Educational inequality still an obstacle to talented students

I am heartened by the news of Pioneer Junior College's Ms Natasha Ann Lum's receipt of the President's Scholarship ("Discarding the 'top school' mentality"; Monday).

However, such stories are the exception rather than the norm. Educational inequality is still an obstacle to talented students in neighbourhood schools obtaining success.

Government scholarships are granted to students based not only on their ability to do well in examinations, but also their ability to think critically.

This ability to think critically is not something common to students in all schools.

A recent study by the National Institute of Education's Leonel Lim and the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Michael W. Apple revealed pedagogical inequalities in Singapore schools.

It argued that students in neighbourhood schools are taught to think critically only in a set scenario, such as an examination. In contrast, elite school students get more opportunities to question their teachers and think independently.

This means that while most neighbourhood school students are trained to use critical thinking in set scenarios, elite school students are trained to think critically as a habit.

Pedagogical inequalities can also be a significant barrier against social mobility, as critical thinking is a prized life skill in the job market.

Neighbourhood schools aim to provide a holistic education for their students, but the students in elite schools enjoy more opportunities.

Elite schools can tap generous endowments to give their students access to prestigious international competitions and conferences. Ministry of Education special programmes are also largely concentrated in the top institutions.

These opportunities give students not only unique learning experiences but also a leg-up in university admission - American universities often consider such achievements in potential students.

Talented students who do not enter such institutions may, thus, find themselves at a disadvantage.

Ms Lum's achievement challenges the perception that talent is necessarily concentrated in elite schools, or is defined by a one-time examination performance.

Giving students equal opportunity to fulfil their potential regardless of the school they attend is the only way for us to maximise our primary natural resource - our human capital.

Ng Qi Siang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Educational inequality still an obstacle to talented students'. Print Edition | Subscribe