The Straits Times says

A good school is an inclusive school

The secondary schools still practising affiliation priority would have done their school and society proud if they had, of their own accord, opened their doors wider years ago. Favouritism in schools would not be still a social issue if they had substantially enlarged the enrolment of students from a wide range of primary schools. Instead, it has fallen on the State to periodically coax these school communities to be more accepting.

For over two decades, national leaders here have warned that "society is stratifying". The ill-effects of this are clearly visible abroad, particularly in the United States where the presidential race last year exposed bitter social divisions. There is also a strong argument for opening up: Affiliated schools create closed circles within which the successful confer advantages upon their young, while others are left out and do less well. The more difficult it becomes to break out of a disadvantaged group, the greater the chance of attitudes hardening towards those who have benefited significantly by virtue of birth.

Affiliation priority runs counter to the foundational principle of meritocracy by admitting students with lower scores simply because of their primary schools' links to religious and clan associations, and rejecting others who have performed better. An undesirable effect of this practice is the obsessive chase by parents for admission to affiliated primary schools. Here too, birth connections matter: Primary 1 admission priority is given to those with a sibling who is studying there, or with a parent who had studied there or is part of the school advisory/management committee.

In a magnanimous spirit, school communities ought to have voluntarily ceded more places to deserving students from the other side of the fence. Instead, they kept privileges intact and it took the State to rule that a fifth of enrolment be set aside for students from non-affiliated schools from 2019. Most secondary schools already meet this quota but between six and eight schools fail to do so. The laggards ought to willingly come up to par forthwith and all schools should keep increasing that quota annually, despite the protests of those seeking privileges. Inspirational educators should take the lead in highlighting the wider social benefits of opening up, and the divisive effects of clinging tightly to an entitlement system based on background and connections.

Certainly, all educational institutions should foster old school links which might spur wider participation in the life of the school and can help nurture the school ethos. But the best form of such a spirit is selfless contributions to education, with no perks sought in return. An ethos should also include the willingness to share educational excellence with a wide diversity of students, wherever they come from. Inclusive values, not the opposite, are what schools must impart to the young.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'A good school is an inclusive school'. Print Edition | Subscribe