By Leong Sze Hian
I refer to the article “Poorer kids don’t lag behind, new study finds” (Straits Times, Apr 6).
Poor children no worse off?
It states that “Children from low-income families are no worse off than their richer counterparts in most areas, such as reading and mathematical ability. The only area where they lag behind is their command of spoken English, a new study found.
Funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, the $100,000 project is one of the first longitudinal studies looking at children as young as four years old.”
Please see below for some statistics that may indicate that children from low-income families may be disadvantaged.
“More rich than poor students?
The proportion of students who came from lower-income families was lower in medical school than at the national level, while the proportion from high income families was significantly higher than at the national level. It can be observed that while 32.3% of Singaporean households have a monthly household income of < S$3,000, a significantly lower proportion of medical students (21.9%) fall under this range (p < 0.001). At the other end of the spectrum,while 28.8% of Singaporean households have a monthly income of > S$7,000, a much higher proportion (34.1%)of medical students fall under this range (p < 0.001).” – This means that lower-income families are under-represented, relative to higher-income families.” (”
How do needy medical students cope financially?”, Mar 30)
“Expenditure per ITE student: – 1% p.a. increase?
Government Recurrent Expenditure on Education per Student for ITE grew from $10,586 to $11,914, from 1997/98 to 2011/12.
This is an increase of just 0.9 per cent per annum over the last 14 years.
In contrast, inflation increased by about 1.94 per cent per annum over the same period.
So, does it mean that the real increase was negative, at about minus 1.0 per cent per annum?
As I understand that students in ITE, generally come from lower-income families, relative to university students, why have we been spending less over the years in real terms?” (“ITE students’ real growth in spending minus 1% p.a. last 14 years?”, Mar 24)
Education statistics debate in Parliament?
An old article on education statistics relating to children from low-income families:-
“I refer to the articles “School system ‘still best way to move up’”, “MPs speak for kids from poorer families” and “New chapter in the Singapore story” (ST, Mar 8).
These articles were page after page (four pages) of statistics cited by the Education Minister to more or less dismiss MPs’ concerns that kids from poorer families were disadvantaged. I do not think I have ever seen so many statistics given to support a position in a Parliamentary debate!
Unfortunately, I could not find a single statistic which in my view, is “statistically” relevant to the debate.
Statistics that are quoted, by themselves, may be quite meaningless, unless they are on a comparative basis.
To illustrate this, if we want to say that Group A (poorer kids) is not significantly worse off than Group B (richer kids), then it may be pointless to just cite the statistics for Group A, without Group B’s.
Let me now get into the specifics of the statistics cited:
“How children from the bottom one-third by socio-economic background fare: One in two scores in the top two-thirds at PSLE”
“One in six scores in the top one-third at PSLE”
What we need to know for comparative purposes, is the percentage of richer kids who scores in the top two-thirds too.
“How children from 1 – to 3-room HDB flats fare: One in five scores in the top one-third at PSLE”
We need this data for different time periods, as the proportion of those living in such flats had changed over the years. What we need to know is has this proportion who score well, changed in the last 5, 10, 20, 30 years, etc.
“… one in five scores in the top 30% at O and A levels… One in five goes to university and polys”
What’s the data for richer kids?
Since the proportion of the entire population going to university and polys has increased substantially, this clearly shows that poorer kids are worse off!
“These figures have remained constant even though the number living in 1 to 3-room HDB flats has fallen sharply over the years”
This statement may be “statistically” irrelevant, as all it may indicate is that the lower-income’s chances of performing better, on a relative basis, has remained stagnant.
“Top PSLE pupils- The top 5% come from 95% of schools… Every primary school has at least 10 pupils in the top third of the cohort”
This may be “statistically” of no relevance to the debate, as logically every primary school is made up of both poorer and richer kids.
Citing individual examples?
According to the articles:
“Education Minister Ng Eng Hen calls Hong Siang Huat “a living example of social mobility”. He came from a poor family but is off to Britain on a government scholarship.”
The Minister was quoted as saying:
“My parents had six children. My first home as a young boy was a rental flat in Zion Road. We shared it as tenants with other families”
Citing individuals who made it, may be of no “statistical” relevance, as what we need are the statistics as to the proportion of poorer kids to richer kids, who get scholarships, proportional to their representation in the population.
“More spent on primary and secondary/JC schools. This means having significantly more and better teachers, and having more programmes to meet children’s specific needs”
What has spending more money, which what most countries do, got to do with the argument whether poorer kids are disadvantaged?
I think Straits Times journalist, Li XueYing put the crux of the debate in the right perspective:
“Dr Ng had noted that ensuring social mobility “cannot mean equal outcomes, because students are inherently different”, But can it be that those from low-income families are consistently “inherently different” to such an extent?”
Perhaps the most damning statistics that poorer kids are disadvantaged was the chart from the Ministry of Education (provided by the Straits Times), which showed that the percentage of Primary 1 pupils who lived in 1 to 3-room HDB flats and subsequently progressed to University and/or Polytechnic, has been declining since around 1986.
The statistics cited by the Minister Mentor, that in top schools like Raffles Institution, more than half of the students had fathers who were university graduates, in neighbourhood schools the figure hovered around 10 per cent, etc, was perhaps clearer statistical evidence, that the odds may be stacked against poorer kids.
As to: “… now ITE students in the bottom 15th percentile income bracket (per capita household income of up to $300) will receive $1,000 a year, up from $800 a year”, how significant is this extra help of about 55 cents to a total of $2.74 a day, for a student whose family is clearly struggling on less than $300 per person per month?
In summary, if not for the Straits Times’ reference to the MOE tertiary and Minister Mentor’s data, the entire debate may arguably be a good lesson on statistics for Parliamentarians, on how to try to win a debate with entirely “statistically” irrelevant statistics!” (“A lesson in citing irrelevant statistics“, Apr 27, 2011)
So, arguably, perhaps for every $100,000 funded study that concludes that poor children are not really much worse off, there may be several more studies that may show otherwise.