SINGAPORE (Jan 14): The start of the new school year is usually abuzz with anticipation. And for many pupils, there would have been much preparation even before classes began: reading textbooks and completing assessment books, attending tuition or enrichment classes — the mental gearing-up for what is expected to be a gruelling year ahead.

This year is promising to be different, though. For one, several changes by the Ministry of Education (MOE) will take place in 2019. Chief among them is the removal of examinations at some primary and secondary levels. The ministry is also adjusting the criteria for the selection of recipients of bursaries and academic awards for pupils in lower primary levels. And, instead of being scored and ranked to a precise decimal point, students are now given a broad grade but will still be sorted into “bands”. There is now more emphasis on developing young people’s critical thinking and social awareness — nurturing “well-rounded” individuals. 

These initiatives are part of the government’s broader plan to move away from pure academic measures of intelligence and ability. In the new, and future, economy, one’s standardised test scores are unlikely to be complete indicators of success.

To be sure, Singapore’s education system has been lauded as the best in the world, noted for its production of whizzes in math and science. Students tested in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) consistently emerge at the top of global rankings. Last August, The Economist ran a piece holding up Singapore as an example for other educational systems. The authors noted the government’s careful attention to the system as a whole, significant investment in education research and teacher training, as well as rigorous teaching methods — from textbooks to worked examples — as elements of the system’s success.

MOE commands about 20% of the national budget and employs roughly 57,000 people, spread across the schools and ministry departments. These include a Curriculum Planning and Development Division as well as an Educational Technology unit dedicated to using tech to “enrich learning and teaching”.

Importantly, the system has also been anchored on Singapore’s governing principles of meritocracy and equal opportunity, the idea that upward mobility is achieved through effort and ability.

Yet, despite the government’s efforts, there is a parallel, billion-dollar industry driven by parents anxious that the carefully developed formal education system is not quite enough for their children to succeed in life. Four out of five parents in Singa­pore enrol their children in some form of extra classes after school hours. Separately, the preschool industry is flourishing, no doubt boosted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s declaration last August that preschool education ensured children started well and reached their potential later in life.

Apart from the dance studios and music academies, there are tuition centre chains dedicated to coaching schoolgoing children in the subjects they learn at school, each with their own teaching model. About 800 of these centres are registered with MOE. One centre’s model speaks of developing metacognition, and teaching the child to figure out what examiners are looking for in test answers; another specialises in individualised math worksheets; yet others focus on coaching in the Chinese language. Many offer classes for preschoolers. All promote academic excellence as a result. And, it was wholly unsurprising that, after it was announced that weighted assessments in schools were to be removed, the tuition centres were more than happy to offer anxious parents replacement assessments of their children’s learning ability.

As detailed in our story “The class divide” this week, however, it is students from high-income families who tend to benefit from all this extra coaching. Indeed, such extracurricu­lar lessons, which were once intended to help weaker students keep pace with their peers, have morphed into some form of education “arms race”: Children are taught ahead of the curriculum in order to be ahead of their classmates.

The problem with this approach is that students whose parents are unable to afford the extra classes or preschools, even the subsidised ones, fall further behind. In her book, This is What Inequality Looks Like, sociologist Teo You Yenn notes that many children from low-income families fall behind their classmates “almost immediately” as they enter primary school. Importantly, this is not because of their ability to learn, but simply because they have had less exposure to learning materials or other classes than their wealthier peers.

As a result, “getting an education” in Singapore is not the great leveller of the socio-economic playing field, but an exacerbation of inequality that could persist through generations. It may be that “parentocracy” is the issue here: parents leveraging their wealth and social capital to find the best opportunities for their offspring.

Some parents argue that they are compelled to engage tutors, drama coaches and the like because of the way the Singa­pore edu­cation system has been structured. Indeed, one could argue that in such a competitive system, the move away from book smarts and paper qualifications to take into account other talents merely compounds the problem.

Is the solution, then, to remove all examinations, including the milestone Primary School Leaving Examination, as some have advocated? Or to truly level the playing field by doing away with the sorting of pupils into various streams, including the Gifted Education Programme offered in select schools?

The adjustments that MOE is rolling out are definitely welcome, but they are piecemeal and do not address the generations of conditioning that doing well at school is the only way one would succeed in life. And, they do not quite recognise that by this stage, the education system is no longer the meritocracy that it set out, and needs, to be.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 864, week of Jan 14) which is on sale now. Subscribe here