Meritocracy Part 2: Examining Inequalities in Education: Challenging Meritocracy in Singapore (GP Topics: Society, Inequality, Education, Singapore)

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This is a follow up piece to Part 1: Is it really the fault of meritocracy?

Meritocracy, the darling principle of Singapore’s educational system, promises to reward individuals based on their abilities and efforts. However, upon closer inspection, we discover a few uninvited guests at this meritocratic party—inequalities. Brace yourselves as we embark on a journey to unravel the hidden truths of Singapore’s education system, where privilege and opportunity dance cheekily with one another.

In recent years, Singapore has witnessed a significant growth in the tuition industry, reflecting a desire among parents to secure their children’s academic success. It has become increasingly common for families to invest substantial amounts of money in private tuition, creating a disparity between those who can afford these additional resources and those who cannot. This trend is further exacerbated by the aspiration to enrol in elite schools, which are perceived as better equipped and offering a more holistic education. Statistics reveal the extent of this phenomenon, with 70% of Singaporean parents enrolling their children in tuition classes. The primary and secondary levels witness high percentages of parents seeking tuition, reflecting the belief that academic achievement can be enhanced through such means. This reliance on tuition perpetuates inequalities, as not all families have the financial means to participate in this practice.

When examining schools themselves, and their admissions, the primary school registration exercise in Singapore is structured in a way that grants priority admission to students with existing ties to the school, such as through volunteering or clan associations. Proximity to the desired school also plays a role, leading wealthier parents to purchase property near these institutions to increase their chances of securing a spot for their children. This has created a system where parents of certain privilege and affluence are willing to go to great lengths to ensure their children’s enrollment in prestigious schools. A notable example is the relocation of ACS primary from Barker to Tengah, where property analysts predict a spike in prices for housing in the vicinity of the new school. This trend highlights how the presence of top schools attracts a crowd, further deepening inequalities in access to quality education.

While Direct School Admission (DSA) is intended to assist students with strong extracurricular abilities in gaining admission to desired schools, it does not necessarily mitigate privilege. At higher levels, the reliability of talent alone is questionable, as many of these DSA students also come from privileged backgrounds, benefiting from the resources, time, and financial investments dedicated to their training. Privileged households can much better prepare their children for DSA applications such as through sports, arts and music classes for their children to hone their skills. Students from humbler backgrounds however, would just have to rely on raw talent. Moreover, “elite” schools tend to have more co-curricular activities (CCAs), attachment opportunities at higher learning institutes, and internships at prestigious companies. The stark contrast between the number of CCAs in neighbourhood schools compared to elite institutions, as well as the disparity in funding, further widens the gap in opportunities available to students. Consequently, the less privileged face significant barriers to progress, particularly through the academic route.

As a result of all these factors, inequality can impact students’ performances in school, engendering a cycle hindering social mobility. A case study examining the academic performance of Primary 4 students revealed a correlation between socioeconomic backgrounds and academic outcomes. A higher percentage of students living in public rental flats failed two or more subjects compared to those from more privileged backgrounds. According to OECD, Socio-economic status explains 13% of the variance in reading performance in Singapore. The average difference between advantaged and disadvantaged students in reading is 104 points, compared to an average of 89 in OECD countries. Outside of the PISA tests, it was found that PSLE results are significantly correlated with socioeconomic status. This discrepancy reflects the imbalances in resources and parental guidance available to children from less financially stable families. Students from humble backgrounds often lack the necessary support and role models to navigate their educational journey successfully. Early identification as weaker students, coupled with limited awareness of pathways to success, hampers their ability to make informed decisions about their future. Thus, inequalities manifest at the root, with cognitive and motivational disparities, impacting long-term educational and career prospects.

Such inequalities are becoming more noticeable, with almost half of low-income students being concentrated in specific schools. A 2018 report by OECD noted that almost half of Singapore’s low-income students are concentrated in the same schools. Parents of lower social-economic backgrounds probably do not have ties to the “elite” schools. The debate over “Legacy” for American colleges is similar, referring to preferential admissions for children of alumni.  This lack of diversity in student populations limits networking opportunities and access to social connections that could benefit students and their families. Just like the debate over legacy admissions in American colleges, the system of school affiliation in Singapore creates advantages for families with existing ties to certain schools, perpetuating privilege across generations.

In addition to academic resources and opportunities, children’s learning and future prospects are often enhanced by their parents’ social networks. Well-connected parents can exchange information, seek advice, and provide support to one another, thus benefiting their children’s educational journeys. However, low-income parents often face limited social networks, exacerbating the inequalities present in the education system. The aforementioned affiliation system further perpetuates disparities in networking opportunities. Affiliated schools foster tight-knit communities and provide networking opportunities among students and parents. This dynamic creates barriers to entry for those outside these networks, limiting the chances for low-income families to access the resources and support that come with such affiliations.

While schools can take steps to reach out to parents and introduce them to social networks, such as through Parent Support Groups (PSGs), even participation in these activities requires time and sacrifice. Many lower-income parents are bound by less flexible work schedules or have significant caregiving responsibilities. They may be engaged in multiple jobs or work long and demanding hours, making it unlikely that they can attend networking sessions or benefit from these connections. Thus, networking disparities, amongst many other points, reinforce existing privilege and hinder social mobility.

For A Level GP Paper 1, in essays about education or societal inequalities, students can argue against the concept of meritocracy in Singapore’s education system and evaluate the resulting inequalities. Reference the prevalence of private tuition and the financial divide that arises from families’ ability to afford these additional resources. The admissions process, particularly through the primary school registration exercise and Direct School Admission (DSA), can be examined to highlight how existing ties and proximity to elite schools perpetuate privilege and limit access to quality education. Students can also explore the impact of these inequalities on academic performance, social mobility, and long-term prospects, drawing on examples of socioeconomic disparities and the concentration of low-income students in certain schools. Additionally, the role of networking and social connections in education can be used to demonstrate how low-income families face limited opportunities in this regard.

As we bid adieu to the hallways of inequality within Singapore’s education system, let us reflect on the mischievous nature of privilege and its impact on academic destinies. We must don our capes of justice and wield our pens of change to tackle the imbalances that restrict the ascension of marginalised groups. By embracing equitable policies, empowering disadvantaged students, and smashing the barriers to access and networking, we can give meritocracy a makeover that even the fiercest critic would applaud. Together, we can create a truly inclusive and fair education system, where opportunities are as abundant as late-night supper options in Singapore.

And check out the sequel: Part 3: Transforming Mindsets for a Meritocratic Singapore

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