The income gap and the learning gap

“The city to beat in learning,” crowed the Straits Times in an editorial headline. It was no empty boast.

Shanghai cornered all the glory, topping all three tests – in reading,  maths and science. But Singapore was right behind, coming in second in maths, fourth in science and fifth in reading.

It was no mean achievement, considering half a million 15-year-olds in more than 70 countries took part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests last year. The results were announced last week in Paris by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which holds the tests every three years.

This was the first time both Singapore and Shanghai took part. The participants were ranked according to the average scores of their students.

East Asia outclassed the competition. Hong Kong was third, South Korea fourth and Taiwan fifth in maths. Japan was third and South Korea fifth in science, with Finland, in second place, the only country from outside Asia to finish in the top five.

Singapore finished fifth in reading, but that’s what most excited the Straits Times. The kids beat native English speakers, it said. South Korea was second, Finland third and Hong Kong fourth, but they teach in their own languages. Most schools use Chinese in Hong Kong. Singapore was the only country in the top five where all schools are English-medium.

What makes Singapore so good in education? The educators, of course, say the experts. McKinsey,the management consultants, recently came out with a report called How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better. In Singapore, it says, to be a teacher, you have to graduate in the top third of your class.

Teaching has its rewards in Singapore. The teachers are better paid than civil servants with equivalent qualifications performing general administrative work. The incentives begin even before they start teaching. The Ministry of Education offers overseas scholarships to bright students when they finish high school. In return, when they graduate from foreign universities, they have to come home and teach. They are not confined to the classroom for the rest of their career. They can rise to be senior administrators.

Singapore has the advantage of being a small country with a government-run school system geared to meet the needs of business and industry. The education system has been reformed to keep pace with the knowledge economy.

The less academically inclined can opt for technical education. Many young Singaporeans, on finishing high school, go to a polytechnic instead of a junior college. The two-year junior colleges prepare students for admission to universities as undergraduates; but after three years in a polytechnic, one can land a good job. There is a big demand for polytechnic diploma holders with specialized skills. One reason why the Singapore universities are full of foreign students is that many bright young Singaporeans study overseas on government scholarships while others opt for the polytechnics.

But all is not well with the Singapore education system, according to the OECD report after the PISA tests. While the better off tend to be better educated than the poor almost everywhere, the disparity is greater in Singapore than in several other countries.

To start with, Singapore has the highest income gap after Hong Kong in the developed world, according to the United Nations’ 2010 Human Development Report. But the poor did better in Hong Kong than in Singapore, according to the OECD report. The reading test showed 18 per cent of the Hong Kong students were “resilient” – able to overcome their socioeconomic disadvantages and do well – compared with 12 per cent in Singapore. Family income and status made a 15 per cent difference in the reading test scores in Singapore – more than in Hong Kong (5 per cent), Finland (8 per cent), Japan and Canada (9 per cent each) and higher than the OECD average (14 per cent).

This goes against Singapore’s meritocratic system. Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew recently acknowledged that admission to primary school is not meritocratic but depends on a child’s family background. A child with a brother or a sister in the same school, or whose parents are its alumni, gets special consideration. They are registered separately for admission than other children. However, MM Lee added bright children are admitted on merit in good secondary schools.

The question is, aren’t children from good primary schools more likely to get into good secondary schools?

Singapore does have a meritocratic system in that it spends generously on education, offers scholarships to good students and pays well to attract talented people to government service. But the fact is the better off can also help their children do better. A Straits Times columnist has been writing a series on whether hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming and other psychological boosters can help children improve their grades.

On the other hand, there are children whose parents can barely make ends meet. While the richest 20 per cent saw their median income rise to more than S$7,000 (more than Rs 2.4 lakh) a month last year, the poorest 20 per cent had a median income of less than S$750 a month. How do they cope? Even a loaf of bread costs more than a dollar, the minimum bus fare is 71 cents. Based on government surveys, a household of four needs a minimum of S$1,700 a month to cover basic costs of living like food and utilities.

When the poor earn less than their minimum needs, how can they catch up with the others? Singapore, it seems, has the same problem as India.

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