How not to dismantle a meritocratic system

Learn from Britain, and avoid the mistakes it made when it overhauled a merit-based system and ended up with a system criticised for dumbing down examinations.

The recent debate on elitism and meritocracy in our education system struck a chord. As children of the 1970s, my friends and I grew up in a generation when social mobility was highest. We went through an education system which allowed the children of lower-income parents to climb the socio-economic ladder if they did well in school, and make a better life for themselves than their parents and grandparents.

The thought that this meritocratic pillar of Singapore society is under threat, and that there are people calling for it to be dismantled, frightens me to the core. The speech by Mr Chan Poh Meng, the principal of Raffles Institution (RI), a school that traditionally takes in the highest academic performers, warning that RI is becoming more elitist, has focused attention on when meritocracy ends up breeding elitism.

Here, the experience of Britain can be instructive. Singapore's education system, with its O and A levels, is after all based on the British system.

In 1958, British sociologist Michael Young published a satire on society that described a future where a new elite, the "meritocracy", rose to rule over an underclass. This new ruling class, unlike the old aristocrats of Britain, legitimised their power not through bloodlines but on merit and on achievement, and, in particular, academic achievement.

Instead of deluding ourselves by dumbing down examinations, excellence must still be pursued while, at the same time, making room for different definitions of success.

At the heart of the satire was the criticism of the then British tripartite education system, which is what the current Singapore education system is based on. The idea was that students, regardless of background, should have access to an education. They would be empowered by placing them in schools with different curricula that suited their needs.

This was done by streaming (a term no doubt familiar to Singaporeans) students into three tiers of state-run schools, through a national exam for all 11-year-olds called the Eleven-Plus examination. At the top were grammar schools for the top Eleven-Plus scorers; followed by secondary technical schools, which trained children in mechanical subjects; and secondary moderns, which trained children for less-skilled jobs and "home management". Two separate secondary school examinations were offered to students of different abilities - the General Certificate of Education (GCE) O levels for the more academically inclined, and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) exams for the less.

Mr Young, in his book, argued that if this were allowed to continue, and with most grammar school students coming from more well-to-do, middle-class families, not only would inequality be renewed (which the tripartite system tried to solve by breaking the class-by-birth social system), it would increase and lead to revolution.

Singapore in 2015 seems to find itself in a similar juncture as Britain in 1958, as far as discussion on education goes. It was noticed in 1958 in Britain that the students at grammar schools were increasingly middle class; it was feared that society would be divided into well-educated, well-off elites lording over a working class trapped generation after generation in the secondary modern schools. The British press called them the "eggheads and the serfs"; Singapore, on the other hand, has its "scholars and farmers".

LESSONS FROM WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

If Singapore is truly at this "what next" juncture, what the British government did in the following decades would be instructive not for what it did right, but what it did wrong - it threw the baby out with the bathwater.

In 1958, the Labour government dismantled the tripartite system, and announced that there would be "grammar school education for all".

Streaming and the Eleven-Plus examination were abandoned. Over time, as streaming had been abolished, the GCE O levels were found to be too hard for a large proportion of students, and the CSEs too easy, and so the O levels were scrapped and merged with the CSEs to form a new qualification called the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which was pitched in between the two.

Much later on in 1992, and in another analogous situation to present-day Singapore, the desire of the populace for more easily attained degrees, for those who did not meet the requisite academic standards, was met by converting polytechnics into "new universities".

The results were disastrous for British education and society.

First, without streaming and the Eleven-Plus, schools were unable to group students of similar learning ability together to teach efficiently. Teachers often had to teach to the lowest common denominator, leaving academically stronger students bored. Financially, it required more resources as more teachers were required to teach students who were unable to learn with their academic peers in the classrooms.

Second, the well-to-do parents, as people with financial resources always do, were forced to find a way to circumvent the system.

"Grammar schools for all" proved to be hollow political rhetoric when instead of levelling up, all schools levelled down. Well-to-do parents started sending their children to private schools which, before the abolition of streaming, found it hard to compete with free, high-quality education. This ironically solidified the class-stratification in Britain, with the wealthy taking their children out of the state school system completely, leaving a whole segment of society growing up completely insulated from the rest.

Third, until today, the GCSEs are controversial ,with many lobbying for the reinstatement of the O levels, which Singapore retains.

Critics have blamed these diluted qualifications for a decline in overall academic standards in Britain, with employers criticising this dumbed-down examination for failing to teach basic skills.

Fourth, the proliferation of universities increased the number of graduates by decreasing the worth of a degree. Students who should not be at university found themselves with degrees, but no jobs.

S'PORE CONTEXT - WHAT NEXT?

At this juncture, we should pause and take note of the similarities with Singapore's current dilemma.

There have been calls for the abolition of the PSLE, our version of the Eleven-Plus. There have been calls for the abolition of streaming in schools. We are tearing our hair out over the possibility that our best schools have become "middle class" schools. Parents continue the paper chase for degrees, and resist the Government's cry to look beyond them.

The truth is that social stratification and elitism are complex socio-economic issues that cannot and must not be blamed on the education system alone. Unlike the British, we must not overreact and dismantle an entire education system that has served us well for 50 years, when the problems have to be solved by a variety of policies that empower the lower-income on the job, housing, health and cost-of-living fronts.

The Ministry of Education itself has also been tweaking the system effectively without destroying its foundations.

School fees continue to be highly subsidised, no matter what school our students go to. Lower-income children will never be denied a place in schools such as RI or Hwa Chong Institution because they cannot afford it. PSLE results will be announced in bands rather than an aggregate score, to discourage chasing of the "final mark".

Instead of deluding ourselves by dumbing down examinations, excellence must still be pursued while, at the same time, making room for different definitions of success - schools for sports and the arts have been established in recognition of this.

And the Government has been setting an example to show that skills rather than degrees should be awarded - those in the civil service and, now, teachers will be given equal pay for equal work, whether one is a graduate or not.

These are steps in the right direction. But the truth is that social mobility cannot be preserved at the same rates as before, as Singapore develops.

Parents from previous generations who have done well will have more financial, social and cultural resources to help their children do well. What Singapore must continue to do is make sure access to schools remains open, and that students have the opportunities to learn and interact across the socio-economic strata in school.

The Government will have its work cut out, not least because the problems the country faces, which are developed-country problems, have no easy answers.

But one thing is for sure: meritocracy, despite its roots in British satire, must continue being one of our core organising principles in Singapore. We must not, like our former colonial masters, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • The writer is a media entrepreneur and a former Nominated Member of Parliament.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2015, with the headline 'How not to dismantle a meritocratic system'. Print Edition | Subscribe