Early academic gaps between students too significant for comfort and must be closed: Tharman

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam addressing the audience at Mendaki's sixth symposium, on June 30, 2022. PHOTO: MENDAKI

SINGAPORE - More work must be done to close the gap between students with different academic starting points, as well as the gap between Malay/Muslims and their peers, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Thursday (June 30).

The Government is working to address these gaps to even the playing field, but community groups like Yayasan Mendaki are also crucial in this effort, he told an audience of more than 200 at the sixth Mendaki Symposium.

Some of these gaps are too significant for comfort, he said, and there is one between Malay/Muslim students and their peers even after accounting for socio-economic status, said Mr Tharman, who is Coordinating Minister for Social Policies.

He said: "We have to work a lot harder to even up the playing field in the youngest years... The gaps faced by the Malay community are not just because Malays are over-represented in the lower socio-economic groups.

"Even within the lower socio-economic groups, there is a greater proportion of Malays who start off weak in school, and remain weak."

Mr Tharman added: “Every society has this problem, where performance in school is not just a function of individual talents and attributes, but also a function of complex, multifaceted and interlinked social problems. 

“And we have to work harder to address these problems in Singapore. Work harder to make sure that the early disadvantages in life do not replicate themselves and become stubborn disadvantages throughout life.”

Titled Rethinking Education, this year's symposium was organised by Malay/Muslim self-help group Mendaki and held at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Apart from closing early gaps, Mr Tharman, who was education minister from 2003 to 2008, also touched on two other areas - the need to broaden Singapore's meritocracy by blurring the hierarchy of skills, and to strengthen a sense of togetherness by increasing social mixing.

There is too sharp a hierarchy between academic skills and non-academic skills, and between some academic skills and other academic skills, he said.

He added: "We have to blur that hierarchy of skills, develop respect for different skills as we grow up, and indeed give everyone a chance to pick up different skills.

"That, too, has to start young and continue into the working years, so that we have a workforce and society where every skill is valued, and every job well done is respected."

Singapore must also strengthen its sense of togetherness across different socio-economic and ethnic groups, said Mr Tharman.

The country has avoided big problems that many other societies have faced, but has to do even better in the future, he added.

He said: "It means avoiding social distances that develop when children are young and stay through life.

"And importantly, to develop that sense of familiarity, friendship and solidarity that we must have with each other as Singaporeans."

Mr Tharman added that one way to do this is through shared experiences like co-curricular activities, and that much is already being done on a structural level to ensure social mixing through schemes like full subject-based banding in schools.

Such a banding - where students take subjects at a higher or lower level based on their strengths - will be in place in secondary schools by 2024.

There will no longer be separate Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) courses, and students will be in mixed form classes.

At the event, Mendaki also disclosed selected findings from a three-year study it had conducted with the Singapore University of Social Sciences which sought to identify the determinants of academic performance among Mendaki Tuition Scheme (MTS) students.

The study, which looked at about 12,000 students in the MTS scheme between 2018 and 2019, found that academic performance was strongly correlated with socio-economic status.

Other major factors were students' intrinsic motivation, performance in mathematics and participation in co-curricular activities. It also found that a strong academic foundation is important in supporting lifelong learning.

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