Curbing the rush for good schools

The annual Primary 1 registration exercise can become a season of angst when the distribution of educational resources is complicated by a mismatch of supply and demand and by questions of equity. In an ideal world, practical and social considerations alone should matter - like home-school distance and open access to all schools. In a competitive world, however, access to certain schools is seen as conferring an advantage, and an accretion of admission privileges over the years can prove difficult to dismantle.

What is significant about this year's exercise is the Government's stout effort to keep popular schools from becoming "closed circles" for select groups. Hence, the setting aside of 40 places for those with no prior connection to the school.

Predictably, this has resulted in balloting at an earlier phase of registration because of oversubscription among a pool seeking higher priority under rules relating to siblings and alumni.

For schools like CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School and Henry Park Primary, balloting for Phase 2A2 - for children whose parents or siblings are former pupils - had not been seen since 1995. However, looking back wistfully is not helpful, as one cannot expect schools to be hidebound by tradition when larger changes are taking place in society. Growing income inequality and pluralism in society make it important to ensure that "branded" schools have a sufficient number of pupils from poorer homes. To demonstrate the social will to make schools truly inclusive, there must be broad acceptance of necessary changes to admission policies.

Naturally, parental angst would be much reduced if there's wider conviction that every school is a good school. Decisions would then be based less on brand appeal and more on the all-round offerings of schools. Education, especially at a primary level, should not be about chasing after "top" schools as perceived by parents, but about finding a school that is tops from the perspective of the child's overall development. If shopping for the best is truly focused on the interests of the child, parents would be looking at different criteria, like individual needs and interests, scope to grow at an appropriate pace and the chance to be exposed to different educational, social, cultural and sports experiences.

Anecdotal evidence suggests more parents are recognising that neighbourhood schools have developed their own brand and can offer a good fit for their children.

Educators, community leaders and others with links to top schools can contribute to the larger effort of establishing every school as a good school by encouraging parents to rise above any hand-wringing over admission privileges. In the quest for an equitable society, competition in some of its worst forms should be curbed, especially at the start of a child's learning journey.

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