Small Change

DSA could take financial toll on families

Lower-income parents may not be able to afford costs of helping their children find and develop their talents

Raising a child does not come cheap in Singapore and the latest changes to the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme may not make it any cheaper.

Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced last Tuesday that all secondary schools will be allowed to admit up to 20 per cent of their Secondary 1 intake under the DSA scheme from next year.

There are two ways of looking at this: On the one hand, it means the DSA scheme now offers more places and that's good. On the other, it means there will be fewer places left for those looking to enter with their score in the Primary School Leaving Examination.

There is another change: The Ministry of Education will start refining the DSA selection from this year to better achieve the scheme's objective of identifying students with specific talents, rather than those with strong but general academic abilities.

The upshot of the first change is that more parents will feel the need to attempt the DSA route. With the second change, there is not much financial difference - if parents are not paying to help their children better their general academic ability, they are paying to help them find and develop a specific talent.

The Direct School Admission scheme seeks to encourage children to discover and develop a more diverse range of achievements and talents, but the financial cost of finding and developing these talents is largely borne by the parents.
The Direct School Admission scheme seeks to encourage children to discover and develop a more diverse range of achievements and talents, but the financial cost of finding and developing these talents is largely borne by the parents. ST FILE PHOTO

This can be an expensive endeavour for reasons that have more to do with the DSA scheme itself, even with the latest tweaks, than parents who get routinely blamed for trying to "game" the system. After all, our school system is based on competition and when it comes to admission to secondary school, the DSA scheme is another form of competition for selection. All parents want to help their children succeed and the more well-off ones have more resources to enhance their children's chances - by enrolling them in private schools to train for that Maths Olympiad or in one that will help them put together that dance or art portfolio, or ace that DSA interview. We shouldn't scold them for that.

Civil servant Leonard Lim, whose daughter is in Primary 5 at Pei Chun Public School, noted that, while the DSA changes are aimed at levelling the playing field, students from lower-income households might still find it hard to compete.

It really depends on how genuine the school is "with regard to its selection process, to really assess and sieve out those with natural abilities", he was quoted by Today news website as saying.

If only we could do a DNA test for natural ability. And once identified, have the state provide all the training and support needed to nurture it. Then we would have a level playing field. But this is not the case.

Instead, for the DSA selection, schools have to rely on assessment tools like trials, auditions, subject tests, portfolios and achievements. Because you are competing for places, to be fair, talent must be measurable.

Will the DSA scheme spot my child's innate talent in say, tennis, if he's getting beaten to a place on the school team by children who may not be as naturally gifted but have had years of private coaching? How would the school know she's really good at dance if she hasn't trained, done well in competitions or taken the exams?

And really how much is owed to natural ability, and how much to starting young and working at it like crazy? Tiger Woods' father put a putter into his hands before he could walk, and he played every day and entered his first competition when he could barely talk.

It also falls to families to bear much of the financial cost of their children trying to find and develop their talents to the point where it can be seen and measured for DSA selection purposes - and these costs keep going up as the bar keeps being raised.

In my time, all you needed for track and field was a pair of running shoes. Now you have to pay for an outside coach, co-curricular activity T-shirts, competition outfits, proper track shoes, and even going overseas for training or competitions.

As the story of Joseph Schooling shows, the sponsorships come only after the child has reached the national or even international standard following years of financial sacrifice by the family. Joseph's mum practically exhausted her savings and the couple had to sell an overseas property to finance their son's dreams.

But what if they were a lower-income family and didn't have those savings or that property to draw on? Or if they had more than one child needing help in making their dreams come true?

Now, getting your child "ready" to compete for a place via the DSA scheme is not the same as raising an elite Olympic-calibre athlete but it can be financially draining.

When my son started playing chess, I was relieved. How expensive could that be? He showed a lot of natural talent, but was being beaten by children much younger than him but with years of training and competition experience under their belts. So he went for group lessons at $330 a term - private lessons would cost around $150 a session - and entered many competitions with entry fees that could range from $30 to $100 each time. Two plus years later, and several thousands of dollars have been spent.

Of course, there are more affordable DSA choices. These usually involve going for a uniformed group or team sport/ domain like football, choir and the band, as opposed to swimming or badminton or art. Lower-income parents may be forced to steer their children to those they can afford.

The DSA scheme aims at encouraging children to discover and develop a more diverse range of achievements and talents. Taken as a whole, it's doing a great job doing that. Never have so many children in Singapore been so busy doing so many interesting activities and achieving great things.

But it would be good to consider more deeply the financial costs and the danger of developing a two-class system: talents that some groups in society can afford and others can't.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline ' DSA could take financial toll on families'. Print Edition | Subscribe