Singapore’s highly stratified education system is contributing to a socio-economic divide that starts from early childhood and is in danger of persisting across generations. The system needs to stop rewarding parentocracy, experts say.

SINGAPORE (Jan 14): When Jane (not her real name) was in Kindergarten 1, her father passed away suddenly from an illness. Her mother struggled to cope and Jane managed to make it to preschool only once a month. She began to forget her alphabet and was withdrawn. Fortunately, Circle of Care, a non-profit programme that helps pre-schoolers from disadvantaged families, jumped in. Jane received learning support while her mother got parenting and transitional support, such as grief counselling and financial assistance. When Jane was due to enter primary school, Circle of Care helped with the transition. Today, Jane is a well-socialised, vocal and confident Primary 1 student and will continue to receive assistance until Primary 3.

Circle of Care is an initiative spearheaded by the Lien Foundation and Care Corner Singapore, a charity. Social workers in this preschool-based model bring together families, preschools, educational therapists and healthcare professionals to support at-risk children in their key developmental years. “Inequality has its roots early in life,” says Lee Poh Wah, CEO of the Lien Foundation. “Our education system is no longer the great social equaliser like it was in the last century. Rather, it tends to exacerbate the disparities in socio-economic status.” Education in Singapore has long pivoted on the principles of meritocracy and equality of opportunity. The narrative is that upward mobility is achievable through hard work within the formal education system. For the most part, that has happened and, today, Singapore produces students who regularly win prizes in international maths and science competitions and top global benchmarks such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

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