Much have been said about funding to schools since the Straits Times reported about funding cuts for top independent schools last week. It turned out that the report had inaccuracies that MOE corrected, with more reports subsequently published in the Straits Times, in TODAY , on ChannelNewsAsia and elsewhere. Nevertheless, MOE has a new funding formula of which details are not known to the public, but it will result in some funding cuts to 4 of the top schools.
Criticisms of MOE’s move include that by Dr Koh Poh Koon, grassroots advisor and PAP’s chairman-designate for Punggol East, who said that ‘telling schools to cut down on air-conditioned classrooms is akin to “removing air-conditioning in A-class (hospital) wards to keep the C-class patients less envious”‘.
I thought that was an inaccurate illustration to use because A-class patients pay a lot more than C-class patients. No one in Singapore really bothers about kids in international schools receiving top-end facilities because their parents paid for them. The funding adjustments are to public schools which are heavily paid for by taxpayers. Entry to public secondary schools and colleges is still mainly based on what the child has achieved academically and to some extent in co-curricula activities, regardless of social status. One cannot supposedly pay their way into a top public school. So the comparison cannot be about Class-A and Class-C wards.
Dr Koh had also said: “Instead of making it comfortable for all students, we have decided to make it equally uncomfortable for everyone… We must not be tempted to ensure equality in society by pulling down those at the top.” and that if the intent was about “making it a so-called level playing field, then it’s really creating equal misery.”
My concern in reading such statements is that they convey to readers that neighbourhood schools in Singapore with poorer resources are uncomfortable and miserable. They also create a sense of envy by those in neighbourhood schools of other educational institutions with better resources.
Two years ago, JC student Kwek Jian Qiang created a storm when he wrote to the forum pages of TODAY implying that the best school facilities must be reserved for those with the best academic results, because they had worked hard to get there. He bemoaned the poor facilities in junior colleges compared to the Institute of Technical Education campuses. I had written to share my concerns about such ways of thinking. My concerns then still apply to this funding debate, that (1) academically good students will feel they deserve and will demand the best facilities; (2) students become jealous if the facilities in their schools are worse that in another school, creating an endless cycle of envy; (3) our youths become over-reliant on having good physical facilities that they lose the ability to improvise and overcome shortages in resources when we are faced with such situations.
(For the records, Kwek Jian Qiang made a quick online apology. I subsequently met him and was glad he has put the episode behind and is now active in serving the community.)
I like to support MOE’s broad direction to make resources more equitable across schools, except that there are not much details put out on what the new funding formula is and how it will improve resources in neighbourhood schools. More than just physical resources, what I feel is important is how learning programmes in neighbourhood schools can improve. Years of PRIME upgrading have already put our public schools’ infrastructure way above that of many other countries.
Improvement can come in many other ways, such as smaller class sizes which Gifted Education children now enjoy. It can also be in the way teachers are deployed to schools. Independent schools have a lot of autonomy in the selection of teachers which other schools do not have. I like to see the discussion moving on to how we can resource neighbourhood schools to improve the learning experience rather than about physical infrastructure.