Nationally Speaking: Education’s Last Burden

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By Alexander Yean (16A01B)


A recent op-ed on this journal praises the “security and stability” of our education system as a shining example of institutions that reflect “very pragmatic beliefs”. To quote a well-loved essay question, it is the “great leveller” that “mitigates the distortive effect inherited wealth and privilege has on meritocracy”.

That wealth and privilege are being checked by a single institution that is not communism is an amazing feat – one that is too good to be true. In an effort to alleviate inequality in society, our education system has in turn created inequality in and of itself, dividing students based on merit and ability just as society divides the rich and the poor.

By marrying meritocracy, our education system has also let in her bastard son, inequality, whose creeping presence is oft-felt but rarely mentioned. To examine the nature of our education system’s inequality, it is necessary to start by looking briefly at her history.

The Benefit of Hindsight

In the first two decades since independence, education was “survival-driven”: to “jealously guard (our) position as an entrepot”, and schooling aimed to fill the “dearth of skilled labour” through the provision of largely technical skills.

By the mid-80s, this philosophy became increasingly less relevant as Singapore prospered, and unhealthy side-effects surfaced: a debilitative “spoon-feeding culture” was becoming apparent both within and beyond the education system due to undynamic, bureaucratically-assigned curriculums and teaching styles.

To reinvent the education system, a New Education System (NES) was introduced in 1979, the broad strokes of which persist to this day: an “efficiency-driven” system that “allow pupils to progress at a pace more suited to their abilities” through streaming. (See diagram.)

A New Education
A New Education “System”
Source: Goh and Gopinathan, 2006

In the present day, the flowchart has simplified somewhat, but its spirit and guiding principles have remained.

There's more where that came from. Source: Ministry of Education
There’s more where that came from.
Source: Ministry of Education

Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat lamented in 2013 that “many parents and students feel that our education system is too focused on examinations and grades.” With the aid of a diagram, it is perhaps not difficult to see why.

Systematised Inequality

Come October, any 12 year-old has but a few hours in a freezing-cold hall to more or less chart the course for the rest of his life. In the name of meritocracy, he will be filtered along with some 50,000 of his peers, where they will be differentiated by their ability, intelligence, performance. They will then enter different streams, some mounting their high horses while others are forced to suffer the “stigma associated with… normal streams” in the words of Minister Heng. At 12 years of age, every Singaporean child is made acutely aware of precisely how his prospects differ from those of his peers.

This process of systematised differentiation is repeated at every stage of education, to the point where every Singaporean youth has a “narrow, competitive mindset” forced upon him. And when there is differentiation, there will be inequality: systematised inequality.

Take the Integrated Programme (IP), for instance. The MOE “Secondary School Education Booklet” has this to say:

“Given the strong academic aptitude of its students, the IP aims to stretch their potential in non-academic aspects by engaging them in broader learning experiences beyond the academic curriculum.”

Students in the IP programme are nigh guaranteed a place in junior college, something they sometimes take for granted, but a privilege that their peers must strive hard for. The rationale behind this is to “optimise the time freed up from preparing for the GCE ‘O’ Levels to stretch pupils and provide greater breadth in the academic and non-academic curriculum” – in other words, IP pupils learn more, and have greater access to education and resources than their non-IP peers. Despite the best of intentions, I’d hardly call that providing “equal opportunity for every student”.

For the best testament to streaming’s discriminating nature, one need look no further than the mechanism for streaming itself: multiple national-level examinations graded on aggregate scores. Students are measured on an invoked bell-curve, rather than absolute results. Our education system is, quite effectively, a zero-sum game where one student’s success necessitates another’s failure.

For some, the bar is not only set too high, but the system ensures that its height constantly readjusts to ensure that they don’t make it past.

On Elitism

Inequality in general is discussed often enough; its many repercussions are significant and far-reaching, and widely understood. But a word must be said on the most scathing consequence of systemic inequality, and certainly the most vociferously criticised: elitism.

Pupils in “elite” schools often receive flak for having a misplaced sense of entitlement, for being arrogant in believing that they are where they are solely on the basis of their merit. Often enough we see unwary forum-goers be on the receiving end of cluster F-bombs for arguing otherwise, or God forbid, assert that they are somehow better just because they secured a place in a different stream or top-tier school.

But here’s the strangest thing: the system says that they are.

As aforementioned, going by institutional and systemic measurements, a student in the IP stream is, in fact, better-off than his peers, having amply more access to opportunities, resources, funding. This is not an assertion, it is a measurable fact. One can only wonder truly how misplaced any sense of entitlement such a student may bear is, given that the education system serves it to him on a silver platter.

The debate has recently resurfaced, with our principal, Mr. Chan himself expressing concerns directed at the narrowing socio-economic demographic of pupils in “elite schools”: wealthier families give their children an “edge through tuition and enrichment”, undermining the levelness of benchmarks like the PSLE.

These concerns, though valid and grounded, miss a larger point. The noble goal of education is to level the playing field in society, but our education system itself has never been a level playing field. This difference is paramount, though often overlooked. Rather, our education system comprises a series of unequal playing fields where one stream flows smoothly into the next. Wealthy families merely recognise and play by the established rules of the system, a system that happens to allow them to succeed and to thrive.

That “elite schools” should become insular and “unrepresentative of Singapore” is a harsh and, for some, unpalatable truth, but it should come as no surprise. It is merely a logical, albeit scathing consequence of the nature of our education system that aims to differentiate.

Elitism remains sensitive, which may become a hurdle to its resolution – personal feelings inevitably influence our opinions. But one should remember that it is easy to fault arrogance premised on privilege, wealth, and intelligence on which a person has no claim. It is easy to strike out against perceived bigotry, against groundless entitlement, against the unfairness in society. It is far harder to try to address the core tension on which elitism is predicated: that inequality is intrinsic within our education system.

Until this root issue is addressed, it is inevitable that systemic inequality continues to osmose into other areas of society.

Meritocracy: An Answer becomes the Problem

While outrage against elitism is near-universal, we remain largely indifferent to streaming – an irony, given that streaming is inequality in its strictest form. This is likely owed to the intuitive logic behind the system: each student earns, and thus deserves, his differentiated place and treatment.

In other words, meritocracy.

Our education system faces the challenge to constantly “cater to the learning needs of different groups”, again quoting Minister Heng. But this reality is difficult to reconcile with lofty notions of “equal opportunity”. It is naiive to assume that all students are created with equal, or even similar, capacities to learn, or have interests in the same areas, or are fortunate enough to be born into nurturing families. Shouldering the futures of millions, our education system answered with the most painless, and most easily accepted philosophy – an answer not easily refuted.

Nor is it easy to gloss over the luscious fruit meritocracy has begotten: our education system consistently tops global rankings, and is the envy of countless disgruntled educators and policymakers worldwide. We’re clearly doing something, or many things, right, and our education machine’s inner structural workings are difficult to discredit, even if inequality is the unwanted waste product.

A meritocratic institution, by definition, rewards ability, gilding those tested to be competent with superior opportunities and standing. But placing merit on a pedestal, as our education system does, necessitates the punishment of averageness, of mediocrity, of the have-nots. This fault is not easily remedied, but nor has meritocracy yet failed us. We must look ahead.

Going Forward

Systemic inequality aside, none can deny that our education system has been wildly successful. It is thus unlikely that major reform tackling such an entrenched systemic fault will be enacted in the forseeable future. Token and half-hearted changes can do little on their own.

We have tried starting from the ground up: “every school is a good school”, a lofty goal. Yet increased funding, better-managed facilities, and anti-elitism rhetoric alone do not systemic equality make. Improving schools and curriculums does not change the nature of the system: one that is premised upon filtering and differentiation. It remains that different students are given different opportunities to access different educations, and it remains that inequality persists.

Perhaps a solution lies simply in a change in attitudes. Historically successful education systems tend to have a commonality: a culture, tradition, or even zeitgeist that accompanies them faithfully. Polytechnics, not universities, are the unashamed norm for Germans and South Koreans whose industrial economies are a source of great pride. Norway, widely regarded as possessing the world’s best education system and ranked among the world’s least unequal societies, holds teachers in very high regard, attracting minds with the talent for innovation and passion in nurturing the young.

Singapore, to truly mature as a first-world society, will need an education system that curbs inequality, not defines it. And the key to relieving our education system of her last burden may well lie in the hands of those who come from the education system herself – hope is not yet lost.

For now, we must acknowledge and accept that our education system, as meritocracy’s faithful bulwark, begets inequality. It is not our place to deny or whitewash this truth. We must wear it as a Scarlet Letter.

Sources Referenced and Consulted:

Heng S. K. (Mar 13, 2013). Exams and Streaming: Recalibrating our Education System. Today Online.

Ministry of Education. (2014). Secondary School Education. Ministry Information Booklet.

Goh C. B. & Gopinathan, S. (Jun 2006). The Development of Education in Singapore since 1965. Asia Education Study Tour for African Policy Makers, June 18 – 30, 2006.

Teng, A. (Aug 4, 2015). Raffles Institution Now a ‘Middle-class’ School, says Principal. The Straits Times.

Ministry of Education. (Feb 8, 2012). Prepared Remarks for Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, on “Education for Competitiveness and Growth”. Singapore Conference in Washington D.C., USA

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