What determines a good school in Singapore

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said at the National Day Rally 2013 that, “every school is a good school”.

However, at the AsiaEducationExpo (AEX) 2013, Vice-Principal of Jurong West Secondary School Pushparani Nadarajah said that, “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? (Only) until they actually do so are parents going to buy (it).”

Indeed, is every school a good school, as PM Lee claims? Let me show you some statistics that will shock you.

(This is a shortened summary article of an article that I had published yesterday.)

A quick background: The PAP government has created schemes such as the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), to cater to the “intellectually gifted”. They have also created the Integrated Programmes (IP) for the “academically strong”. The GEP and IP are essentially similar programmes as the Ministry of Education (MOE) had said that ,”the secondary GEP organised by MOE was integrated into school-based programmes in the Integrated Programme (IP) schools which were hosting the GEP.”

According to the MOE, primary schools which offer the GEP are “provided with additional teachers” and “an annual programme grant of $53 per pupil“. Already, you can see that things are equal.

But, do you know that:

  • GEP students thus do better and “over 90% of GEP students score among the top 10% of PSLE candidates.”
  • It is also easier for them to apply to the schools that they would want to go to as, “on average, over the past five years, more than 80% of each GEP cohort, or around 400 pupils, entered secondary school through the (Direct School Admissions) DSA exercise.”
  • Once they go to the schools which offer the Integrated Programmes of their choice, “of the 94% of the IP students who went on to complete the IP and sat for the A Levels or equivalent qualifications, almost all qualified for publicly-funded universities in Singapore.“
  • And eventually, of the students who then enter university, “from AY2007-2009, over 70% of the applicants to the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (YLL SoM) obtained 4As or better in the GCE ‘A’-level examinations.” They are more likely to come from the elite schools as well.

Chart 1: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

So, you see, the elite pathway will give the students an almost exclusive route to enter the local public universities. But what about students who do not enter elite schools?

If you look at the admissions of polytechnic graduates to university, “over the past ten years, about 200 local polytechnic graduates have been admitted to the Architecture, Dentistry, Law and Medicine undergraduate courses in NUS and SMU,” or an average of 20 students every year. In 2012/2013, there were 741 students who were admitted into these courses at the NUS and around 133 students who were admitted into SMU – a total of 874 students.

So, of the total enrollment of 874 students, polytechnic graduates makes up only 2% of the total enrollment (Chart 2)!

Chart 18: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Not only that, when we look at the admission of local polytechnic graduates to law courses at NUS and SMU from 2007  to 2012, there was only an average of less than 2 students from the polytechnics admitted every year (Chart 3)!

Chart 3: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

The law courses at NUS and SMU admitted 384 students last year, which means that polytechnic admissions only accounted for less than 1% of the total admissions (Chart 4)!

Chart 4: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Shocking, isn’t it? The chances of a polytechnic student entering these courses in next to zero, literally!

Things become clearer when you look at household sizes.

If you look at the students who had attended Raffles Girls’ Primary School, Methodist Girls Primary School, Henry Park Primary School, Anglo Chinese Primary School, Nanyang Primary School and Tao Nan School – schools which offer GEP, only 40% of these students live in HDB flats, as compared to the “80% of all primary school students reside in HDB flats” (Chart 5). Thus students from elite schools come from more well-to-do families.

Chart 5: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Also, “among the Secondary 1 students who enrolled in Integrated Programme (IP) schools in 2009, more than half live in HDB flats.” This is similar to in 2002, where, “about 50% of Singaporean students in Independent Schools live in HDB flats in 2002. (Chart 6)” Again, students from elite schools are more likely to come from high-income households.

Chart 6: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Also, “about 17% (of students from Independent Schools) live in 4-room HDB flats or smaller.” However, among the general population, there is a higher proportion of low-income households, where 56.5% of Singapore residents living in 1- to 4-room flats. Yet, only 17% of the students in the Independent Schools live in 1- to 4-room flats (Chart 7).

Chart 7: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies, Household Size and Structure

Finally, of the students who enter the public universities, only “one in eight undergraduates … come from households who live in 1- to 3-room flats“ – which is about 12.5% (Chart 8). However, there are 24.6% of Singapore residents who live in 1- to 3-room flats. Shouldn’t there be more students from the smaller housing types, and from the lower-income group who should be attending university, but are not able to?

Chart 8: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies, Household Size and Structure

Take a look at the table below to see the students from primary schools in 1990-1992 who eventually made it to university in 2007.

Chart 9: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Of those who had entered Primary One in 1990-1992, only 40% come from higher-income households and live in 5-room & exec HDB flats, or private housing. But of the same cohort who entered university in 2007, this rose to 55%. On the other hand, there were 23% of students in Primary One who live in lower-income households of 1, 2, 3-room HDB flats. But a much lower 13% of the low-income households were able to enter university (Chart 10).

Chart 10: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

So, PM Lee might say that, “every school is a good school”. Then, what happened? Why is the reality so different?

Perhaps Vice-Principal Pushparani Nadarajah had hit the nail on the head – do “our leaders and top officers” even dare to put “their children in ordinary schools near their home”? Does Lee Hsien Loong even buy his own rhetoric that “every school is a good school”?

But, why are things so uneven in Singapore? Perhaps the following statistics will show you why:

Do you know that the PAP government spends the least on education (as a % of GDP), as compared to the high income countries (Chart 11).

Chart 11: World Development Indicators

We also spend the lowest on primary education (Chart 12).

Chart 12: World Development Indicators

And we also spend the lowest on secondary education (Chart 13).

Chart 13: World Development Indicators

And thus our students have the lowest progression into secondary education (Chart 14).

Chart 14: World Development Indicators

What’s happening to the Singapore education system? Why are things so unequal? Why do some students get ahead while other students are prevented from getting ahead?

PM Lee might say that, “we value every child and that we want to give every person the best possible chance to start off well in life,” and that, “I believe we can make every school a good school and we have done a lot of that to ensure that every school provides a good education for the students. We give them the resources, we give them the good teachers, we emphasise values and we have made a lot of progress towards this goal.” But is each school really treated equally?

PM Lee might also say that, “outstanding students must always be able to make it to the top to get into these institutions and you cannot have a closed, self-perpetuating elite.”

But what is he talking about when the statistics show clearly that there is a “closed-self-perpetuating elite”?

The system in Singapore has become very unequal. We are beginning to see the cracks in a system which has become so divisive and unequal that some Singaporeans are falling through the cracks. Education is the cornerstone to any society that can advance and progress. And I am afraid that the PAP government might not be doing enough to prevent these cracks from opening, and to prevent Singaporeans from falling through these cracks.

It is very, very unfortunate.


If you are inspired to want to discuss more about how we can change the education system in Singapore, you can join other Singaporeans at this upcoming workshop to design solutions to make the education system more equal in Singapore. 

For more information, you can visit the Facebook event page here. 

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Written byRoy NgerngPosted inEducation