Rethink what makes the 'best' students

As someone born in the pre-independence years, who got into a top junior college and then obtained an overseas university scholarship based purely on my examination results, one might expect that I would argue fervently for the continuity of the meritocratic system.

Meritocracy - the idea that people advance in study, work and life based on ability - is complicated. As society changes, I believe we have to do more to ensure equity and inclusion in education.

Anecdotal evidence clearly shows that our top schools, such as Raffles Girls' School, Raffles Institution, Nanyang Girls' High School and Hwa Chong Institution, lack diversity in their student populations, in terms of race and social class ('Close watch on' lack of diversity in schools, estates; Jan 20).

We underestimate and understate the tangible benefits brought to our schools by greater diversity - such as interactions with those of varying ethnicities and races, socio-economic backgrounds and life experiences.

We need to strike the right balance between diversity and meritocracy. To do that, we need to have a more expansive view of academic excellence.

Every school aims to attract the best students. But many people wrongly believe "best" ought to be defined by standardised tests and grades.

I propose that the admission criteria to top schools be tweaked.

Admission should not be based merely on a single cut-off point, though there should be a reasonable range.

A student's outstanding personal qualities, opportunities, hardships, co-curricular activities and other experiences should also be taken into account.

Does he have grit, persistence and passion? Is he unusually resilient and hardworking?

Is he willing to continue on in the face of difficulties, obstacles and even failures? Does he have a disability or was he sick for a period? Is he going through a rough time?

Such students will be outstanding "educators" and can inspire fellow students and teachers.

Edmund Lam (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2018, with the headline 'Rethink what makes the 'best' students'. Print Edition | Subscribe