Elite schools are old chestnuts that keep getting tossed in the roasting pan. It usually starts with the heart-wrenching stories about getting a place in primary one for one’s seven-year-old. It then moves on to stories about how some schools have become so elite that they make a mockery of Singapore’s meritocratic principles.
Not all elite primary schools are in expensive residential districts but many are located in the Bukit Timah area. These schools do have better facilities than neighbourhood schools because rich parents raise money for them.
The next level of “elitism” is when students, depending on their P6 exam results, try to get a place in the top secondary schools — which produce the best results for the O Level exams.
The thinking goes like this: top schools present their students with better opportunities to shine in their academic work and leadership skills. This in turn will enable the teenagers to get into the “better” junior colleges where they do their A Level exams.
This system of school selection has been in practice for generations, until the new Education Minister Heng Swee Keat decided to prove that all schools are good schools and introduced policy changes to “equalise” the quality of education and dismantle perceptions of elitism. He was, no surprise, responding to parents whose children couldn’t get into these elite schools.
First he stopped the ministry from announcing which students and schools scored the highest marks in the national examinationss. Then he allocated more places to seven-year-olds who had no links to schools to claim priority for places. Finally, he posted principals of well-known — elite — schools to neighbourhood schools and vice-versa.
Have these measures “equalised” education in Singapore? Hardly. A child’s examination scores may not be the best measure of his intelligence and personality but, it’s still the main means of judging a student’s performance in school. A lot of has been said by government leaders about measuring other aspects of education, like civic mindedness, sporting and team spirit and other co-curricular activities, and there are a lot more opportunities for students who are less academically inclined to make something of their lives.
But parents will only continue to press for niggly changes to the system (including moving top schools out of their traditional locations) when it is they who need to change most — by not pressuring their children to do well in examinations (driving some to suicide!) and to make sure that the so-called elitism doesn’t become a focal point of young lives.
Singapore children know full well from a young age that to succeed in examinations, you have to work hard. As parents, we have to teach them that that maxim is true of life in general.