Ensure equal access to key skills across schools

Queenstown Secondary School students learning how to use a water test kit and data logger in a geography class.
Queenstown Secondary School students learning how to use a water test kit and data logger in a geography class. ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

I agree with Mr Darren Chow Weng Kin that competition is inevitable in education ("Competition inevitable but we can reduce the stress for kids"; Monday).

But the solution does not lie in educating parents to focus less on aggregate score systems and school rankings.

Promoting greater equity in our education system is the solution to the negative culture of cut-throat competition. We must change the structural features of our education system that encourage a winner-takes-all mentality.

Within Singapore's education system, inequalities exist between elite and neighbourhood schools.

Students at elite schools enjoy many opportunities, for instance, internships and international competitions, that neighbourhood school students simply do not have, because of the gulf in funding.

As universities and the job market begin to give greater weight to co-curricular achievements, students in neighbourhood schools may be at a disadvantage.

Yet, the crux of this inequality lies in the different pedagogies employed in elite schools and neighbourhood schools.

According to a recent study done here, neighbourhood school students are taught to employ critical thinking only within set exam scenarios, limiting their ability to apply this skill in real life.

Elite schools, however, have a lower tendency to "teach to the test": Students are given greater freedom and opportunity to think and discuss in class.

Elite school students are, therefore, inculcated with greater intellectual autonomy and flexibility when it comes to thinking. And, as universities and employers value these qualities, these students, thus, enjoy a marked advantage over their neighbourhood peers.

The Education Ministry should seek to ensure that pedagogical best practices in elite schools are shared with neighbourhood schools to ensure equal access to key skills.

It should also seek to put neighbourhood schools in touch with useful contacts to create special programmes for their students, and expand financial aid for such activities, to allow for more equitable access to unique learning opportunities and competitions.

Every school is a good school, but some schools are better than others.

Although full equality is impossible, greater confidence in equality of opportunity between neighbourhood and elite schools will go a long way in alleviating stress among students.

Ng Qi Siang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2016, with the headline 'Ensure equal access to key skills across schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe