The Straits Times
Published on Nov 22, 2012

Education not the social leveller it once was


I STUDIED in Raffles Girls' School (Secondary) almost 20 years ago ("The school network"; last Saturday). Back then, in my class of 40, around 30 students were from good socio-economic backgrounds, but I was not one of them.

My father was a seaman and, later on, a taxi driver. My mother sold Malay cakes and desserts for a living. We were comfortable financially, but when you had classmates living in the dark-blue districts of the Singapore Monopoly board game, your teenage mind wondered if there was a level playing field.

I had classmates whose parents could afford tuition for all nine or 10 subjects they took. My tuition sessions, if any, were peer study groups, classes offered by self-help groups like Mendaki, and even remedial and detention classes (the last because I did not complete my homework).

Nonetheless, when I did well in the major exams, I felt that education then was an excellent social leveller for those from humble backgrounds like mine.

I am not so sure if that is the case today.

The statistics - only four in 10 students in branded primary schools live in public housing - are not the reason for my discomfort.

What concerns me is whether such a discrepancy increasingly exists in top secondary schools, junior colleges, polytechnics and universities, as well as among scholarship holders, and in the civil service and even politics.

If such a discrepancy existed in my class 20 years ago, the gap might have widened now.

Parents who can afford enrichment classes for their children should not bear the blame for wanting what is best for their children.

But the stark differences in opportunity at even a very young age impacts social mobility later in life.

So, is academic meritocracy - that is, looking mainly at grades to allow access to top schools, scholarships and jobs - outdated?

This is a deeper issue than just broadening society's view of talent.

As long as we mainly value meritocracy in any form, be it grades or ability in sports or the arts or other talent fields, we will end up with a scenario where families with a socio-economic head start constantly outperform those without such advantages.

Ratna Damayanti Mohamed Taha (Ms)