Sunday 16 September 2012

Levelling playing field for kids

Meritocracy has been undermined by marketisation of education
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2012

ASSOCIATE Professor Jason Tan Eng Thye at the National Institute of Education specialises in education policy, and has been analysing the school ranking system since it was introduced in 1992.

He talks about the latest move to scrap the banding system.

Why was ranking necessary in the first place?

The British began publishing their school ranking tables in 1992. We started in the same year.

The idea at the time, borrowed from the West, was that the schools had been stagnating for so long because they had not been exposed to market forces. So we needed ranking to make them wake up, make them more responsive to consumer demand, just like in the marketplace.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) touted competition as the way to go, in order - supposedly - to improve the overall quality of education for all students.

The theory appeared appealing at first glance: to keep everyone on their toes so they would improve. The trouble in the real world was there wasn't a level playing field.

What effect did it have on the education system?

Schools had to keep competing to attract the desirable students, the ones who would boost the school's ranking. There was a disincentive for school heads to dedicate their schools solely to struggling students or those who had discipline or morale problems, because a school would have to put in that much more effort and time with such students.

You could already see in the mid-90s an element of strategising on the part of the schools. By 1995, some schools had already taken English literature off the syllabus because allegedly it was harder to score well in it.

In response to complaints that the original ranking system was overly focused on academic outcomes, MOE then tried in 2004 to assess schools on a wider spectrum of achievements.

But this simply extended the strategising from the academic to non-academic arena.

For example, some schools have abolished co-curricular activities that don't bring in any awards. Some have resorted to recruiting most or all of their playing teams in strategic sports from overseas.

If you think about it from the viewpoint of providing opportunities for all students, it is at odds with a holistic education.

A lot of the time, students pick up values not so much in the classroom as through personal observation of what school teachers and heads are doing. If they see for themselves that the school is sending the signal that winning is what we're all about, it teaches them that the ends justify the means.

Will scrapping banding end the obsession with academic performance?

The trouble is, there's always the informal grapevine. Even if you don't band the schools any more, there will always be this group of parents and students who will want to know. Despite MOE's repeated claims that every school is a good school, parents' and students' behaviours show that they don't subscribe to that.

Why is this move necessary and why now?

The minister (Mr Heng Swee Keat) is trying to redress the imbalance that was in large part brought about by the marketisation of education in the last two decades.

I guess he must have been hearing feedback that some things have swung too far, that something needs to be done pretty fast to make sure that Singapore's ideals of meritocracy can be realised for more students than is currently the case.

You have to bear in mind too the increasing public disquiet over income inequality.

Education has become the primary means to attain socio-economic mobility. That's part of the meritocratic ideology, that everyone gets a fair shot and you compete equally in the schools, and you can go on to do well in life. However, more and more research shows that this inter-generational social mobility is in danger of slowing down.

In our current set-up, a child's success will depend more and more on parental intervention and strategising. It can turn into what some people call a "parentocracy", rather than meritocracy. Instead of it being based on your own academic merit, it's in danger of being swamped by your parents' active strategising - for example, with private tuition.

How do you think the change will shape the education landscape?

I hope this will help provide less advantaged schools and students with more opportunities to develop students all round. It's tough for the principal of a less prestigious school to attract talented students. There's no way their offer of preferential admission can stack up against that from a branded school.

My hope is that this will go some way at least towards redressing the worrying trend of strategising by schools and an increasingly uneven playing field.

But it won't go all the way because the whole system is still very preoccupied with academic success. Sad to say, that's a major yardstick by which many parents and students still assess the worth of a school.

This is part of a preliminary attempt to make the playing field more level, but it won't go the entire way. There are still elements - such as Direct School Admission - that lend themselves well to parental and schools' strategising. But in fairness to the minister, we can't expect him to totally turn things around right away.

What's your advice for parents in choosing the right school for their kids, now that there is no more banding?

Ultimately, the important decision has to be: What's best for my child?

It's not just the top-end schools that are worthy of consideration. There are plenty of schools that are trying in their own way to provide children with a well-rounded education.

A lot will depend on the involvement of the parent.

For example, attending open houses, collecting brochures, reading online forums, talking to your friends and relatives.

The difficulty is that not every parent is well-placed to do that kind of thing. If only every parent could be this active.

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