Education has long been touted as “the great equaliser.” The idea here is that education can ensure that all children of any background have a shot at success. Education puts us all on a level playing field — regardless of race, language, or religion (or family background, or socioeconomic status).
To be fair, this is more true in Singapore than in many parts of the world. It was definitely true in the 1960s, when Singapore was an infant state and our literacy rate was hovering at 60 percent.
Even now, 55 years on, Singapore’s public school system is highly coherent, academically rigorous, and well funded.
Developing A Student’s Full Potential On An Uneven Playing Field
However, the percentage of students under the Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) is consistently higher in low-achieving classes compared to high-achieving ones. In Singapore, as elsewhere, students from low income families are less likely to do well in school.
A 2015 survey showed that only 10 percent of low-income students scored among the top 25 percent in school. Low-income students are also more likely to drop out of school.
The Ministry of Education has always put in effort to give underprivileged students more support. One example of this is how the Singapore education system is constantly tweaked and improved in the search of greater equity.
Most recently, the new Achievement Level (AL) scoring system for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) was implemented.
The AL system supports a concept of multiple pathways to success in two ways.
- By “reducing fine differentiation at a young age,” meaning a difference of a mere few marks is no longer as significant.
- And by “recognising children’s level of achievement regardless of how their peers have done” means that a student’s score is no longer tied to how many people they managed to beat.
Under the AL system, there is a smaller range of PSLE scores available, and more schools will have the same cut-off scores. Since many students will have the same score, places in secondary school will be allocated based less on minuscule differences in academic performance, and more on personal choice.
Theoretically, this means that students from low-income families will have a better chance of getting into better schools.
In practice, low-income students are still at a disadvantage under this new system. True, the difference between a score of 94 and 96 now matters little. But the difference between A1 and A2 is just as important as it was before.
And if you do not have access to certain resources — a conducive home environment, early coaching, personalised help from qualified teachers — you may still find it difficult to climb the academic ladder with as much ease as more privileged peers.
Many low-income students have parents who are struggling to make ends meet, who cannot read to them when they are young or coach them through their homework. These students trail behind their more well-to-do, well-equipped peers from the moment they enter primary school, and the gap often lingers even after they have graduated from secondary school.
How can we close this gap? Is it even possible to achieve educational equity?
Addressing Inequality Is A Collaborative Effort
Equity is about levelling the playing field by ensuring that everyone has access to the resources they need to succeed, and I believe that Singapore society is equipped to offer these resources to the less privileged.
For example, schools could allocate more teachers to low progress classes. With more teachers assigned to each class (or fewer students assigned to each teacher), teachers will have more time and resources to provide specialised help to each child.
Another example is that teachers can identify students from low income families who have the aptitude to excel academically, and provide them additional training and encouragement. In this way, the underprivileged, too, can have access to individualised, expert support.
These are suggestions that can be implemented at a national level. However, as a former MOE educator, I am all too aware of the multiple demands placed on teachers and the dearth of time to tutor individual students.
We shouldn’t just wait for directives from the Ministry of Education to trickle down to the grassroots, or just rely on overworked teachers in public schools to fit even more work into their already bulging schedules.
Singapore society is more than just the government, and the private sector can also play a significant role in helping underprivileged students succeed in our education system.
One way would be for self-help groups with deep pockets to engage qualified tutors to help students from the low income group.
One of the problems with the current system is that free or heavily subsidised tuition is often of poor quality, with the tutors lacking specialised teacher training and sufficient familiarity with the demands of the current syllabus.
Free or heavily subsidised tuition should be of the highest quality, so that students from low income families are truly given the advantages that their wealthier peers have.
Oversimplifying the issue may prove detrimental to a student’s development
It’s true that the new PSLE scoring system will mean that a minute difference in scores is less likely to have a large impact on a student’s educational opportunities. But the difference between the underprivileged and the highly privileged is rarely just a couple of marks.
The privilege gap comes from a lifetime of differences in emotional support, coaching in life skills (including reading, note-taking, and time management), and cultural experiences.
Underprivileged students need better access to the resources that their more privileged peers take for granted — expert personalised academic assistance, conducive study environments, consistent and positive emotional support, and guilt-free opportunities to expand their experiences and build cultural capital.
Only when such resources are readily available to the less privileged can education truly fulfil its role as the great equaliser.
Andrew Kang is a former Ministry of Education (MOE) Vice-Principal and National Institute of Education (NIE) International External Consultant. He is also the CEO of a digital learning platform TCHER SG.
Lead image source from Facebook / Ministry of Education, Singapore.
Blog Content Credits: Andrew Kang, CEO of TCHER SG