Raffles Institution (RI) principal Chan Poh Meng hit the headlines recently when he warned students to guard against elitism and seeing themselves as a class apart.
Hinting at a widening gulf in the education system between the haves and have-nots ("Raffles Institution now a 'middle-class' school, says principal", Aug 4), he even suggested that the Primary School Leaving Examination is no longer the level playing field it once was in this world of tuition and enrichment classes.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had in the past also warned against a system where top schools shut out those at a disadvantage.
Mr Chan's comments were notable as they were a welcome instance of an educator who was not afraid to address uncomfortable realities.
His comments come as data increasingly shows that a disproportionate number of students in prestigious schools that cater to academic high-achievers come from affluent backgrounds and tend to have parents who are well-educated.
With a larger concentration of academically bright and well-to-do students in a handful of schools, the worry is that class disparities are created, reinforced, and carried with them even till adulthood.
As one successful generation pass on their resources to the next, helping them to greater success, the gap between income groups widens. A term for this is "parentocracy", in which parents' wealth and social capital have greater bearing on success than the child's own abilities.
Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan, himself from RI, said: "The question is whether every child, regardless of his or her socio-economic background, is able to access the opportunities available. Does our system incentivise opportunity-hoarding at the top?"
GIVING STUDENTS A LEG-UP
True, as Nanyang Technological University economist Euston Quah noted,having more wealth does not necessarily imply better grades and opportunities. But he pointed out that children from such families have more access to resources.
That is a significant factor, given the billion-dollar tuition industry, with parents willing to fork out thousands of dollars for private coaching to give their children an edge.
And, realistically, "it's logical and they're doing the right thing from their perspective", said National Institute of Education's Professor Jason Tan.
But a system in which tuition is seen as a necessity - seven in 10 parents enrolled their children in extra classes, according to a recent poll by The Straits Times and research company Nexus Link - may itself need some reviewing.
Still, in the meantime, much is being done financially to give lower-income students a leg-up. The four self-help groups, including the Singapore Indian Development Association and the Chinese Development Assistance Council, have played a part in providing affordable tuition, for example.
Some prestigious schools themselves - RI and Hwa Chong Institution - are taking steps to ensure student diversity. They work with primary schools to encourage talented pupils to enrol with them, regardless of financial background. In recent years, RI has offered 25 to 30 scholarships annually to promising pupils from lower-income families - although only three to five eventually join the school.
The Government is investing more in early education so that children from disadvantaged families do not fall too far behind before starting formal schooling. And it has pumped in resources for pupils who need after-school care through student care centres providing homework supervision and guidance.
Last year, the Government also enhanced the Independent School Bursary Scheme. A student whose household's gross monthly income is below $4,000 or monthly per capita income is below $1,000 now receives a 90 per cent school fee subsidy - up from 75 per cent previously. Independent schools charge around $300 a month, compared with $22 at mainstream secondary schools.
Ministry of Education figures show that 2,700 students benefited from these bursaries in 2013. At RI, about 15 per cent of Singaporean students are under the scheme.
In the US, reputable universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University practise "needs-blind" admission - where they do not consider an applicant's financial situation when deciding whether to accept them.
Prof Jason Tan said Singapore already has some forms of needs-blind admissions. For instance, the Edusave Entrance Scholarship for Independent Schools is given to the top one-third of local Secondary 1 students in such schools. It is awarded based on PSLE results, regardless of financial background.
"But some people might ask why we're subsidising the fees of those who can afford it. So instead of a blanket tuition grant, maybe a scholarship system that is based on a 'sliding scale' would work better," he said. "This would also allow for some flexibility in support based on how much a student needs, instead of a crude income cap."
HELP BEYOND MONEY
But there are calls for more to be done to help those from less-privileged families level up, and from a younger age.
Said National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser: "Scholarships are useful, but more importantly, children from poor class backgrounds must have the opportunity to shine and thereby qualify for scholarships, meeting the requirements of a meritocracy.
"Children not only need money to afford fees, books, nutrition, enrichment programmes, but also a conducive, supportive home environment. They also need good role models and mentors and support networks."
There are intangible barriers to overcome, too. Prof Eugene Tan pointed out: "If students from less well-off households feel they cannot fit in, no amount of scholarship will be sufficient."
Students from disadvantaged backgrounds might do well in studies, but might lack "soft skills" such as social graces, leadership and even simple confidence. These gaps can lead to a culture shock when top performers from neighbourhood schools qualify for a premier institution. Some end up not even applying because they feel that they would be out of their league. Mr S. Magendiran, RI's senior deputy principal (student development and alumni relations), has previously said that students who qualify for RI but do not enrol cite reasons such as distance, worries about costs and not being able to fit in.
To be fair, neighbourhood primary schools are trying to equip their pupils with soft skills through courses in leadership, public speaking and social etiquette.
Some US institutions and scholarship foundations support lower-income university students by helping them craft resumes or in applying for graduate school. Some even allow students to borrow clothes so that they look professional in interviews.
Prof Jason Tan said low-income students would benefit from more socio-emotional help. "Each school has to decide to what extent it wants to initiate these helping-hand measures."
But he pointed out: "This must be done sensitively so that we don't end up taking them out for special attention and labelling students."
NUS sociologist Paulin Straughan agreed: "Targeting help at poorer students may have a backlash effect as it could lead to more social stigmatisation."
MIXING IS A TWO-WAY STREET
Educators and sociologists believe top schools should also encourage their own students to step out of their comfort zones.
While students are already required to clock hours of community work and come up with projects for the vulnerable in society, what could have a stronger impact in the long run is helping them form friendships with peers from other backgrounds.
The need for this can be seen in the experience of an RI boy who was in his school's water polo team for six years and did not get to meet students from elsewhere. "Most of the students from other schools we interacted with were those from water polo, and that's limited to just a few schools with swimming pools," he said. He made his first polytechnic friend this year - in national service.
Associate Professor Straughan suggested creating spaces for students and teachers from elite and neighbourhood schools to mix. "It cannot be forced, it has to be an organic social network where friendships are formed. Hopefully, these connections continue after school," she said.
What is also important is that the clash between meritocracy and elitism continues to be discussed.
Mr Chan was brave to admit that his school, even with its achievements, is not perfect. His words were directed at his students and teachers, but they apply just as much to other schools where such fissures may exist.
It is about time that principals and educators enter and help shape this conversation.
This article was first published on Aug 13, 2015.
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