JC “merger”: It’s all in the message sent.

By Lee Chin Wee

“If the Ministry is merging JCs because of the falling birth rate, why set up Eunoia Junior College?”

This argument sums up the dissatisfaction of many Singaporeans. Few dispute the need to merge (or, to put it more bluntly, shut down) JCs due to a shrinking population – it stands to reason that there needs to be a critical mass of students in every school, since smaller cohorts mean that schools can offer fewer subject combinations, a more limited range of CCAs, and may even struggle to field competitive sports and aesthetics teams. There are economies of scale when it comes to schools, that much is indisputable.

What people are unhappy about is the age old problem of elitism. And, who can blame them? Ours is an education system built to sieve out talent; to put children through a battery of examinations and diagnostics and interviews to identify the worthy – who are then given scholarships and once again put through the gauntlet so that the survivors can be offered leadership positions in industry or governance.

This is why the politics of education animates the Singaporean populace like no other. Education is the beating heart of a society obsessed with its elites: It separates students into the haves and the have-nots from a young age; it disburses resources and opportunity based on one’s grades; it promises social mobility to a few hardworking students, yet also slams the door shut on the unfortunate majority.

I will come out and admit that, on a pragmatic basis, MOE is probably correct in merging the selected JCs. When the Integrated Programme (IP) started in 2004, the “top” schools increased their intake to ensure that students from other secondary schools could gain entry through the O-Level track. From the pre-IP intake of around 800, the annual intake of RI(JC) and HCI was increased to 1,100 – 1,200. The expansion of the IP to include schools like RVHS and DHS has also meant another 800 – 900 JC places for Singaporean students. Also keep in mind that NUSHS and SOTA (both schools are relatively new) run JC-equivalent programmes, which means an increase of another 500 – 600 places.

EJC was likely the final straw. Assuming EJC has a constant cohort of 900 students every year, the total number of “additional” JC and JC-equivalent places per cohort since the IP is approximately 4,000. That means fewer prospective students for the selected JCs (not all 4,000 students would have otherwise gone to the eight schools, but a reasonable number of them would have), due to the increased competition for students in the JC and JC-equivalent landscape. Coupled with a falling birthrate, it is clear that the selected JCs are struggling to keep their student enrollment at critical mass – MOE defines this as 1,600 (800 per batch) for JCs.

So why set up EJC? Why merge the “worst performing JCs” instead of merging “better performing schools”? Simple – it’s because the schools selected for merger are currently the least popular among student applicants. Not only do they compete with other JCs and JC-equivalent institutions for students, some students also opt for a polytechnic education. In contrast to EJC, which has a majority-intake of students from its IP feeder schools, the selected JCs do not have a guaranteed student population.

Importantly, cut-off points are not pre-determined by MOE or the JCs; cut-off points are entirely dependent on students’ choice patterns across the JCs. In other words, the “low” cut-off points for the selected JCs reflects that the JCs are less popular.

Crucially, students who qualify for JC will be guaranteed a JC education. This is essential. The government is not closing down the “worst performing JCs” in a devious ploy to raise the JC cut-off score. So long as a student has an L1R5 score of 20 or better, he or she will be able to enter a JC. Yes, there will be a reduction in the overall number of JC places after the merger. But at the same time, the cohort size itself is shrinking, so this cancels out the lack of supply. It is unclear why being able to choose between two schools (for example, between IJC and YJC) is preferable to entering one school (YJC), other than some vague rhetoric about choice being inherently good.

But where MOE severely miscalculated was in its complete failure to anticipate the public outcry over this announcement. It speaks either of a staggering lack of empathy on the part of our scholar-elite politicians, or the ignorance of policy-makers who don’t understand how our education system is perceived. Did they really think that Singaporeans had drunk enough “Every School is a Good School” Kool-Aid such that this would be seen as a routine government policy?

What the Ministry didn’t recognise, in my opinion, is that this controversy isn’t about JCs or falling birthrates. It was never about these things. People are angry because this smacks of the same elite pragmatism that pervades our education system. It’s what led policy-makers to stream primary school students into EM1/2/3. It’s what props up a national examination for twelve-year-olds that can literally define one’s future. It’s what creates an inferiority complex when you don’t come from a brand-name school. It’s what makes you feel ashamed when you tell your colleague that you came from “Woodgrove Secondary School” and he asks “what’s that?” It’s about Chinese New Year gatherings where your aunties want to know why you went to poly instead of JC (“because my son ah, he’s in RI you know”).

All I’m saying is, the government needs to be more conscious – both when it is pushing for elitist policies, and when its policies could be perceived as elitist. A surprise announcement, along with a rushed press conference, is no way to assuage public sentiment regarding a politically charged issue. In fact, where is the Minister for Education (Schools) in all of this? The radio silence isn’t helping – it would be good if he could give a conciliatory media interview. Why merge all eight JCs in one go? Could this not have been spaced out over ten years to normalise the action of merging JCs, given that our birthrate has been trending downwards long before this?

There were so many things which could have been done, but weren’t. Therein lies the critical problem with our leadership. They’re good at making difficult and often controversial decisions. But they’re terrible at conveying these decisions to the people.

This post was first published over at Banalysis on 25 April 2017. It is reproduced with permission.


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