It is worth analysing the recent ripple over the Ministry of Education's move to grant priority in Primary 1 registration to children enrolled in its kindergartens. On a large plane, it shows the difficulties in balancing competing interests for a social good such as education. On a micro scale, it betrays lingering preferences for certain schools rather than for the best educational fit for a child.
There are sound practical reasons for the ministry's move, set to be launched as a pilot scheme next year involving 12 state kindergartens. These are co-located with primary schools so the priority scheme makes sense as it will ease the children's transition to Primary 1. They gain from staying in a familiar physical, social and educational environment.
However, parents whose children are not enrolled in state kindergartens now fear losing out in the great annual contest for Primary 1 places. That is so even though no branded school is involved. Some parents are even thinking of transferring their children midstream to a state kindergarten in order to secure P1 places for them. Fairness matters in the allocation of any social good, so the ministry will have to monitor the impact of granting such priority and assess if the scheme should be extended beyond the pilot phase.
However, one should not allow debate over this single issue to obscure the larger good that is served by these kindergartens, which the ministry set up after many years of debate - mainly over the costs relative to the benefits of government-funded pre-schools. They are meant to pilot innovative teaching methods and to share them with the rest of the pre-school sector, which is privately run. The state kindergartens also provide quality pre-school education that is affordable, and reserve one-third of their places for children from low-income homes.
Research shows that these children stand to gain the most from early intervention. The greater value of the ministry's new policy is the state's deeper involvement in ensuring that all children benefit from the big boost that quality pre-school education provides, regardless of family income. The benefits to these children and to society are long-lasting.
It is to be expected that parents with the means and the know-how will do what they can to secure benefits for their offspring, especially in a competitive society like Singapore's. It thus falls on the State to keep an eye on the children of those who are not well-off. Since price is a major differentiating factor in the quality of private pre-school education, a pace-setter is needed to promote the wider diffusion of the best practices in the field. State kindergartens must be at the vanguard of efforts to raise standards in the early childhood education sector as a whole. The boost given to the next generation will in turn benefit the nation.