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Pre-school: Poorer children not disadvantaged?

Photo credit: Mysingapore Blog

by Leong Sze Hian

I refer to the articles "1 in 5 from poorer homes" (ST, Nov 25) and "Parliament turns down NMPs' calls to legislate pre-school education" (Channel News Asia, Nov 25).

According to the articles, Minister of State for Education Masagos Zulkifli told Parliament that there are pupils from the bottom one-third of families who make it to the top one-third of PSLE performers. Children from these families on lower incomes and whose parents are less well educated form 20 per cent of such top scorers.

Does this mean that a child from a richer family has four times the chance compared to a poorer family, of being in the top one-third of PSLE scorers (80 divided by 20 per cent)?

Mr Masagos also cited figures to show that "one in eight undergraduates in public universities lives in a one-, two- or three-room flat. These smaller units make up 30 per cent of all Housing Board flats."

He concluded that those from poorer households also continue to "climb up the education ladder". This is incorrect, as the same statistics actually reveal that the chances of pupils from poorer households may have dropped from the 20 per cent at PSLE, to 12.5 per cent (one in eight) in university!

Another way of putting it may be - does it mean that a poorer family child may see his or her chances of being a university graduate, drop by another 37.5 per cent (12.5 divided by 20 per cent), from PSLE to university?

To what extent, has the rising costs of nursery, day-care, kindergarten, etc, impacted the academic performance probability of such children?

Moreover, I find it to be somewhat inappropriate to use income as the criteria to justify that poorer children are not overly disadvantaged at PSLE, and then use the type of HDB flat as the criteria for justificaion of the same argument in university.

This may be akin to what we call inconsistency in the use of data for analysis and to draw conclusions.

What is the income criteria used to define a lower-income family?

The HDB flat type may also not be the only or best indicator of family income and circumstances that may affect a child's performance.

For example, some of those who live in larger flats, may have less disposable cash for their children's education and related expenses, because of their larger commitments to mortgage payments, service and conservancy charges (S & CC), property tax, etc.

So, can we be given both the income and flat type statistics at both PSLE and university?

Also, more detailed statistics on the comparative performance of children from poorer versus richer families, at vrious household income percentiles and corresponding grades, may give a clearer picture of the impact of economic status on academic performance.

Such statistics could also be given historically, so that we can analyse whether the effect of status on performance has gone up or down over the years.

Almost all other countries in the world, like the Nordic countries, do not skew the financial benefits for children from birth to pre-school, to the advantage of higher-income families, like Singapore.

For example, child tax reliefs, tax rebates, matching contribution to child accounts, etc, do not benefit lower-income families that do not pay any income tax, or do not have the disposable cash to put into children accounts.

Aside from the disadvantages to children from poorer families up to pre-school and beyond, the selection criteria for scholarships, may also be skewed towards children from richer families, because of subjective criteria like extra-curricular and non-academic achievements and activities.

Children from poorer families may not have the funds or time to participate in non-academic activities.

Finally, statistics aside, there were 350 children who did not benefit from pre-school education before going to primary school, in 2009. How many of these children were arguably deprived of an equal start in life, because they came from poorer families?

After all, NMPs Viswa Sadasivan and Audrey Wong had merely proposed a motion for a comprehensive review of pre-school education in Singapore.

By denying even a review, so that there can be a comprehensive study of the issue, is in my view a lacking in compassion and a display of arrogance in brushing-of such an important problem that (without a review - how do we know how serious or widespread the problem is? ) Parliament should at least have voted on.