To boost social mobility, 'focus on how help is given', says DPM Tharman

JUST giving disadvantaged families more does not boost social mobility, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

"The most important question is not how much we redistribute, but how we do so," he said, citing studies done by Nobel laureate and economist James Heckman.

DPM Tharman also referred to studies which showed that traditional ways of redistributing income - like giving poorer families tax credits - have only a small impact on mobility.

Instead, what happens at home, in school and the community shapes a child's aspirations, confidence and support, he stressed.

Studies have shown that upward mobility is higher for the poor in areas with better schools and preschools, for example.

This is why it is vital to intervene earlier in children's lives and broaden the education system to focus less on grades, Mr Tharman said at the annual S. Rajaratnam Lecture series.

He noted that the Government is investing in better quality pre-schooling at affordable rates, and in early detection of those with learning difficulties.

It is moving away from testing pupils too much in their early primary school years, which favours those who begin with a head start. The PSLE system is also changing to be less finely differentiated.

These are all to "reduce the gaps in the starting points between children from poorer and better-off backgrounds", the minister said.

Research has also shown that it does not make sense for every child to get the same kind of education, he noted, as this can lead to non-egalitarian outcomes. There should be differentiated pathways to help students discover their strengths.

Investments in continuous education also provide "bridges and ladders" for working adults, so that someone's grades in his youth "do not settle things for life".

Everyone should also have access to quality living in neighbourhoods and public spaces, he added, to avoid having social problems being reinforced in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

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