Why we should make every school bad

Forgive me for being blunt, but I am going to come right out and say it: I think making every school a good school is an impossible task.

I say this not because I do not support efforts to try and make every school a good school. It's actually a very noble cause.

All I am saying is that we should not be surprised if we discover at the end of it that all schools did not in fact become good schools.

Maybe most of them would have become good schools, but there will likely be one or two stubborn ones that resist all attempts to improve them. We must not underestimate the power of competitive parents.

This is a very powerful force that no act of Government can overcome.

I mean let's face it, from the moment a child is born, parents enter into some sort of race to ensure their child has some advantage over some other child. Talk to competitive parents and you will hear them boast about seemingly meaningless ways their child is more advanced than some other poor unsuspecting child they met on the street.

I have encountered a parent who spoke with some pride at how early her child had taken to eating solid food compared to other children.

Just imagine what kind of effort this parent is going to put into giving the child an edge in school if she is already competitive about infant chewing capacity. Unleash such parents on a public school system and they will quite naturally create divisions and wreck any equilibrium.

This competitiveness is all relative. It is likely that the absolute quality of the school their child is in may be of secondary importance. What is crucial is other kids are in lousier schools.

And so if you accept my premise that it is virtually impossible to make all schools good schools, we must ask ourselves the question of whether we need all schools to be good schools.

Would it be enough for us to have a country where schools are good on average, but there is some deviation on the ground level?

Can we live with ourselves confronted every day with the fact that not every child is getting an equal opportunity because while most schools are good schools, some are better schools and others are rather so-so?

Clearly, the answer is no.

The inequality is too great. With great inequality comes great stress not to be stuck in a lousy school.

This scenario is unacceptable as we pursue a more inclusive equal society where children can cavort around the playground without having to recite maths equations on the swing.

Thankfully, I have a plan to resolve this school gap and make Singapore schools a more equal, inclusive, stress-free place.

I call my plan: "Every school is a bad school" or Esiabs.

While it is very, very difficult to make every school good, it is much easier to make all of them equally bad.

Under the Esiabs plan, Primary 1 admission would no longer be the pressure cooker it is today. The pursuit of excellence and elitism would be removed from the system and replaced with mechanisms designed to ensure everything is as equal as possible.

How will we do this?

The first step is to reinstitute the school ranking system.

I know this sounds counter-intuitive given my commitment to equality, but if we are to ensure all schools are approximately as bad as the next one, we need to measure them. Otherwise, some schools might inconspicuously become good schools without our knowledge. We can't have that.

No, we need to rank them and we will do so in a holistic way (even sabotage needs to be holistic), taking into account factors such as PSLE results, extra-curricular facilities and the amount of money in the school's bank account.

Once we have this ranking, we can then use it to institute an NBA-draft like system. In the NBA, the lousiest team in any given year is given the advantage of having first pick of the incoming rookies.

In very much the same way, the schools at the very bottom of our list will be given the chance to choose from the best pre-schoolers as long as the school meets some pre-determined minimum standard. They will also get proportionately the most government grants and be allocated the best teachers.

This will likely make a huge difference to them as under Esiabs, no private funding of schools is allowed. Alumni can help serve in the canteen, but they can't donate money. All the funding will have to come from the Government and the amount will be determined by how well the school did the year before.

The key plank of this plan is that all schools will be incentivised to be as lousy as possible so as to avail themselves to the best funding, best teachers and best students.

Will there be extreme pressure to try to have the best ECA programme or get the best PSLE results? No, because that would just sabotage your funding the next year. In fact, I'd be surprised if some schools did not actively torch some ECA programmes to get to a lower rung on the ranking list.

And just think about how hard a time competitive parents will have at trying to boast under the Esiabs system.

I can't wait to hear someone say: "My son is so smart. He got into one of Singapore's worst schools for Primary 1."

By making every school a bad school, we will all be happier.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

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