Poverty is not destiny, and the good performance of Singapore students from low-income homes in a recent international survey has shown that is still the case for many here. Nearly half of disadvantaged students, whose families are from the bottom quarter in socio-economic terms, emerged in the top quarter of performers. That is no mean feat in an era of massive investment by well-off parents to help their offspring pull ahead. The OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) report rightly describes students, who outperform what is predicted by their backgrounds, as being resilient.
Singapore has a good share of them but has some catching up to do if it wants to match the upward boost from education in top-ranked Vietnam, where 75.5 per cent of disadvantaged students beat the odds, followed by Macau and Hong Kong with over 60 per cent each. These resilient students deserve every support to maintain their performance throughout their schooling years.
At the same time, wider attention should be paid to other students from poor families who are more than four times more likely to be low performers, compared with their more affluent peers. The focus of comparison was proficiency in science, where one in four Singapore students is at the top of the scale. But many low-income students lag behind, not even reaching baseline proficiency. Knowledge and understanding of science, as Pisa argues, is necessary for full participation in a world shaped by science-based technology. Disadvantaged students are also less likely than their advantaged peers to see themselves as pursuing a science career. Specific programmes to spark their interest in the subject may be needed, since they are less likely to receive such stimulation from their families.
What is worth noting is that after surveying 540,000 teens from 72 economies, Pisa concludes that in many places, no matter how well the education system as a whole performs, socio-economic status continues to have an impact on students' opportunities to benefit from education and develop their skills. The Pisa report notes rightly that equity in education, or "ensuring that education outcomes are the result of students' abilities, will and effort, and not the result of their personal circumstances", lies "at the heart of advancing social justice and inclusion".
Singapore, whose education system ranks consistently among the best in the world, is well poised to take the lead in designing and implementing policies to achieve both excellence and equity. Social inequality in schools must be addressed as society is only as strong as its weakest members. Education remains the best way to ensure that all children, regardless of their family backgrounds, achieve their full potential. Singapore's young today, and its future, deserve no less.