The positive response to the Ministry of Education's plans to replace streaming by courses with full subject-based banding (Full SBB) has been heartening. It is also encouraging that it has led to a wider discourse on how society as a whole plays a big part in breaking down walls and segregation, reducing inequality and improving social mobility.
The fundamental philosophy that underpins our educational system is that we want to develop every child to his or her fullest potential.
This involves recognising that each student has different strengths, talents and abilities. The corollary to this is that different students learn at different paces and intensities, and the system must cater for this.
Our approach is therefore not to cap the top but to lift the bottom. High achievers should be encouraged to excel but we must help those who don't do as well to bridge the gap.
Over the last 50 years, we have steadily built up our system and structures to achieve this goal.
Streaming was the first step. In the 1970s, with a one-size-fits-all system, many did not pass their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and there was a high drop-out rate.
Streaming allowed students to progress according to the pace best suited for them. It succeeded. The drop-out rate reduced dramatically from about one-third of every cohort to less than 1 per cent now, allowing students to remain in school, enter the workforce and be employed.
Thus, contrary to Associate Professor Irene Y.H. Ng and Ms Nursila Senin's suggestion that removal of streaming is the first step towards decreasing educational inequality (Phasing out streaming: First step to decreasing educational inequality, March 9), it was the introduction of streaming that was the first step towards decreasing educational inequality.
However, streaming while apt for its time, was a blunt instrument and created an unintended consequence which was stigmatisation. The evolution and improvements of our system in the intervening years have enabled us to now move to Full SBB, which will allow us to achieve the same goal - of customising learning for students at a pace they are comfortable with - but do away with the labelling and self-limiting categorisations.
MULTIPLE PATHWAYS TO SUCCESS
To further help our students achieve their full potential, we have created a system with multiple pathways to success.
Since the late 1990s, we have given schools more autonomy to experiment and develop niche areas of specialisation.
Programmes such as the Applied Learning Programme and Learn for Life Programmes help nurture students' interests in a variety of domains such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, languages, as well as business and entrepreneurship.
Specialised schools allow students to pursue their passion in the arts, sports, and science and technology, among others.
The new common examination and certification arising out of Full SBB will provide students with greater flexibility to pursue post-secondary courses in line with their talents, passions and interests.
The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic qualifications can be used directly for employment or as stepping stones to further study. We have introduced applied universities alongside comprehensive and research-oriented universities to produce graduates with differentiated skill sets. Lifelong learning and SkillsFuture allow our people to deepen knowledge, hone their skills, or change careers after they enter the workforce.
RESOURCING OF SCHOOLS
MOE is committed to ensuring that no child should lose out in educational opportunities for lack of resources. To achieve this, we allocate resources to those with the greatest need. Research shows a clear correlation between students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds and underperformance.
Schools with more low SES students typically have higher needs. Hence, MOE allocates greater resources to these schools.
The highest level of per capita funding at the secondary school level - about $24,000 per student per annum - goes to the specialised schools: Assumption Pathway School, NorthLight School, Crest Secondary School and Spectra Secondary School.
The next highest levels of resourcing, about $20,000 and $15,000 per student, go to students in the Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic) courses respectively. In contrast, students in other courses in government and government-aided schools (GGAS), and independent schools, receive slightly less than $15,000 of funding per student.
That is why in the specialised schools, the typical class size is 20, while many Normal (Technical) classes in GGAS have sizes of 20, or have two teachers in a class of 40. MOE also regularly rotates our senior and experienced teachers and principals across different types of schools.
In addition, students from lower-income families receive additional direct financial assistance. With the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS), eligible students have their school and standard miscellaneous fees waived, and receive transport subsidies. Primary and secondary school students on MOE FAS also receive free textbooks and school attires, while pre-university students receive bursaries to cover their schooling expenses for items such as printed notes and school attires.
The MOE Independent School Bursary has also been set up to provide subsidies for children from lower and middle-income families who qualify for admission into independent schools.
This year, we will be launching the Uplift Scholarship for Independent School students from low-income families who have done well academically or qualify via the Direct School Admission scheme.
Apart from financial support, MOE also provides educational interventions at all levels, to students who require more help.
Specialised early intervention programmes, including the Learning Support Programme for English and Learning Support for Mathematics, are provided at primary school level, to help these students level up their literacy and numeracy skills.
Besides learning programmes, MOE also provides additional training and resources for teachers of low progress learners to enhance learning and engagement in the classroom.
To provide a safe and nurturing environment for students to play, learn and revise their schoolwork after school, MOE will be strengthening after-school care in primary schools, especially for disadvantaged students, to enhance their motivation, build their resilience and help them achieve better education outcomes. By 2020, every primary school will have a Student Care Centre. In secondary schools, MOE will enhance and scale up after-school programmes for students who need closer after-school supervision and support.
Our ongoing efforts to level up students who need more help are bearing fruit.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's report, Equity In Education: Breaking Down Barriers To Social Mobility, published last year noted that Singapore has the third-highest proportion of disadvantaged students who score well in core tests compared to their global peers, who are well-equipped to engage in further learning and to lead productive lives.
These students are able to compete well on the global stage and lift themselves up despite their low socio-economic status. This affirms our approach to realise our students' fullest potential by providing them access to opportunities based on their strengths and interests, regardless of their backgrounds.
AN ONGOING WORK
That said, we fully recognise that inequality still exists and there are those who don't do as well as others.
This is unfinished business, and we are committed to tackling this. As the causes of inequality are multi-faceted and complex, this requires a whole of society effort. Uplift looks forward to working with fellow Singaporeans to tackling this in our pursuit of a society where all can progress and do well irrespective of background.
• Ms Indranee Rajah is Second Minister for Education and Chairman of Uplift, the inter-agency Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce.