Is Every School a Good School? Intergenerational Mobility in Singapore, Explained

After being appointed the Education Minister in 2014, Heng Swee Keat popularised the term “every school is a good school” to the dismay of opposition politicians and unconvinced Singaporeans alike. “How many of our leaders and top officers who say that every school is a good school put their children in ordinary schools near their home?” asked a vice-principal of a neighbourhood secondary school in a public forum. 

While often misunderstood and misconstrued, to Mr. Heng the phrase wasn’t about having schools produce similar academic outcomes. Instead, a school was considered ‘good’ if it holistically developed students, created positive experiences, had competent teachers and a supportive community of parents, and provided opportunities to all students regardless of family circumstances.

Though it is true that every school in Singapore has high quality infrastructure and capable teachers as a base-line, there are major questions about the latter half of the rubric. Are the development opportunities offered to all students in Singapore really comparable? Or are “family circumstances” hindering the inter-generational mobility that a meritocratic country like Singapore would like to achieve?

Well, theoretical and empirical research on education has shown that more uniformed education systems are better at promoting inter-generational mobility. When Finland got rid of differentiated streams at the primary school level, for example, inter-generational income correlation decreased by 23%. Singapore’s system, however, is far from uniform. 

There are major differences between schools and even inside of schools. 

Differences in Programmes

One aspect in which schools clearly differ is in terms of CCAs and enrichment programmes. Based on data in the 2021 Secondary 1 Posting Information Booklet, there is a negative correlation between a secondary school’s cut-off point (COP) and the number of CCAs they offer. For every increase of 1 point in the COP, secondary schools offer 0.6 less CCAs on average.

The number of CCAs offered was manually counted for each secondary school and compiled into a table, alongside that secondary school’s COP for an unaffiliated student entering the Express stream. All data points were then plotted on a graph of the number of CCAs against COP to identify outliers. Outliers were removed from the dataset and a linear regression was plotted again to obtain the negative correlation of 0.6. The full dataset, together with one for consisting of funding is available here for reference.

While secondary schools offer 19 CCA choices on average, elite schools such as Nanyang Girls’ High School and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) offer upwards of 30 choices. Students in neighbourhood schools have, on average, less CCA choices, and therefore less varied opportunities for non-academic development.

The range of CCA choices is not the only difference. The Integrated Programme (IP) is another source of such differences. According to MOE, it was introduced to allow academically strong students to bypass O Levels and proceed to Junior College, in order to optimise the time freed up for students to engage in broader learning experiences

A prime example of how “broader learning experiences” manifests in IP schools is Raffles Institution’s Gap Semester Programme. Instead of preparing for the O Levels, students spend the latter half of Secondary 4 pursuing a “wide range of learning experiences”. This includes non-academic courses, work attachments and even international trips.

There are different school types which enjoy different levels of autonomy and funding to run enrichment programmes for their students. Broadly speaking, there are government schools, autonomous schools and independent schools. But there are further subclassifications, such as Special Assistance Plan (SAP) Independent Schools e.g. Hwa Chong Institution, Specialised Independent Schools e.g. School of the Arts and Specialised Schools e.g. Crest Secondary School.

More broadly speaking, independent schools and autonomous schools are given more flexibility to design their curriculum to enhance their students’ learning experiences, compared to typical Government schools. Schools are typically granted autonomous status when they show that they can value-add to students i.e. offer a better education. So, schools have to first show they are better, after which they are granted autonomous status to further enhance their programmes.

Differences in Funding

To run more enrichment programmes and elective subjects, the Government actually provides autonomous schools with 10% more funding. And, in 2009, the Government doubled the funding per student for autonomous schools. Not only do autonomous schools have better programmes; they also receive more funding to do so.

It is unknown how much Government funding independent schools receive. However, the Ministry of Education publishes each school’s financial statements, which reveals the size of their donation funds. Again, there is a significant disparity between schools.

Note here that Government-aided and Independent Schools have Endowment Funds while Government Schools have School Advisory Committee Funds. 

While there are no details on the exact distinction between the two funds available in the public domain, a former SAC member told Kopi that SAC funds are used to support underprivileged students and “other special projects”. According to the SJI site, endowment funds seem to fulfil a similar purpose – although the schools seem to have a bit more discretion in the way they use the fund.

Of the 64 schools sampled, RI, SJI, HCI, NYGHS, SCGS, ACS (I), MGS (Sec), RGS, Catholic HS and Xinmin SS had the 10 largest funds. Most of these schools are considered to be “prestigious” or “brand name” schools.”

Differences in Networks

Nanyang Primary School, one of Singapore’s most sought after Primary Schools. (Source)

It is no secret that spots in popular primary schools are hotly contested during the P1 Registration Exercise, in which priority admission is granted to students of parents who have existing ties to the school, be it through volunteering or a clan association etc. 

In the exercise, none of the 11 admission pathways are based on the student’s merit. Instead, eight are based on existing ties to the school. In recent years, spots in top primary schools were completely occupied via tie-based pathways, other than the spots reserved for students with no existing ties.

Nanyang Primary is one such top school. They took in 390 students in 2021, of which 20 were reserved for students with no existing ties. The remaining majority of 370 were admitted via existing ties. Admission into top primary schools is, in fact, based almost entirely on connections.

Even spots that are reserved for students with no existing ties to the school usually end up going to wealthier parents. As these spots are allocated based on home-school distance, parents who could afford it would simply rent or purchase a property close to their choice primary school. A CNA article stated that 30% of parents have or would do this, and even featured a couple who had spent $20,000 renting a nearby property.

A similar effect can be observed in secondary schools and junior colleges as well. Some students make it into good schools without external assistance. But some students receive lots of help in the form of private tuition and enrichment, paid for by their parents. Again, it is students from wealthier backgrounds who can more likely afford external help, boost their PSLE/O Level scores or DSA performance and enter better schools.

There is even preparatory tuition for the exclusive Gifted Education Programme, which costs a steep $90 per hour. Given that over 90% of GEP students score in the top 10% of PSLE candidates and that over 80% of GEP students enter secondary schools through DSA, it is a pathway to admission into top schools – one which parents can better access with money.

Popular schools are therefore likely to be populated with students whose parents are wealthier and more well-connected, providing its students with better networking opportunities. These networks can come in helpful in many situations, such securing internship opportunities or knowing how to apply for scholarships.

Where we are

Economists measure inter-generational mobility through a measure called Intergenerational Earnings Elasticity. In a country with equal opportunities, parents’ income would have no relation to that of their children (a correlation of 0). Likewise, a country where jobs and income of parents determine their children’s, the index would give a correlation of 1.

In 2012, it was estimated that Singapore’s Intergenerational Earnings Elasticity was around 0.44. From an international perspective, this means that there is more mobility in Singapore as compared to the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy and China. In other words, while the system displays mobility-reducing characteristics, but it also permits mobility to a far greater extent than other countries. Considering that education in Singapore is highly subsidised and funded, it is very likely that it plays a part in promoting this mobility.

However, there is growing recognition that Singapore can do better, especially in education. In 2014, for example, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented on how top secondary schools were becoming “closed circles”, the MOE imposed a slew of restrictions on independent schools. 

Besides facing a cut in funding, they were also told to “moderate fund-raising activities” and comply with a directive “urging” all schools with air-conditioned classrooms to install and use fans. Fundraising approvals for “non-standard” features such as swimming pools would also only be given the green light if the facility was “essential” to school programmes.

The Singaporean education system is also set to become more uniformed over the coming years, with the N- and O-Level examinations being replaced by a new common national examination framework. In addition, subject-based banding will replace the existing system of streaming students into Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) based on their PSLE results.

The Paradox of Meritocracy

“As we confront (the paradoxes of meritocracy), we question if our policies and approaches have run their course, and perhaps it is time to slaughter some sacred cows and take a fundamentally different approach,” said then-Education Minister Ong Ye Kung. (Source)

Under an ideal meritocracy, merit is based on talent and hard work. But in reality, merit is too based on wealth and connections. Parents, having benefited from a meritocratic system, would leverage their wealth and connections to enhance their child’s merit. Those with more wealth and more connections are then better able to secure spots in top schools for their children, ensuring that they too will benefit more and have more resources to leverage for the next generation, continuing the cycle.

This is what then-Education Minister Ong Ye Kung referred to as the paradox of meritocracy. It starts out fair, based on talent and hard work. Those who are more talented are rewarded with more wealth and opportunities. But when these different levels of wealth are invested in the next generation, it creates significant differences. Those who acquire merit via wealth may edge out those who possess merit via talent. And thus meritocracy, left to its own devices, undermines the very things it is based upon.

Currently, differences in funding, programmes and networks means that some schools might provide more opportunities for students than others, perpetuating this paradox. Reform to education policy, however, might be one of the most effective ways to break the cycle.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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