Education and Social Mobility

I delivered this speech in Parliament on 27 May 2014 as my response to the President’s Mid-Term Address.

Madam Speaker, I will be speaking on education and social mobility. I wish to declare that I own businesses that provide services and products to schools.

Education is a key factor for social mobility. It is often presumed that access to education will ‘level the playing field’ for students of different backgrounds, thus creating an environment where individual merit can be identified and rewarded. Indeed it has been so for a good number of Singaporeans as our country moved from third world to first in a relatively short time.

Today, I wish to warn of dangers that can compromise our ability to achieve social mobility through education.

First, is a danger of education perpetuating class stratification, instead of leveling the playing field. It has been acknowledged both by politicians and scholars that entry into ‘branded’ schools in Singapore is a reflection parents’ social class than of student merit.[1]

Entry into the more prestigious and popular primary schools is based strongly on factors such as the location of the family home and parents’ connections to the school. Former Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew had observed that admission to primary schools is based on the social class of parents. In a parliamentary reply in 2012, it was revealed that only 40% of the students in six of the most popular primary schools live in HDB flats. This contrasts greatly with 80% of all primary school students residing in HDB flats. MOE had replied that this reflected the mix of residential housing in the vicinity of these 6 schools. Given the current primary 1 admission rules, it will mean that those in the higher social classes will continue to have preferences to enter popular schools.

A second worrying data that suggests the reproduction of class is the profile of the Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship holders. In 2008, the PSC revealed that 47% of the PSC scholarship recipients that year lived in HDB flats, and 53% lived in private housing. This is an over representation of private housing as up to 85 per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB flats.

Another set of data that also shows class stratification is the profile of students entering universities. In response to a parliamentary question from Member Sylvia Lim in 2008[2], it was revealed that students from 5-room flats and private housing were more likely to enter university (see table below). MOE tracked the 1990-1992 Primary 1 cohorts until they reached ages 22 to 24 in 2007 in order to ascertain levels of university participation according to household types.

Housing-type Distribution of the 1990-1992 SC/PR P1 Cohorts

Housing-type Distribution of the 1990-1992 SC/PR P1 Cohorts

According to MOE, “1 of every 8 undergraduates comes from poorer families who live in 1- to 3-room flats. When compared with the distribution of households of Primary 1 cohorts, students whose parents are more successful are more likely to make it to university.”[2] From the data, only 13% of those living in 1 to 3-room HDB flats made it to university although they had formed 23% of their primary 1 cohort. In contrast, 19% of those in private housing made it to university when they had formed only 12% of their primary 1 cohort.

MOE’s reply stated that “Admission to our publicly funded universities is strictly on the basis of merit. All those who qualify will have a place, regardless of socio-economic status.” However, the definition of ‘meritocracy’ is premised mainly on good examination results which, in turn, do not reflect structural disadvantages that working class families may face such as not being able to afford good tuition or academic enrichment classes.

Taken together, these trends should compel us to critically examine how we can strengthen education’s role as a key facilitator of social mobility. I will list a few areas for review.

First, there are subtle trends of class stratification within the education system. The practice of dollar-for-dollar topping up of the Child Development Account (CDA) is one such example. Here, parents who allocate more funds to their child’s CDA will get more public funds than parents who cannot afford to allocate as much. This is up to $6,000 each for the first two children, $12,000 each for the third and fourth child, and $18,000 each for the fifth child and beyond. Such a practice has the effect of rewarding higher income households while withholding funds from lower income households. The CDA is often used for pre-school education costs and therefore gives a leg up to children of higher income families. Yesterday, I was quite alarmed to hear from the Senior Parliamentary Secretary Mr Hawazi Diapi that since 2001, only 64% of the CDA budget allocated was actually used. No breakdown was provided by the SPS yesterday, but it will not be surprising to anyone that the lower income group who should be using this scheme for their children’s education are not drawing on the CDA budget.

I wish to propose that the funds be allocated to the CDA automatically and that the quantum be standardized to $10,000 for each child. Parents can have the option of topping up the CDA up to $10,000 for each child, if they so wish, to earn higher interest offered by the CDA, as a way of earmarking savings for the child’s education.

Second, I repeat my concern that student care facilities in schools should expand at a faster rate. Student care is an excellent way to help weaker students through care and coaching programmes within the school, before or after school hours. Demand is very strong across all schools that offer such services. Even with the expansion planned by MOE, more than 1/3 of all schools will still not have school-based student care services by 2016.

The impact is felt most strongly by young families where both parents need to work and alternative care at home or from the extended family is lacking. The demand for student care mirrors the strong demand for child care facilities which had caught the government off-guard and for which we are now rapidly ramping up the supply of places and teachers. We need to put more attention and resources into student care right now. By re-assuring parents that every school will have sufficient and affordable student care places within the school, many young parents could be more reassured to have more children and the need for private tuition will be reduced.

Next, I wish to reiterate a proposal I have presented several times since I entered this House. We currently have a competitive system that relies mainly on academic results to sort students into secondary schools and academic streams. While MOE has repeated stated that ‘Every school is a good school”, parents know which schools and which academic streams are most desired. Secondary schools are today highly differentiated and resourced differently. This has created a huge billion-dollar-a-year private tuition industry for those who can afford to seek additional help to give their children the boost to their academic results to get into the desired schools. A disproportionate effort is being spent on chasing academic scores over and above other forms of educational development.

I hope to see pilot neighbourhood schools offering 10-year integrated programme from primary one to secondary four, or even from kindergarten to secondary four. These schools will allow for holistic development of students without the distraction of high-pressure sorting and streaming examinations. It will allow students of mixed abilities to develop together in the same school throughout the 10 years in an environment that is more representative of our mix in society and in real life.

We also need to constantly guard against developing gap in resources between schools and between programmes. The widening income gap amongst Singaporeans has manifested itself in a variety of ways. So-called ‘branded’ or ‘elite’ schools which have larger alumnus or networks may be able to offer more expensive and more comprehensive learning programmes than neighbourhood schools.

I wish to also reiterate my call for smaller class sizes, especially in primary schools. Most schools in Singapore have a class size of around 40, while Primary 1 and 2 classes have 30 students. This is large compared to the OECD’s average of 21 per class. MOE has constantly emphasized that teaching quality is more important than going for smaller class sizes. I agree that teaching quality is important. However, it does not mean that we cannot move towards having general class sizes that are smaller.

With falling birth rates, it appears from MOE statistics that the cohort of students in primary school is getting smaller each year. In 2012, there were nearly 49,000 students in primary 6, versus less than 39,000 students per level in primary 1 and in primary 2; a difference of 10,000 students a year [3]. In contrast, the number of teachers is increasing. The Education Service has grown from under 30,000 in 2009 to 31,800 in 2012 and is projected to grow to 33,000 by 2015 [4]. I understand some of the increases have been and will be used by schools to decide how the teachers will be flexibly deployed in specific situations, such as for Learning Support Programmes and sometimes to have two teachers in a class of 40.

The best time to do the planning for smaller class sizes is now. With increasingly smaller student enrolment, we may not need a lot more teachers than what MOE had already planned for. We can start to move towards smaller class sizes, say starting at 30 students per class from primary 3 and 4, and then gradually moving towards that ratio for primary 5 and 6. This would also necessitate some re-design of the physical infrastructure in schools to have more classrooms.

The smaller class size will also allow teachers to better understand individual students, which will be essential as we move towards a more holistic character and values-based education system. It will also help make classroom management easier for teachers, who may otherwise not be able to pay attention to the weaker students. In my COS speech last year, I had cited studies which noted that large class-size reductions can have significant long-term effects on students’ achievement, and these effects seem to be largest for students from less advantaged backgrounds.

Finally, I like to add my thoughts on the topic of constructive politics which the President has spoken about. I am all for constructive debate in a contest of ideas, conducted with decorum. I believe that debate should be measured and not personal. At the same time, I believe that there should be an environment where politics is seen to be fair and where important institutions are independent so that we can encourage the development of constructive politics.

I do not mean constructive politics just in this House, as the Speaker had observed that ‘we do have quite a constructive Parliament.’ As the Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party Mr Low Thia Khiang had said yesterday, to achieve constructive politics in a diverse and open society, everyone across society has their part to play.

Since I had started my speech on the topic of education, I like to repeat a call I had made in my maiden speech in this House, which is to have Political Education in schools so we can train up a new generation to be more able to participate in constructive politics.

Political education can be about learning how to handle diversity and disagreement in views. It can help students understand our constitution, the role of various institutions, citizenry rights and obligations, as well as the rationale behind these rights and obligations. It can provide them with platforms to air their views on policies and learn how to handle differences in opinions.

Our education system should allow students to engage deeper into subjects where there are ambiguity, where there are not always clear right and wrong answers. Such education programmes can help our future generation be more confident to deal with the diversity of views in the public spaces when they grow up. This will allow Singapore to move towards more constructive debates in politics as the country matures.

Thank you.

3. MOE Education Statistics Digest
4. and Ibid.

3rd Anniversary of GE2011

It’s the 3rd anniversary of GE2011 today and supposedly mid of current term. I randomly googled and found this video ( which summed up my rollercoaster emotions after 2 months of hard campaigning as a then-newbie. So many people came along the way to help an inexperienced politician. We started with just 2-3 persons walking daily in the first week after I was selected to lead the thrust into Joo Chiat, and it grew into a fairly large team by the end of the campaign. So many residents encouraging us along the way, getting our share of brick-brats, old friends that I found again and many new friends made, and the 5 kg I lost through the daily door-to-door house visits (Alas, the 5 kg was gained back too quickly afterwards and in the wrong places too :>).

Polling day was a mix bag of emotions: Casting my vote at St Pats first thing in morning, then moving from station to station to encourage my polling agents, bumping into residents after their voting who cheered me on, and the tense 2 hours of counting. Up one moment, down the next, and not knowing the results for certain until the last numbers were in. I was asked if I wanted a recount, because it fell just at the allowed 2% limit. I knew it was quite fruitless as I had witnessed the counting and it was impossible to have a 2% error, but we called the recount anyway just to be absolutely certain.

Then began the long drive from Victoria JC counting station to Hougang where we were to assemble for the final results with WP supporters. The two months of events and words in the daily gruelling campaign kept playing through my mind in the 30-min drive: What I could have done better that would have changed the result and the hopes of people which I could not fulfil. One that kept flashing through my mind was that of the retired teacher who phoned me a few days before polling to say “I have been voting for many years with my head. I now believe I must be true to my heart. I am a retiree. I wish to give you something but I have nothing to give. I can only give you my vote.” She was voting for the opposition for the first time. Hers and the hopes of many I met along the way weighed heavily on me as I delivered the short speech in that video, choked with sadness that I had to disappoint them.

I was glad though that the day ended with the major breakthrough of a GRC going to the opposition for the first time, that supposedly impenetrable fortress designed to keep the opposition from playing any big role in local politics. It led the way to two more consecutive by-election victories for the WP subsequently.

Enough of recollections on this GE2011 anniversary morning and back to the long work to build for the future.