indirectly, children from more privileged households do not need to contribute to the family’s income and so have a lower opportunity cost of lost income from higher levels of education. Finally, there is a perceptual element to all this: children raised in service-class households are more confident of their success in future education stages. They also share a prevailing view that higher education yields proportionate benefits, given an implicit belief that tertiary education is increasingly decisive of salariat access.

Finally, inequality of status. As Singaporeans are (almost) universally completing secondary education and thus demanding more tertiary education, its supply has accordingly increased in number of providers and courses. We now have five public universities like SMU and SUTD, and a substantial diversity of private institutions likes UniSIM and Kaplan. On one hand, I think it very positive that more secondary school students are eligible and enrolled into tertiary courses, providing opportunity for upward mobility. My dad’s post-secondary education in 6 years of part-time private university is a case in point.

But the growing abundance of options has an insidious effect of society ranking institutions and courses based on reputation and ‘performance’, not necessarily connected to the actual school culture or courses offered. This reinforces a ‘prestige gap’ between institutions like NUS and some overseas universities like Oxbridge and the Ivy League, and others like locally offered private university courses. Our education systems sorts students into clearly differentiated milieux – academic and more “prestigious” tracks with similarly privileged classmates, versus vocational or more industrially focused ones. Singaporean children born today face destinies more divergent than ever before.

The result of these three inequalities, as I see it, is that the initially small advantages of a child in kindergarten snowballs into large differences by the time he reaches tertiary level. In Singapore’s system, it is hard to catch up once you fall behind. So yes we are meritocratic, but in a narrow sense: a student’s one-off poor performance makes it near impossible to change ‘track’ if he/she performs better in the future. A N-level student has an abysmally low chance of entering university.

I found this true from my (limited, 18-month) experience as a student coach in a Children’s Society care centre. It provided after-school care for ‘at risk’ children from families facing financial or other difficulty. A close friend found the same when volunteering for the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home. When tutoring, learning, and playing with a whole diversity of children, I understood that most did not have a home environment conducive to further education, almost by default expecting to finish at ITE. This is not bad in itself; rather it is the fact that education attainment is so stratified by household income that is.

What can we do about it?

First, to target grade disparity, we should level the playing field. If the government is as committed to educational equality across classes as it says it is, it should minimise initial disparities before the child steps into his primary school, and not after. This is important given how price-dependent the quality of kindergartens has become. From the start, the Ministry of Education should provide broad standards and monitoring in kindergarten curriculum and delivery, especially in linguistic and numeracy skills.

To its credit, it has very recently focused on two broad types of programs: financial and developmental support to preschool children from poorer neighbourhoods like KIFAS and KidSTART, and direct English language support like Focused Language Assistance in Reading (FLAiR). The latter two programs, barely in their test phase, are too little and too late. As of 2016, just 400 children benefit from FLAiR – hardly substantial enough to make any real difference. The government would have a much easier time reducing class inequalities in education if it preempted and prevented them.

Naturally, parents may not always see the value in sending children to enrichment programs like Children’s Society activities or Mendaki’s math workshops. So centres have a critical role in bringing parents onboard: overcoming cynicism and convincing them of the program’s value. Further, research robustly suggests that educators subconsciously discriminate against children of disadvantaged class or race backgrounds in assessment. Thus, routine training in unconscious bias for teachers, especially on race and class, will encourage patience and additional supervision for less capable students.

Next, in targeting inequality of progression, Singapore has begun diversifying its academic offering. For instance, pupils now get much greater diversity of academic and non-academic options at each level of education, as well as broader criteria for admissions. We have selectively adapted practices from Nordic countries, a byword for education that is of both high quality and high equality. But this is not enough – for instance, the popular early admissions programmes (DSA in junior colleges or EAE in polytechnics) encourage students with non-academic talents to enter, but these talents are often nurtured by parents who can actually afford to develop these talents in their children.

We can do more. Structurally, the ministry should postpone or provide more “decision points” in the tracking process. Education streams, from Normal-Technical to the GEP, should not be hermetically sealed from one another. Students should be given multiple chances to explore their different and evolving intelligences and aspirations – vocational or academic. Psychologically, we should ensure that JCs and polytechnics extend their access and outreach programs to all secondary schools. Secondary (and even primary) teachers play an important role in developing their students’ aspirations, by organising trips to target schools or having freedom to arrange attendance to a tutorial in a course of interest.

These changes are important to equality because they transform a student’s ‘opportunity set’ – particularly what lower-income students believe is possible to attain. If less-privileged but deserving students are not aware of opportunities available to them, then we must make opportunity go to them. This is what I mean by meritocracy in a broad, generous sense. It has to extend over time. When a primary school child does not have the same language skills because he did not attend kindergarten, or when a secondary school doesn’t perform well in one exam, he should have the opportunity to more rise up if he performs better later on.

Finally, existing changes in educational policy, not least the reforms I propose here, require capacity reforms to the Education Service.

Plainly, we need to first resolve teacher deficits, particularly striking in certain subjects like the humanities and in some neighbourhood schools. These are either due to teaching losing its sheen as a key profession, or the anecdotal ‘brain drain’ of MOE teachers to private tuition centres. Now the MOE may not fully control teacher attrition to the tuition industry, but it can certainly sweeten its deal to attract more to the Education Service. On compensation, it has recently raised the starting pay of teachers by up to 10%, but it could consider linking some proportion of pay to 360° reviews and grades to incentivise teachers who outperform in dedication or use ‘best practices’ in teaching.

Besides compensation, the Ministry should also consider ‘experience recruitment’, by training and supporting fresh graduates to become new teachers for a “trial” period of time. This is similar to UK’s Teach First program, which has successfully channelled many teachers to work in primary and secondary schools in low-income communities. Many of the largest UK firms, like PwC, have schemes which allow their recruited graduates to teach for a year or two, safe in the knowledge that they still have the option of joining the firm if they wish to stop teaching. It is fiddly to negotiate with private firms, but the UK experience shows it can be done.

Moving forward, teachers deserve a career development scheme that allows flexibility of transfer across leadership, specialist, and teaching roles. Educators are not mere transmitters of content; they understand how the cogs come holistically together. They have taught in neighbourhood and elite schools alike and are able to interact with all way of students.

Capping all of this is the regular collection of data on inequality – not just on basis of racial disparity in attainment (which does not usually yield a direct policy solution), but also of income. The recent NUS-Melbourne panel study is a start. The Ministry of Education should have a dedicated, consultative board on inequality that actively protects the interests of children from less affluent backgrounds.

What next?

I had origins humbler than my peers. I remember when I told my mother that I hoped to go to a good secondary school and to university. Her face changed, and she was hopeful but hesitant in supporting that dream. I now realise she wanted to manage my expectations, especially if I didn’t get to go. I write about our education system not as an educator, but as that child.

Of course policy changes have its limits. The government can only do so much. Inequality in education is a complex beast and often interact with other inequalities, like income and race. No singular policy or solution exists. But by making the system more equal, the government changes the structure of incentives that parents, teachers, and students face. In the short run, this alters how all actors behave. And in the long run, children raised in the rental flats of Jalan Kukoh have the same educational aspirations as those from Sixth Avenue.

Singapore has many inequalities, no doubt, but the very first that its citizens encounter are those in education. A nation’s education speaks directly to its character – what defines us as a nation, and what kind of society do we want to be? If our education system cannot give an equal opportunity to each child, then what else will?


Special thanks to: Nicholas, Joel, Nabillah

Selected sources: MOE, NUS, Breen, Erikson, Jonnson, Lucas, Hout, Raftery, Shavit, Gamoran

Photo credit: ST file photo

This article was first published over at Yong Sheng's blog on 18 July 2016. It is reproduced with permission.


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