Saturday 29 December 2018

Lower fees for students from lower- and middle-income families in independent schools from April 2019

Independent schools to be made more affordable for less well-off
Fees will be more than halved in some cases in bid to enhance the diversity at top schools
By Jolene Ang, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2018

Independent school fees will be cut by more than half, in some cases, for children from low-and middle-income families to increase diversity at Singapore's top schools.

"These are significant steps we are taking to enhance the diversity of independent schools, while preserving their meritorious culture," Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday, while stressing that education was a vital driver of social mobility and that the cost of attending independent schools for students from disadvantaged backgrounds was being addressed.

At Raffles Institution, for instance, which charges $335 a month, children from households with a monthly per capita income of $691 to $1,000 - or a gross household income of $2,751 to $4,000 - will, from next April, pay the same $25 fee as at government schools. Those from families with a monthly per capita income of $1,001 to $1,725 - or a gross household income of $4,001 to $6,900 - will pay $37.50.

Children from the first group of households are now paying $33.50 a month at RI, and those from the next income bracket, $100.50.

Children from the poorest families, with a monthly per capita income of $690 and below - or a gross household income of $2,750 and less - already have fees at independent schools fully subsidised, but can get a new $800 annual scholarship for out-of-pocket expenses.

This UPLIFT scholarship will be open to students from lower-income families at independent schools who performed well in their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and are recipients of the Edusave Scholarship for Independent Schools, or who have qualified through the Direct School Admission scheme. It is also open to students at the School of the Arts and the Singapore Sports School.

Already, 7.5 per cent of pupils living in one-to three-room HDB flats are placed in the top 20 per cent in the PSLE, Mr Ong said at a ceremony to appoint new principals. "We should ensure that they can enter these schools if they want to."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke "very frankly" on this issue during the debate on the President's Address to Parliament, said Mr Ong. "Popular schools, such as certain independent schools, are attracting a greater proportion of students from families with higher socio-economic status. So, diversity in these schools has gone down over the years," he added.

As successful parents invested more to send their children to popular schools, such schools became less diverse over time, Mr Ong said.

Under the new fee scheme, current and new students from low-or middle-income families will pay no fees in some cases, or at the most 1.5 times the fees at government and government-aided schools, the minister said. Previously, the subsidy for students from these families was pegged at different levels.

Mr Ong said tackling inequality "remains an unfinished business of this Government", and education plays a special role. "What better way to ensure social mobility than by preparing our children well for the future?"

Some steps were already under way. For instance, from next year, secondary schools have to ensure that a fifth of their places go to unaffiliated students. "We will review this floor over time," he said.

"Through these (forms of) additional financial assistance, all students, regardless of family income or background, can and should aspire to an education in a school of their choice and need not worry about the cost of education."

The popular schools that would now be more affordable for lower-income students consist of eight independent schools - Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), Hwa Chong Institution, Methodist Girls' School, Nanyang Girls' High School, Raffles Girls' School, Raffles Institution, Singapore Chinese Girls' School and St Joseph's Institution - and two specialised independent schools - NUS High School and the School of Science and Technology, Singapore.

Move to boost diversity at top schools welcomed
Improved bursary scheme a good step but observers say more can be done, like preparing pupils for the challenge
By Jolene Ang, The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2018

The latest efforts to increase diversity at Singapore's top schools by making them affordable for all are a welcome signal, but more still needs to be done, said observers.

Under the enhanced Independent School Bursary (ISB) scheme, students from low-or middle-income families will, from next April, generally pay lower fees than they are charged now at independent schools.

Children from families in the lowest income tier can also qualify for a new $800 annual UPLIFT scholarship for out-of-pocket expenses.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said earlier this week that the enhancements are to put students' and parents' minds at ease, as some are worried about expenses.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan, a former Raffles Institution (RI) boy, said the enhanced scheme is a welcome signal that cost concerns would not get in the way of a student attending an independent school.

Marine Parade GRC MP and FairPrice chief executive Seah Kian Peng, 57, also told The Straits Times: "Education is the best thing that can help the lower-income group break out of the poverty cycle."

Mr Seah was an RI student in the 1970s. His three siblings - two older sisters and one younger brother -also attended Raffles Girls' School and RI during that time.

They lived in a three-room flat in Mattar Road and their father, a printing firm line worker was the family's sole breadwinner. Their mother was a housewife. Had such a scheme been in place then, the Seah family would have benefited greatly.

Mr Seah added that primary schools could help the new initiative by reaching out to the eligible pupils and their parents.

As National University of Singapore economics lecturer Kelvin Seah explained, children from poor families may not be aware of the differences between an independent school and a government one - in terms of curriculum, environment, and resources - and thus "may not recognise the value in applying to such schools".

Associate Professor Tan added that the new scheme alone might not ensure that the top schools would become sufficiently diverse.

After all, many independent schools already have financial assistance schemes of their own.

RI gives subsidies for school trips, as well as scholarships, worth $1,000 to $3,000 a year, to students on financial assistance.

Still, he said, the Ministry of Education's (MOE) nationwide scheme, will have the necessary reach.

But he also cautioned that it was not a silver bullet. "If the students don't qualify for admission in the first place, then the MOE's financial aid cannot be taken advantage of," said Prof Tan. Factors beyond academics may also be at play.

He suggested a concerted effort, including counselling, to prepare these pupils psychologically for the challenge of top schools. "The objective is for the students to not impose any glass ceiling on themselves in terms of the schools they can work towards gaining admission to."

However the bigger challenge, he said, is whether these students feel welcomed in these schools, and whether society encourages them to "shoot for the stars".

Education Minister Ong had revealed that 7.5 per cent of students living in one-to three-room Housing Board flats placed in the top 20 per cent in PSLE.

"These students are eligible for the popular secondary schools with the most stringent entry criteria, and we should ensure that they can enter these schools if they want to," Mr Ong had said.

The MOE said about 14 per cent of students across the eight independent schools and two specialised independent schools received bursaries this year.

Putra Zayan Mohd, who just completed his first year at RI, is the only son of a full-time Grab driver and a housewife. The family lives in a three-room flat in Tampines.

He received a 100 per cent school fees subsidy from the MOE this year, under the ISB scheme.

Putra also received a $3,000 scholarship from the school this year to help cover expenses.

His mother, Madam Srilah Esnain, 51, said Putra has been scoring decent grades even though he has not had any private tuition.

However, she added: "Everyone in RI is so clever, so it can be a little tough. He has to work harder."

Added Prof Tan: "Money has never really been the issue in keeping our schools diverse." What mattered most, he said, was for schools to create an environment in which it did not matter whether a student was well-off or not.

UPLIFT: New Inter-Agency Taskforce to Better Support Students from Disadvantaged Families

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