Cold facts of spending money on schools

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Those parents who are moaning about today’s headlines that the Ministry of Education will cut funding to our top schools should be pinched a little harder: “Our children need air-conditioning,” said one parent. Another rich parent who sits on an independent school board and is an alumni member added:”I hope MOE isn’t bringing everyone down so that all schools are more or less equal, instead of levelling everyone up.”

Levelling up were the operative words of Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat’s Budget speech last March, when he pointed out that the government had almost doubled the investment in education – from $6.5 billion in 2003, to $11.6 billion in 2013.

From now on, the top schools, which also run the gifted education programme (where class sizes are smaller), will have government funding reduced per student. Although the top independent Singapore schools charge $200–$300 a month in school fees, any student unable to pay those fees gets help from MOE. Ordinary schools charge only $22 a month in fees.

Meanwhile, the independent and mission schools like Anglo-Chinese School Independent and International, St Andrews, Methodist Girls’ School and St Joseph’s Institution and International, have also been instructed to moderate their fund-raising activities to focus on facilities that the school really needs.

The funding saved from going to top schools is clearly needed to fulfill the Minister’s goal “to embark on a comprehensive programme to level-up our students… which is… especially important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds or who need more dedicated support”.

Spectra Secondary School is one such school, catering to the hard-to-teach students who achieved the lowest scores in the Primary School Leaving Examinations last year. These students, who are unteachable in ordinary classrooms because they are hyperactive or have attention deficit disorder (as in the case of student Justin who demanded that his teacher apologise to him for yelling at him to sit down (TISG, Jan 23rd), need specially trained teachers (of which there will be more, according to Heng).

Previously, children like Justin would have fallen by the wayside of education. Today, they will finish 10 years of school with basic literacy and numeracy skills that will make them able to function as normal young adults without being damaged by years of intolerance — and labeling as “failures — in school.

It is students like Justin – bright and lively teenagers – who need more help than the so-called “gifted” students who, being what they are, will do well in a competitive learning environment anyway.

Said Heng last year: “Students who need additional help in specific areas will be given more attention and resources… For children who lack confidence and need more structure, schools may provide small group teaching, and break the learning task into smaller parts.”

If parents of erstwhile privileged students threaten to emigrate, the ruling party should have the courage to shrug and turn their attention back to children who really need help — and funding. It will breathe life into what Heng now calls an “open and compassionate meritocracy”.