With effect from 2021, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system will be modified to reduce the number of possible scores from over 200 to just 29. The changes announced in 2016 to the Singapore student’s first major national examination was aimed at promoting holistic education and reducing stress levels. When pressed on why plans had not been bolder and the PSLE completely scrapped, then-Acting Minister for Education Ng Chee Meng replied that “some things are best evolved and not revolutionised.” But why effect an evolution and not a revolution in a system that is so entrenched in social and educational inequalities?
The larger problem for Singapore’s education system is streaming. The PSLE constitutes the first in many stages of a child’s education in which they are sorted into different academic programmes according to their aptitude. In secondary schools, students are selected into more to less intensive academic courses, known as the Express stream and the Normal (Academic) stream respectively—to more technical and vocational courses in the Normal (Technical) stream. Post-secondary education reflects similar pathways in the guises of pre-university programmes (Junior Colleges), diploma institutes (Polytechnics) and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). Meanwhile, the Integrated Programme (IP), introduced in 2002, which allows the top 10 percent of the cohort to participate in a 6-year programme and skip the intermediary O-Level Examinations has expanded from its initial 4 schools to 18 in 2017. While empirical and pedagogical studies have questioned the effectiveness of streaming in maximising learning, I am interested in asking the question of whether Singapore-styled streaming is an egalitarian way of distributing education using John Rawls’ understanding of justice as fairness in A Theory of Justice.
The Difference Principle in Education
Concerned with how to distribute primary social goods in a society that benefits from social cooperation, Rawls develops his thought experiment of the ‘original position’ to select for principles of justice that can be applied to the basic structure of society. This ‘original position’ constitutes a hypothetical deliberative scenario where rational, self-interested parties to a society can be trusted to select just principles under a ‘veil of ignorance’ where personal characteristics such as sex, race, and income group are unknown to themselves. This erases the relevance of contingent facts on the selection process, and the unanimous outcome constitutes what Rawls calls the principles of justice. For him, the two principles he thinks parties in the ‘original position’ will arrive at are: (1) a “scheme of equal basic liberties” applicable to all, and (2) that inequalities are structured to benefit the least advantaged, with “fair equality of opportunity” in accessing offices and positions. This second principle is known as the difference principle and is what we shall be concerned with when considering the distribution of education resources.
Why should we think that education is an appropriate sphere to apply the Rawlsian difference principle? In approaching justice, Rawls is concerned with the basic structure and how “major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” As education often determines to a disproportionate extent one’s access to wealth, income and social respect—or what Rawls terms the “basic social goods”—this makes the case for education to be regarded as a significant institution which affects how the advantages of social cooperation are distributed. We must therefore hold any public education system in a society to the Rawlsian difference principle and ensure that it is structured to benefit the least advantaged group of persons.
Streaming and the Difference Principle
The reality is that resources in education often do not adhere to the difference principle. While the rationale for streaming has been to allow students to develop according to a pace that is suitable to their learning abilities, this has often been used as a poor cover-up for the inegalitarian distribution of resources amongst different streams. A study on inter-generational mobility by Dr. Irene Ng from the National University of Singapore has shown that while Singapore consistently obtains one of the highest scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—Singapore also has a significantly larger score differential between its 10th and 90th decile within the top 12 ranked economies.
One plausible reason is that streaming causes a disproportionately larger share of the education budget to be channeled to more capable students, at the expense of under-performing students. Students in the Express stream, for example, often get access to more co-curricular programmes, leadership opportunities on the basis of their being capable to cope with a wider range of responsibilities. In the Normal streams, the emphasis is often to focus on their academic work since they are already under-performing. But education is never received in isolation, and the differential access to co-curricular resources can often translate to weaker reading, communication and reasoning skills—all of which are developed in co-curricular programmes.
In addition, teachers are also valuable resources that can be understood as being distributed in an unequal way according to streams. A study published in The Curriculum Journal established that because teachers have prejudices against students in Normal streams, they are likely to spend less time on lesson-planning for Normal stream students than for the Express stream. They are also less likely to engage in cross-pedagogical consultation. In effect, while the teachers may not be distributed according to their aptitude, the time and energy differentials that arise from their prejudices—a structural effect of the streaming system—entrench the inequalities that remain within the system.
Finally, as a way of demonstrating how the education budget marginalises the position of the least advantaged: the recent merger of eight government Junior Colleges announced swiftly after the setting up of a new Integrated Programme (IP) school, Eunoia Junior College, has exposed the principle at work in Singapore’s streaming system. Brighter, more capable kids continue to receive generous institutional backing; while what is colloquially referred to as ‘neighbourhood schools’ continue to be neglected by budget cuts and mergers.
Equality in Education: From “Streaming” to “Educational Village”?
If streaming is not defensible under a Rawlsian scheme of equality, what can? Many Singaporeans may find removing streaming programmes objectionable given that the meritocratic and competitive ethos encouraged by streaming, and the difference in learning abilities are two reasons the Ministry of Education has refused to overhaul the system. In fact, a previous Non-Constituency Member of Parliament from the Worker’s Party mentions that one common push-back he has received is the question of “How do we do determine who should go to Raffles?” In short, why reinvent something that has worked for us?
Member of Parliament (MP) Denise Phua from the People’s Action Party has in recent years been offering a plausible solution that responds to the need for educational equality and respecting individual learning styles. She has proposed for the Ministry to pilot an “education village” where students learn together regardless of their ability or background; meanwhile, academically-stronger students can learn via ‘banded’ classes, which are based on individual subjects rather than an entire academic programme. In addition, MP Phua had suggested that the PSLE be scrapped and that a 10-year through-train programme be introduced to move away from early streaming.
While we should be wary not to let these ‘bands’ become an insidious form of alternative streaming, the emphasis on a common programme at an early age and the move away from streaming based on a whole academic programme is a feasible way to move towards a more equal education system. In this education village, presumably, students will have similar access to resources and opportunities, which are not discriminated based on one’s stream. It also de-emphasises one’s “stream” as an identity-marker, which may overcome the structural prejudice they face in the current system that results in social exclusion and future workplace disadvantage based on qualifications. One hopes that students can benefit from teachers who are equally invested in every classroom, and a classroom which is diverse in terms of race, socio-economic class, and ability. Streaming can emphasise ability; but an education village with shared social and academic spaces may be able to negotiate ability with a scheme of fair equality of opportunity and social respect that Rawls thinks is just.
Even with this alternative, many will object; and perhaps this is where we should return to the moral philosopher’s table to reach for clarity. Imagine we as Singaporeans were tasked to construct an education system. We don’t know whether we’ll turn out to be the Raffles students of our cohort or a ‘neighbourhood-calibre’ student. We do however know that our life plans include a good education and the social respect, access to work and a good life that it brings. In front of us are two options: 1) segregated learning and opportunities distributed by competitive streaming, and b) an education village with fair opportunities for every student. How will we choose?
I suspect we may have good reason to choose the latter.
Heng, Mary Anne, and Matthew Atencio. “‘I assume they don’t think!’: teachers’ perceptions
of Normal Technical students in Singapore.” The Curriculum Journal, vol. 28, no. 2,
Lee, Pearl. “3 unhealthy trends plaguing education: Denise Phua.” The Straits Times, 28
Ministry of Education (Singapore). “Integrated Programmes (IP).” 17 February 2017,
16 November 2017.
Ng, Irene Y. H. “Education and intergenerational mobility in Singapore.” Educational
Review, vol. 66, no. 3, 2014.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Belknap Press, 1999, p. 118.
Teng, Amelia. “PSLE scoring revamp: T-score replaced by eight wider grade bands in 2021.”
The Straits Times, 13 July 2016. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/
Yee, Jenn Jong. “Scrapping the PSLE.” Yee Jenn Jong: For a Better Singapore, 18
September 2012, https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/scrapping-the-psle/.
Accessed 30 November 2017.
 Teng, Amelia. “PSLE scoring revamp: T-score replaced by eight wider grade bands in 2021.” The Straits Times, 13 July 2016. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/psle-scoring-revamp-t-score-replaced-by-eight-wider-grade-bands-in-2021
 “Integrated Programmes (IP).” Ministry of Education Singapore, 17 February 2017, https://www.moe.gov.sg/
education/secondary/other/integrated-programme. Accessed 16 November 2017.
 Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Belknap Press, 1999, p. 118.
 Ibid, p. 53
 Ibid, p. 72
 Ibid, p. 6
 Ibid, p. 78
 Ng, Irene Y. H. “Education and intergenerational mobility in Singapore.” Educational Review, vol. 66, no. 3, 2014, pp. 362-376.
 Heng, Mary Anne, and Matthew Atencio. “‘I assume they don’t think!’: teachers’ perceptions of Normal Technical students in Singapore.” The Curriculum Journal, vol. 28, no. 2, 2017, pp. 212-230.
 Yee, Jenn Jong. “Scrapping the PSLE.” Yee Jenn Jong: For a Better Singapore, 18 September 2012, https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/scrapping-the-psle/. Accessed 30 November 2017.
 Lee, Pearl. “3 unhealthy trends plaguing education: Denise Phua.” The Straits Times, 28 January 2016. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/3-unhealthy-trends-plaguing-education-denise-phua