TOC’s Youth Week kicks off with this article by 15-year old student Pearl Lee. She writes on the issue of elites and elitism in schools and why Singapore’s school system breeds elitism, particularly the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and the Integrated Programme (IP).

Pearl Lee / Student

Love them or hate them, elites are present everywhere in the world – in politics, in the workforce, and in sports. It is undeniable that elites have to be present in order to ensure a continuously progressing society. However, with the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) in place here in Singapore, the very word “elite” takes on a different meaning altogether.

Gifted education in Singapore causes two problems. Firstly, it gives rise to elitism. Secondly, it results in reverse discrimination — giving rise to a growing stigma against elites. We should not question the presence of elites. A society needs elites in order to progress, but a society definitely does not need elitism, the bashing of the elites themselves, and unequal and unmeritocratic education policies.

Early intervention

The education process in Singapore is succinctly illustrated in this diagram taken from the Ministry of Education’s website (see picture right, click to enlarge). The presence of streaming — which causes the discrimination of EM3 students in the past —was a hotly debated topic, as judged by articles in the media about the social divides between streamed classes.

Streaming at Primary Four has now been replaced by customized learning in subject-based banding called the Learning Support Programme (LSP). The LSP is a specialised early intervention programme aimed at providing learning support to pupils who enter Primary 1 with weak English language and literacy skills. Pupils are identified for LSP through a systematic screening process carried out at the beginning of Primary 1 (MOE, 2008).

Likewise, the Learning Support Mathematics programme is an early intervention scheme to provide additional support to pupils with a shaky Mathematical foundation and do not have the knowledge to access the Primary 1 Math curriculum. This is viewed as a means of support for students who are falling behind academically and preventing the academic gap from exacerbating further as they move on to higher levels of Primary education.

However, despite this measure taken at a Primary school level, the GEP and the Integrated Programme (IP) are still the main factors causing the rise of elitism mindsets and discrimination against elite students.

The mission of the GEP, according to the Ministry of Education (MOE), is to provide leadership in the education of the intellectually gifted. Gifted individuals are “nurtured to their full potential for the fulfillment of self and betterment of society”. It is generally acknowledged that one has to be the “top one per cent of the cohort” and fare excellently in the Intelligent Quotient test as well.

GEP contradicts “equal opportunities”

The image on the left is taken from a Facebook group called “Don’t hate me because I am Gifted“, which has over one thousand and six hundred individuals. This is a group where Facebook users previously or currently from the GEP join. Recently, there was much discussion on the group about printing tee shirts. This is one such design.

The presence of GEP contradicts Singapore’s idea of creating “equal opportunities”. MOE constantly stresses that the education system is ‘meritocratic and ability-driven’. However, to be a meritocratic society, all citizens have the opportunity to be recognized and advance in proportion to their abilities and accomplishments. Equal opportunity comes for citizens to display their recognition of abilities. In Singapore’s context, what is preached is not being practised as one is recognized for abilities first before opportunities come around.

With the use of the word intellectual “gifted”-ness, which means having an inborn intellectual ability higher than average, GEP breeds elitism as young students grow to believe that their self-worth and intellect is confirmed by being in the programme, determined by mere academic test scores. Students who are not in the programme lose faith in their potential, and are displeased at the various widened opportunities given to GEP students which are not provided to them.

Parents too, contribute to the existence of social stratification. After all, who doesn’t want an elite education for their child, and the tag of having an elite mind that automatically comes with it as well? This leads to elitist attitudes in both child and parent, and the bashing of GEP students by those who fail to get through the selection.

Definition of “elite” should be redefined

It can be argued that creating equal opportunities means not only widening resources to more students, but also to provide students with greater intellectual ability with a more fitting learning experience. However, even intellectual abilities can be broken down into different subjects, for example, mathematical, linguistic or scientific. A fantastic test score for a general exam does not necessarily make you a truly elite student, much less the rudimentary language, scientific and mathematical skills primary students are assessed on during the GEP selection.

There are also multiple intelligences that encompass many different areas, e.g. naturalistic, visual-spatial, musical and so on. The definition of ‘elite’ should be redefined. Elites should not come under a class of educational excellence defined by an ideal model set by the government. Potential is defined as being a true measure of capability of development into actuality. Should that be the case, despite GEP students being seen as having the most academic potential, they are in fact merely the best scorers in the selection test which has a very small scope of selection criteria. GEP is an inherently flawed system and promotes elitism in the process. The selection criteria and the scope of selection should be reviewed.

Opportunities cannot be limited to only a handful of pupils who continue to receive these benefits throughout their whole lives while students who were unable to get a headstart will continually fall behind.

Integrated Programme

Another such hindrance is the Integrated Programme or IP. The IP was implemented in 2004 to provide a seamless secondary and Junior College enriched education without requiring pupils to sit for the GCE O-Level Examination. The time “saved” by not having to prepare for the GCE O-Level Examination is used to develop pupils’ intellectual curiosity, encourage them to undertake research work and provide a broad-based education that is more in tune with desired real-world competencies. More on the IP can be found on the MOE website.

Also, schools offering IP assess students not based on an ‘O’ level syllabus but one developed by that individual school. Every IP school’s end-of-year exams differs in format and topics tested. Without a uniform criteria of admission into the IP schools, non-IP students will have less likely a chance of getting into the junior colleges due to unequal levels of competition. Also, there is no baseline criteria for determining if a secondary school student enjoying the benefits of the IP deserves to move on to the junior college.

The myth that non-IP students are less academically or intellectually-able than IP students is further aggravated should they fare badly in an education system they are unaccustomed to when they enter these IP schools due to different examination or teaching formats. This contributes to the academically elite students’ belief in their prestige of being in a school undergoing an elite education.

Conversely, a flawed education system can result in discrimination against elites. Many students studying in top schools have been labeled “elitist” or “snobs” despite the fact that it is not true. Students in top schools have also taken up social projects like environmental protection, reducing world poverty and organising inter-school newspaper collection programmes.

There is not enough communication between students from various levels because of the little time students have outside of academic work. Singapore should rethink the definition of an elite student and an elite education. The current model of education creates no equal opportunity among students of different ability, resulting not in a gracious society but one of division.


About the author:

Pearl Lee is “15 going on 16”. She describes herself as an “average dysfunctional student.” She is interested in all visual/performing arts (and shopping trips), and enjoys sleeping during lessons. She prefers to ignore people when she is not coming up with painfully bad jokes to drive them mad.


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