Expelling Inequality from Primary School Admissions

Singapore’s meritocratic education system is commonly viewed as a social leveller[1]. However, it has recently been critiqued and challenged by Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like[2].  This essay examines the very beginning of formal education – primary school admissions – and argues that it fails to meet political theorist Michael Walzer’s Theory of Complex Equality, instead institutionalising social inequality from the very start of formal education. Foremost, I will briefly describe Singapore’s primary school admissions process and highlight the many practically laudable aspects. Thereafter, I examine admissions using Walzer’s Theory of Complex Equality and argue that the admissions process incorporated criteria with no intrinsic connection to primary school education whatsoever. I then claim that this reproduces class divides. Next, I address a possible Dworkinian objection to my argument and conclude with some recommendations.

Singapore’s primary school admissions process is split into seven distinct phases of decreasing priority, with differing criteria[3]. If applications to a school exceed the places available in any phase, balloting is conducted based on the distance between one’s house from the school (“home-school distance”)[4]. Essentially, a child’s chance of enrolling in a particular primary school significantly increases if he/she satisfies the criteria for an earlier phase and lives nearer to the school.

There are many praiseworthy aspects of the admissions process. The criterion for Phase 1 (highest priority) is that the child “has a sibling studying in the primary school”[5]. Practically, this makes sense. Siblings can look out for each other and provide emotional support. Being in the same school also means they will probably use the same textbooks so parents can save on costs. Moreover, fetching their children to and from school would be a one-stop endeavour. These emotional support and transport arguments also apply to children with parents working in the school (Phase 2A(2))[6].

Children gain higher priority under phase 2B if their parents volunteer at the primary school for minimally 40 hours for at least a year[7]. This Parent Volunteer Scheme (“PVS”) “encourage[s] parents to develop personal involvement and commitment to the school”[8]. It also capitalises on the wealth of talent that parents provide to benefit the school’s current students.

Having a balloting system based on home-school distance minimises travel time, allowing children to wake up later, benefiting from more sleep. Additionally, children will be more familiar with their surroundings. Therefore, it is clear that many practical considerations undergird the primary school admissions process and credit is due in this regard.

However, I will now assess the admissions process from the theoretical lens of Michael Walzer’s Theory of Complex Equality. Walzer believes in a pluralistic distributive system where “[e]very social good [] constitutes [] a distributive sphere within which only certain criteria and arrangements are appropriate”[9]. This stems from his view that every social good has its own intrinsic meaning that breeds different distributive principles. Adherence to these principles is just[10], while disregard constitutes “tyranny”[11]. Hence, Walzer opines that justice demands that goods be distributed according to society’s shared conception of their nature and purpose[12]. Any conversion of one social good to another, “when there is no intrinsic connection between the two”[13], invades the rightful sphere of influence of another social good in a form of unjustified “social alchemy”[14].

Walzer’s theory makes intuitive sense. To illustrate, it seems right that beauty contests are won by the most beautiful and singing competitions by the best singer. However, it becomes unjust and tyrannical when these metrics are swapped – where beauty contests are won by the best singer and singing competitions by the most beautiful. This is what Walzer means by every social good having its own distributive principle based on its intrinsic meaning.

What then is the intrinsic meaning of primary school education in Singapore? Notably, the Compulsory Education Act[15] stipulates that primary school education is compulsory for every Singaporean citizen residing in Singapore born after 1996 . As the only compulsory form of education, primary education should be basic, ensuring that children have “the necessary common core of knowledge and strong foundation for further education”[16]. If primary education is basic and compulsory, it suggests that everyone should have an equal chance in getting their children into their desired schools. As the current Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung says, there should be no “social stratification”[17] in education since it is popularly seen as a class leveller[18].

Within this Walzerian frame, I now re-examine primary school admissions. Phases 2A(1) and 2A(2) grant children higher priority if they have parents or siblings who are alumni[19]. I submit that an admissions process based on alumnal affiliation has no place in the distribution of basic, compulsory education. In fact, it may even reproduce class divides because children are funnelled into their parents’ schools. There is no intrinsic reason why one’s parents’ schools should make any difference in one’s own schooling choice. While having a sibling concurrently studying in the same school is defensible on practical grounds, the argument falls apart for graduated siblings because this implies a minimum age difference of 6 years, the duration in which the Ministry of Education (“MOE”) reviews its syllabus[20] and, presumably, changes textbooks.

Next, volunteering also bears no relation to primary school admissions. The PVS favours families with parents with spare time to volunteer. Unsurprisingly, this favours wealthier families that can afford to have one non-working parent. It is also skewed against low wage workers who, tending to have “virtually no bargaining power”[21] regarding their unpredictable work schedules[22] and “limited or no leave benefits”, feel disempowered to even ask for time off[23]. In the event that these low wage parents manage to make time to volunteer, it would conceivably come at a larger sacrifice than their wealthier counterparts. More perversely, schools with many volunteer applications began selecting volunteers based on their perceived contribution to the school with ‘skilled’ volunteers, such as sports coaches, being preferentially chosen over ‘unskilled’ volunteers, like traffic wardens[24]. Hence, the PVS has unwittingly created a scheme in which the poor are cumulatively disfavoured in terms of availability, cost and selection.

Similarly, balloting also incorporates wealth into the admissions process. Firstly, not all neighbourhoods have the same housing costs, resulting in social stratification between schools from different locations. Secondly, while rare, some families move houses in the years before Primary 1 registration to gain an advantage in the ballot, prompting MOE to impose more onerous regulations recently[25]. Although more difficult now, it can be assumed that the practice, limited to those with the financial power to do so, still occurs. Thus, while well-intentioned, balloting has allowed wealth to factor into the admissions process, contributing to social stratification.

Hence, if we view primary education as compulsory basic education, it appears that the primary school admissions system has failed to meet the requirements of complex equality in that other non-related social goods, such as wealth and affiliation, have been allowed to infiltrate the distributive process.

Advocates of Ronald Dworkin’s Equality of Resources might raise the objection that we should respect the choices that parents make to benefit their children. Specifically, if parents decide to bear the costs of carving out time to volunteer in a primary school, those who do not volunteer have no right to be envious[26], satisfying Dworkin’s “envy test”[27] of equal distributions. After all, it was intended that “volunteering [] entails some personal sacrifice and adjustment” of “personal commitments”[28]. Likewise, home-school distance priority constitutes “option luck”[29], meaning that it is based off an intentional, calculated gamble in choosing where to stay. Dworkinian advocates would argue that this option luck needs no equalising[30].

However, adopting a Dworkinian lens presupposes that everyone has equal resources[31] and the same choices available[32]. This presupposition does not hold in reality owing to wealth differentials. The poor face pressing material needs and enjoy a lesser degree of free choice from a pool of poorer choices compared to the rich. Faced with this factual reality, the Dworkinian objection is unconvincing.

In conclusion, an egalitarian enterprise involves demarcating distributive spheres based on the intrinsic meanings of social goods[33]. If we view primary education as compulsory basic education, we should militate against the unwarranted interference of unrelated social goods like alumnal affiliation and money. The policy to reserve 20 places in phases 2B and 2C in 2014 to ensure that children without prior connections to popular schools have a chance of entering popular schools[34] is a promising step. Nonetheless, competition is only meaningful due to the perception that primary schools differ in standard. If “every school is a good school”[35], there is no reason for excessive competition in the higher-priority phases, especially from those who stay further away. Instead of the secondary role it currently plays in managing excess demand, home-school distance would be the main consideration in primary school admissions for practical reasons, and without entrenching inequality. It is time our approach to primary education matched its ascribed meaning.

 

Footnotes

[1] Mokhtar, Faris. “Education System Continues to be a ‘Great Social Leveller’, Says Ong Ye Kung.” Today, May 31, 2018. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/education-system-continues-be-great-social-leveller-says-ong-ye-kung.

[2] Teo, You Yenn. This is what inequality looks like. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018.

[3] Ministry of Education. “Registration Phases and Procedures.” Ministry of Education. Last modified August 14, 2018. https://www.moe.gov.sg/admissions/primary-one-registration/phases.

[4] Ministry of Education. “Allocation of Places.” Ministry of Education. Last modified July 13, 2018. https://www.moe.gov.sg/admissions/primary-one-registration/allocation.

[5] Ministry of Education. “Registration Phases and Procedures.” Ministry of Education. Last modified August 14, 2018. https://www.moe.gov.sg/admissions/primary-one-registration/phases.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Shanmugaratnam, Tharman. Primary 1 Registration Exercise (Performance of Voluntary Service by Parents). Singapore: Parliament of Singapore, 2005, col 1615. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic?reportid=027_20051017_S0007_T0007.

[9] Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books, 1983, 10.

[10] Ibid., 9.

[11] Ibid., 19.

[12] Ibid., 7.

[13] Ibid., 19.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Compulsory Education Act 2001 (Singapore). Cap 51, Rev Ed, s. 3.  https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/CEA2000.

[16] Teo, Chee Hean. Compulsory Education Bill. Singapore: Parliament of Singapore, 2000. Col 838. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic?reportid=023_20001009_S0003_T0006.

[17] Yuen, Sin. “Ong Ye Kung Flags Stratification ‘Poison’.” Straits Times, May 16, 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/ong-ye-kung-flags-stratification-poison.

[18] Mokhtar, Faris. “Education System Continues to be a ‘Great Social Leveller’, Says Ong Ye Kung.” Today, May 31, 2018. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/education-system-continues-be-great-social-leveller-says-ong-ye-kung.

[19] Ministry of Education. “Registration Phases and Procedures.” Ministry of Education. Last modified August 14, 2018. https://www.moe.gov.sg/admissions/primary-one-registration/phases.

[20] Ng, Jing Yng. “Primary School Maths Syllabus Gets Refreshed.” Today, January 31, 2016. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/primary-school-mathematics-syllabus-gets-refreshed.

[21] Teo, You Yenn. This is what inequality looks like. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018, 83.

[22] Ibid., 82.

[23] Ibid., 84.

[24] Lee, Pearl. “Primary 1 Registration: 5 Things To Know About the Popular Parent Volunteer Scheme.” Straits Times, June 10, 2014. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/primary-1-registration-5-things-to-know-about-the-popular-parent-volunteer.

[25] Teng, Amelia. “P1 Registration: Child Must Live at Declared Address for at Least 30 Months from July 2, 2015.” Straits Times, May 25, 2015. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/p1-registration-child-must-live-at-declared-address-for-at-least-30-months-from.

[26] Dworkin, Ronald. “What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 10, no. 4 (Fall 1981), 283-345, 304.

[27] Ibid., 289.

[28] Shanmugaratnam, Tharman. Primary 1 Registration Exercise (Performance of Voluntary Service by Parents). Singapore: Parliament of Singapore, 2005, col 1615. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic?reportid=027_20051017_S0007_T0007.

[29] Dworkin, Ronald. “What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 10, no. 4 (Fall 1981), 283-345, 293.

[30] Ibid., 293-296.

[31] Ibid., 286.

[32] Ibid., 296.

[33] Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books, 1983, 28.

[34] Heng, Swee Keat. Sufficiency of Forty Places for Phase 2B and Phase 2C of Primary 1 Registration. Singapore: Parliament of Singapore, 2014. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic?reportid=009_20140908_S0007_T0005.

[35] Ministry of Education. “Every School A Good School.” Ministry of Education. Last modified September 8, 2017. https://www.moe.gov.sg/education/education-system/every-school-a-good-school.

 

Bibliography

Compulsory Education Act 2001 (Singapore). Cap 51, Rev Ed, s. 3.  https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/CEA2000.

Dworkin, Ronald. “What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 10, no. 4 (Fall 1981), 283-345.

Heng, Swee Keat. Sufficiency of Forty Places for Phase 2B and Phase 2C of Primary 1 Registration. Singapore: Parliament of Singapore, 2014. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic?reportid=009_20140908_S0007_T0005.

Lee, Pearl. “Primary 1 Registration: 5 Things To Know About the Popular Parent Volunteer Scheme.” Straits Times, June 10, 2014. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/primary-1-registration-5-things-to-know-about-the-popular-parent-volunteer.

Ministry of Education. “Allocation of Places.” Ministry of Education. Last modified July 13, 2018. https://www.moe.gov.sg/admissions/primary-one-registration/allocation.

Ministry of Education. “Every School A Good School.” Ministry of Education. Last modified September 8, 2017. https://www.moe.gov.sg/education/education-system/every-school-a-good-school.

Ministry of Education. “Registration Phases and Procedures.” Ministry of Education. Last modified August 14, 2018. https://www.moe.gov.sg/admissions/primary-one-registration/phases.

Mokhtar, Faris. “Education System Continues to be a ‘Great Social Leveller’, Says Ong Ye Kung.” Today, May 31, 2018. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/education-system-continues-be-great-social-leveller-says-ong-ye-kung.

Ng, Jing Yng. “Primary School Maths Syllabus Gets Refreshed.” Today, January 31, 2016. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/primary-school-mathematics-syllabus-gets-refreshed.

Shanmugaratnam, Tharman. Primary 1 Registration Exercise (Performance of Voluntary Service by Parents). Singapore: Parliament of Singapore, 2005, col 1615. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic?reportid=027_20051017_S0007_T0007.

Teng, Amelia. “P1 Registration: Child Must Live at Declared Address for at Least 30 Months from July 2, 2015.” Straits Times, May 25, 2015. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/p1-registration-child-must-live-at-declared-address-for-at-least-30-months-from.

Teo, Chee Hean. Compulsory Education Bill. Singapore: Parliament of Singapore, 2000. Col 838. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic?reportid=023_20001009_S0003_T0006.

Teo, You Yenn. This is what inequality looks like. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018.

Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Yuen, Sin. “Ong Ye Kung Flags Stratification ‘Poison’.” Straits Times, May 16, 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/ong-ye-kung-flags-stratification-poison.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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