The profile of students who get into secondary schools through Direct School Admission (DSA) remains "fairly diverse", the Ministry of Education (MOE) has said in response to growing concern that children with richer parents can be groomed to enter top schools via the scheme.
About 60 per cent of students who secured places in secondary schools through DSA over the last five years live in Housing Board flats, said an MOE spokesman. In comparison, as of last year, 81 per cent of Singaporeans reside in HDB flats.
Of the 126 secondary schools that accepted a total of 2,700 students last year, 18 are Integrated Programme (IP) schools, which admit more DSA students.
Last month, Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said it is an "open secret" that the DSA benefits children who have more resources from a young age.
MOE declined to provide details on the proportion of DSA students in IP schools who reside in flats. It does not track the household income of DSA students.
DSA, which started in 2004, lets schools take in pupils before they take the Primary School Leaving Examination based not just on academic ability, but also sports and the arts.
Many pupils hope to join IP schools, which let them progress to junior college without taking the O levels.
IP schools contacted such as Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) declined to share the socio-economic make-up of their DSA students.
A spokesman for Raffles Girls' School said it does not track the socio-economic status of students and that all "are given the same opportunities".
Ms Phua said the DSA tries to "expand the criteria by which students are admitted beyond the high-stakes exam cut-off points".
But popular schools now not only have access to students who are academically strong but can also attract those who are top in the arts and sports, further entrenching their positions of superiority, she told The Straits Times.
"There are ways by which some skills in the arts and sports can be nurtured from a young age, if resources were available. Some are known to pay coaches who claim to be DSA-savvy," she added.
But Jacqueline Chua, a former Raffles Institution teacher who was on its DSA selection panel for nearly 10 years until 2014, said its DSA students were from a mix of backgrounds.
"Some were on financial assistance. They were talent-spotted at competitions and recommended by primary school teachers," said Mrs Chua, who runs Paideia Learning Academy, an enrichment centre.
A Primary 5 pupil from a top girls' school said many of her schoolmates are building portfolios, with some paying hourly fees of up to $300 for classes. "Some have sports training outside, on top of co-curricular activities, and others get Grade 8 music certificates," she said.
Kelly Kishor, a private coach who started training a handful of Primary 6 children for DSA entry tests in 2008, said she sees 15 to 30 pupils each year now.
But these sessions are not enough, she said, noting that schools also look out for factors like character and leadership.
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