The Republic’s education system and its schools have “always been a great social leveller and they continue” to play that role, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Thursday (May 31), amid a spirited public discussion on social stratification creeping into schools.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology at the Resorts World Convention Centre, Mr Ong reiterated that tackling inequality is an “unfinished business”, even though the government has introduced various measures to address it.
In particular, the education system — imbued with meritocratic values — has a big part to play in enabling social mobility over the past decades, said Mr Ong.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that popular schools used to have a good mix of students from various social backgrounds but that is now “not as good as before”.
“But that does not mean there is no mixing… We’re always working, countering against such trends so that schools continue to be the great social leveller as we know it,” said Mr Ong.
During the recent parliamentary debate on the President’s Address, the topic of social stratification in schools was raised by government leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as they cautioned on the need to keep income inequality in check as it has the potential to threaten social cohesion.
Mr Lee, for example, noted that popular schools such as Raffles Institution, which have become less diverse, cannot be “self-perpetuating, closed circles”.
Earlier, some experts and parents interviewed by TODAY felt that there is a need to relook some aspects of the primary school admission policy including affiliation and proximity priorities — amid a growing concern that so-called elite primary and secondary schools coveted for their academic rigor could be disproportionately attracting students from affluent families.
Asked about the admission policy, Mr Ong said he did not think that it should be characterised as the root cause of social stratification in schools. He added: “We’ve done so much to bring about a more equal society, a socially mobile society. Our situation is very different from many developed countries, which face stagnation and (have) an underclass (that is) unable to move up. In our case, a great majority have been moving up.”
Mr Ong also cited leveraging technology as an example of how schools are trying to level the playing field.
Regardless of backgrounds, students have the same access to resources which the Ministry of Education (MOE) has built up.
For example, a new online learning platform called the Student Learning Space — which has been rolled out to all schools — allows students to revisit concepts, learn at their own pace, and provides one-to-one mentoring.
On Wednesday, Mr Ong said at this year’s pre-university seminar that the education system needs to loosen up, in order to reduce stress on students.
Singapore needs an education system where there are many “checkpoints”, so that “if you miss one checkpoint, or don’t do that well for one checkpoint, it’s not the end of the world”. “We must remove that do-or-die mentality for every checkpoint,” he had added.
Mr Ong told reporters on Thursday that MOE could change the way in which lessons are delivered, and examinations administered.
“We’re open to ideas. We want to move towards a situation where we can reduce that do or die mentality. Then, education will be much more joyous and a much more celebrated process,” he added.
He reiterated that the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), for instance, is not a “final checkpoint”.
“Some of us don’t even remember our PSLE scores but here we are doing our own things, achieving different goals in our lives,” he said. “And when you look back… (PSLE is) just one of many checkpoints. As parents, we are also somehow caught up in it, putting too much ‘do or die’ mentality into PSLE. We are making adjustments, this is a societal culture.”
Among other things, MOE will replace the PSLE T-score with a wider, banded scoring system from 2021. There will also be changes from this year to the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme, to do away with general academic ability tests.
The admission scheme allows students to gain direct entry to secondary schools or junior colleges based on their talent and achievements in non-academic areas such as sports and the arts.