Quota system will level playing field in schools

A study by the Institute of Policy Studies conducted late last year showed that the sharpest divisions in Singapore may now be based on socioeconomic class rather than race.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently highlighted the Education Minister's observation that top schools such as Raffles Institution (RI) are "less diverse" (Singapore at a turning point; May 17). He gave the assurance that the Government is non-ideological and pragmatic, and willing to try anything that works to improve social mobility.

This issue is best addressed upstream. I am heartened by efforts to make pre-school education more accessible.

It is evident that, increasingly, a significant portion of students who do well in PSLE come from higher-income families. Consequently, they form the bulk of students who enter the top schools. This is unhealthy as most of our future leaders are likely to come from here.

What is needed are interventions that shift the inflection in the near term, without causing undue disruption. They would need to be radical. Tweaks will not work.

As much as we are averse to quotas, we may not have a choice, at least in the interim. It should be a requirement for all secondary schools to enrol a minimum of 10 per cent of students from families with a household income of less than $2,500 - the income ceiling to qualify for social welfare - and 15 per cent from families with a household income of between $2,500 and $12,000 - the qualifying income ceiling for HDB flats.

To achieve this, top schools may have to lower their qualifying criteria. They would just need to work harder in preparing their students to do well - something that neighbourhood schools have been doing for decades. It will also increase the impetus for leaders of top schools to reach out more to less glamorous primary schools.

This is a government that has had the gumption to shift the natural order of things to do the right thing. The ethnic integration policy of 1989 to prevent racial enclaves in HDB estates and the group representation constituency scheme introduced in 1988 are just two examples.

The current situation will breed elitism in schools, stifle capacity for empathy in our young, threaten social cohesiveness and erode public trust. It is a time bomb.

I know that I am joined by a large number of former students of RI and other top schools who took pride in excelling in a more level playing field.

Viswa Sadasivan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2018, with the headline 'Quota system will level playing field in schools'. Subscribe