2015/04/18 Alan Yong

Singapore: State of Education

The 2014 report “The Learning Curve” by the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Singapore’s education system in the third place globally, after South Korea and Japan, and ahead of Hong Kong, Finland and the United Kingdom. Two international studies : Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) places Singapore students at the top few ranks in Reading, Mathematics and Science. Our students are also adept at creative problem solving, as shown by coming in top in PISA problem solving test . National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are ranked 24th and 41st globally by QS World University Rankings 2013 .

All these come with a price. Singapore’s education system is known to be highly stressful and competitive. As part of Our SG Conversation on education last year, several participants have raised the issue of Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) being a “highly stressful experience for a 12 year-old”. Increasing number of Singapore students are facing “academic anxiety, peer pressure and family problems” and are seeking help at the Institute of Mental Health. While this reflects better understanding of psychological problems and an increasing acceptance to undergoing treatment and counselling, it is also a direct consequence of familial and society’s pressure to perform at a very young age.

With the introduction of the Integrated Programme (where students in select top schools undergo a 6 year Secondary and Junior College education without GCE ‘O’ Levels), gaining entry to IP schools has become a top priority for (kiasu) parents. IP students do not have to compete with ‘O’ Levels students for entry into top JCs. This essentially transfers the pressure of doing well for ‘O’ Levels into the PSLE.

However the race starts in Primary 3, whereby students are selected to sit for the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) Selection Test. GEP students are given “an enriched curriculum that is pitched to challenge and stretch them ” and are given “individualised enrichment and attention”. In 2012, Sunday Times ran an article on parents who sign up their children for GEP preparatory classes, at “monthly fees of between $200 and $1000”. The demand for such programmes is growing, as evidenced by number of tuition centres providing GEP preparatory classes. This eventually begs the question: what is “giftedness”? Can “giftedness” be trained, and worse, bought with money?

Household Expenditure Survey

Source: Household Expenditure Survey (Department of Statistics Singapore)

Singaporean households in the first and second quintile experienced a slight drop in education and enrichment spending, while households in other quintiles are spending more. While this could reflect the increase in spending on expensive tuition programmes among richer households, these households also have a higher take up rate for enrichment classes such as piano, ballet, art, and so on. It is worth noting the following caveats:

  • This survey result is done on random families with and without children, and therefore does not reflect the actual percentages that families with children spend on education programmes.
  • Richer households tend to have fewer children, so the percent spending per child in reality is more disparate among the income quintiles.
  • In case you are wondering, in 2013, households within the 11th to 20th income decile brings in an average of $3,372 per month, while households within the 81st to 90th income decile brings in an average of $16,984 per month.

Higher (and Higher) Education

In 2013, of the students enrolled in post-secondary education, 22% are enrolled in Junior Colleges/Centralised Institute, 18% in Institute of Technical Education, and 60% in Polytechnics.  Among residents aged 25 to 34 years, university graduates make up 51%, while polytechnic graduates make up 24%. Assuming all JC/CI students will eventually go on to finish university education, we can estimate that roughly more than half of the polytechnic graduate cohort goes through the university route as well.

Educational Attainment

Source: Department of Statistics Singapore, Educational Attainment of Residents Aged 25 – 34

20 years ago, university and polytechnic graduates each make up less than 15% of the fresh workforce. In contrast, today solely possessing a polytechnic diploma is generally seen as a disadvantage in the job market even though a polytechnic education is supposed to prepare its graduands with relevant work skills. The reason for this is more cultural than anything else. Both private and government organisations tend to value university graduates higher over polytechnic graduates, and provide better career progression for the former. With a substantial salary wage gap (degree holders on the median receive 50% more than diploma holders on their starting salary), which gets increasingly disparate as the two groups are generally given different promotion opportunities.

Income by Education Level

Source: Ministry of Manpower, Key Statistics on Employment Outcome of Graduates from Institutions of Higher Learning, 2007 – 2013

Meritocracy – Too Much of a Good Thing?

Singapore is undoubtedly a meritocratic society. It is the belief that we should hire the most abled person for the job, without care for one’s background or connections. It is a beautiful idea, that anyone can rise to the top if one is capable enough. But how should a person’s ability be judged without prejudice? For a long time this was done based on academic abilities. It is objective. It is fair. An ‘A’ student is better than a ‘B’ student, who in turn is better than a ‘C’ student.

As our society progressed, education level rose across the board. The distinction between individual student’s academic ability shrinks and competition for top schools and university admission increases. We have placed the proverbial ox before the cart, when you need to pass an entrance exam to gain entrance to a tuition centre, when parent’s hire tutors to do a child’s homework, when grades are more important than learning. We have reduced “education” to a transactional purchase.

 “In education, we have an infatuation with the culture of one right answer that can be properly bubbled on the average multiple choice test, and I am here to share with you: it is not learning… because learning has to include an amount of failure, because failure is instructional in the process.” – Diana Laufenberg, TEDxMidAtlantic 2010

I believe that we have a part to play to influence the outcomes of education, as parents, as educators, as employers and policy makers. The recent announcement to provide better career progression for non university graduates in the civil service is a bold move in the right direction. It is a signal by the government that we are a meritocratic society; we should hire the most abled person for the job, without care for one’s background or connections or paper qualifications.

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