Levelling down not the way to help needy students

Fewer lavish school buildings, fewer exotic and expensive overseas field trips.

These are just some suggestions that the Government is offering on how to better shape school culture, so as to improve the mixing of students from various income backgrounds.

However, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this in his speech in Parliament last month, I baulked.

Swanky facilities and week-long trips to Tokyo aren't necessities of a good education, but they can enrich.

So I wondered if this is merely spot treatment: levelling down in order to treat the symptoms of the wealth divide, without addressing the root cause.

In emphasising restraint in school spending, Mr Lee argues that students from poorer homes should not be put off studying in top schools because they feel out of place.

There is an undeniable gulf between socio-economic classes in our schools.

More than half the students in brand-name schools have graduate fathers, compared with 10 per cent in neighbourhood schools, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 2011.

Meanwhile, 2012 figures showed that only four in 10 pupils in popular primary schools live in Housing Board flats. The national average is eight in 10.

These statistics paint a picture of an increasingly homogeneous demographic in top schools, and run the danger of creating what PM Lee called "closed circles".

The lack of interaction is dangerous because if the well-to-do remain oblivious to the poor, they are more likely to make generalisations about them or lack empathy for them. It could create an elitist society, which would in turn result in more cracks between groups.

To be fair, the Government acknowledges that fewer students from humble backgrounds are going to top schools and has taken steps to mitigate that.

Starting this year, every primary school is required to reserve at least 40 places for pupils with no prior links to the school.

Raffles Institution is also reconsidering how to encourage primary school pupils from low-income homes to enrol, after a cash award scheme failed to attract as many students as it could have.

These are good measures because they give those who need help an extra push up the ladder, instead of bringing down those already at the top.

On the other hand, curbing fund-raising efforts and overseas trips does not tackle head-on the social discomfort between socio-economic classes.

Granted, the removal of these frills could ease some of the pressure that lower-income students might feel when they are required to raise funds excessively.

But the reality is that wealth disparities are most often accentuated in day-to-day interactions: when students talk about a family's upcoming trip to Disney World, or when someone shows up with a new, branded schoolbag doomed to fall out of favour in just a few months.

No one is suggesting that these luxuries be taken away from the children of wealthier families (although some schools do ban branded accessories). Rather, we must get to the root of what causes poor social interaction between socio-economic classes: the feeling that these differences are irreconcilable.

One solution is to provide targeted help so that students from poorer backgrounds don't feel left out, rather than pretend that the wealth gap is not there.

There is no point sheltering children from wealth differences temporarily, only to have them emerge from their cocoons some years later into a world that flaunts its wealth, as some societies do.

A top-performing student from a neighbourhood school could experience severe culture shock when he goes to a premier one. He could find himself lagging behind, or doing average at best. He could need extra help but might not be able to afford tuition.

There ought to be dedicated teachers on-site taking charge of such students, to help them cope with the new workload, as well as psychological stresses arising from the academic and demographic changes.

From my own experience in school, and conversations with my colleagues in the education beat, such support appears to be ad hoc and dependent on the teacher.

A bit of envy could be a good motivator. But there must always be hope that the climb up the socio-economic ladder is not out of reach.

In short, saying no to buildings and field trips levels down the educational experiences of top students without addressing social discomfort between classes.

If schools feel that buildings and field trips give students a fulfilling education, then we should not begrudge them that.

Rather, we should work on helping those at the bottom level move their way up, whether through better support networks or increased funding to non-brand-name schools.

It might be idealistic, but wouldn't it be something if all students could some day look forward to school facilities they are proud to call a second home, and have the chance to see the world?


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