Singapore should not lose faith in meritocracy, even though it seems to have paradoxically led to systemic unfairness, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung argued yesterday.
Instead of banning tuition and enrichment classes, scrapping the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) or implementing quotas in top schools, Singaporeans should move away from a narrow focus on grades to embrace a broader meritocracy of skills, and give more support to those who lag behind.
"We should not cap achievement at the top, but continue to strive to lift the bottom," he said in an often passionate, at times emotional, debate on the education of the future, which was introduced by five Nominated MPs in Parliament yesterday.
He revealed that the Education Ministry (MOE) is working on a scheme to develop the artistic talents of 10-and 11-year-olds, without the need for costly enrichment classes. This will mirror the Junior Sports Academy, which offers a free, pro-fessionally coached, two-year programme to Primary 4 and 5 pupils, some of whom go on to earn places in secondary schools through the Direct School Admission scheme.
He also highlighted how MOE provides more resources to students who need more help. Each year, around $24,000 is spent on a student at a specialised school, which caters to those who are academically weaker. Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic) students get $20,000 and $15,000, respectively. All others get less.
The Public Service Commission has also been paying special attention to scholarship applicants from low-income families. In 2007, over 80 per cent of its scholarship holders were from Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution. This fell to 60 per cent last year, said Mr Ong.
Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah explained how the education system has evolved to cater to the different strengths and aspirations of students, while Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim expanded on the support given to children with special needs.
Education's role in social mobility was recently highlighted in the debate on the President's Address. Yesterday, five MPs and eight NMPs explored issues such as tuition, the need for PSLE and student stress.
Mr Ong said his ministry will take in the suggestions, but his answer to the call to slaughter some "sacred cows" like the PSLE was "no".
He noted how around 7.5 per cent of students who live in one-to three-room Housing Board flats emerge as top PSLE performers every year. And while the PSLE is not perfect, any replacement system to decide on secondary school postings is likely to be worse, he said.
Mr Ong, chairman of the Chinese Development Assistance Council, had asked young volunteers at the self-help group who tutor students from low-income families for views. Most told him that the PSLE can motivate pupils to work hard.
"One said frankly that we can complain that PSLE favours the rich, but the rich are better poised to prepare their children in whatever alternate system... Support the weaker students more, but don't take away PSLE," Mr Ong recalled.
There have been suggestions to set a quota for low-income students in popular schools, but this sends the wrong signal and can even be seen as patronising, he said. Popular schools are working to attract such students, "and we should encourage them to do more".
He acknowledged that meritocracy is "in danger of becoming a dirty word", but this is the result of "our policies succeeding and improving the lives of Singapore families". Those who benefit go on to invest in their children, which means students from affluent families get a head start.
"But I stress there is no contradiction between meritocracy and fairness, nor reducing inequality and raising our collective standards," said Mr Ong. "Instead, we should double up on meritocracy by broadening its definition to embrace various talents and skills."
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