SINGAPORE (Jan 11): 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.

Once a meritocratic channel for moving scores of Singaporeans up the socio-economic ladder, the national education system may be helping to transmit privilege across generations, which has ramifications not just for disadvantaged children but also for overall social cohesiveness.

Four decades of the early streaming of children through high-stakes exams has spawned a shadow tutoring industry worth more than $1 billion, as well as so-called parentocracy, where children gain success more from their parents’ wealth and social capital than their own merit. More worryingly, experts warn that inequality is starting earlier than ever in childhood and is in danger of persisting across generations.

Many children from low-income families “fall behind almost immediately as they enter the first year of mandatory schooling”, writes Nanyang Technological University sociology professor Teo You Yenn in a new ground-breaking book This is What Inequality Looks Like.

Very quickly, many low-income students either barely pass or completely fail English and Mathematics. They are then identified as having problems and pulled out for extra coaching. It is not easy to catch up, however, since the more advanced students continue to move forward at a fast pace.

By Primary 3, many of them are banded into lower-performing classes and, by Primary 5 and 6, many do so poorly that they have to switch to “Foundation” level for some or all their subjects. They become demoralised and may stop going to school regularly, Teo adds.

In contrast, students from higher-income families tend to benefit from private coaching outside school as well as their parents’ cultural capital, which can expose them to drama lessons, golf or the right social connections. These advantages enhance their chances of getting into the best schools and universities and give them the credentials that employers place higher value on.

In a sense, the much-lauded Singapore education system is a victim of its own success, with an entrenched psyche that seems hard to change. Yet, it is possible to do well without the stress, intense competitiveness and out-of-pocket costs that Singaporeans endure. In Finland, where the education system is ranked among the best in the world, there are no league tables and no exams until the age of 16. Children are not sorted into sets and there is no private tuition industry.

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