Performance vs privilege

Although I am a product of the local education system, I continue to think that it is broken and unable to give our children the holistic education that they deserve, despite many uses of the word “holistic” by educators and the authorities.

Recently, MM Lee became the first minister (in my memory) to actually admit that the primary school admission system is un-meritocratic.  

“PSLE levels playing field”

MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has acknowledged that admission to primary school is not meritocratic, since a child’s background plays a role in it.

‘That’s inevitable in any society,’ he said after a visit to Raffles Girls’ Primary School (RGPS) on Friday afternoon, where he disclosed that he had visited Punggol Primary the previous day.

‘At the primary stage, the choice is not made in a uniform way. You have a brother there or sister there, your father or mother is an alumnus, and so on. So it’s not meritocratic; it’s based on the social class of your parents, whether they went into better schools.’

Still, Mr Lee argued that the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) levels the playing field, allowing bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend good schools.

‘The important thing is that, at Primary 6, there should be a sorting out. And those who missed going to the good schools should get into better secondary schools.’

I don’t disagree that it will never be meritocratic for primary school admissions. Those who have the background, will indeed be advantaged. For example, my son got a place in ACJS simply because I am an old boy.

But my daughter will have to go to a non-elite primary school because we think it’s a waste of time and emotional distress doing all that volunteer work without any guarantee of entry.

What I don’t agree with MM Lee, is the assertion that it is performance that levels the playing field, when PSLE comes around to shunt students to different secondary schools.

Performance at the PSLE is also determined by family background and one’s social circles.

If a brilliant student comes from a disadvantaged background and goes to a school where most of the kids have no access to expensive tuition or sometimes even have to help out at their parent’s hawker stalls, what are his chances of reaching his real potential?

I go to United Square every week for music lessons, which in itself is an activity for the privileged (I remember back in my journalism job, I nearly had to cut my lessons because I couldn’t really afford the lessons when I went solo income).

I see parents spend thousands of dollars sending their kids to swanky tuition centres (which themselves show off their wealthy clientele by displaying iPads and cute pets at the window dressing area). Yet I am fully aware that these are the top 10-20% of society.

Of course, these kids would have a far better chance of doing well at PSLE compared to equally bright kids who have never stepped into these tuition centres. To make things worse, the primary school exams and assessments of today are ridiculously hard even by adult standards. Without the aid of tutors or full-time mothers, most kids would be quickly “filtered” out by these trick questions.

Logically speaking, standards have increased across the board, and the PSLE has had to evolve over time to ensure that there is proper bell-curve distribution of the exam results.

But I grieve for those students who by nature are in the top “brilliant” end of the bell curve, but are pushed to the middle or even lower because they simply don’t come from the right background that allows them to overcome the steep demands of the system.

And me and my friends can tell you this – the PSLE is a poor determinant of success in adulthood. Many of the brilliant and successful people that I know were poor performers in primary and secondary school, and really bloomed when they finally left the restrictive Singapore education system (ie. went into the real world).

Our education system is filled by many teachers who have never worked in the private sector, and I often question how much are they actually teaching the kids what they really need to know to succeed in a life that is not determined by a syllabus.

If all the Govt is concerned with, is developing scholars to hire into the civil service, the current education system is probably the right model. So many SG kids get seduced into taking a scholarship (private or government) without knowing why they’re doing it, except that their track record of examination records (and their hopeful parents) seem to tell them it’s the right thing to do. In a system where rich people ask their children to take up scholarships when they don’t need the financial help, there is little hope or space for poorer people.

The burden now is on parents to ensure, that no matter our social background, our children need to understand early on that the SG education system is inherently un-meritocratic – not just at primary school admission, but all the way – and they need the right attitude to deal with it.

And we should also instill in them the idea that not being able to excel in the SG school system is not the end of the world – it’s simply not the right fit for many kids. 

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