By Howard Lee
The debate that surrounded the Ministry of Education cutting funding to some independent schools was perhaps blown a little out of proportion. And by this, I mean neither the air-conditioning at the centre of the dispute, nor MOE’s claim that they have been quoted out of context. Indeed, the rhetoric basically meant that the core issue of what it means to provide a quality education was never discussed.
MOE later clarified that the funding cut was due to a revision of the funding formula for schools, and the recommendations made at the crux of the controversy – for affected schools to cut down on their air-conditioning usage to compensate for the lowered funding – was misreported.
That, however, did not prevent Dr Koh Poh Koon, the PAP candidate who lost the Punggol East by-election last year, from weighing in on the issue. Commenting on his Facebook page, Dr Koh opined that “Its (sic) like saying instead of making it comfortable for ALL students, we have decided to make it equally uncomfortable for everyone… We must not be tempted to ensure equality in society by pulling down those at the top.”
It is quite easy to sympathise with MOE on this issue. It would seem that the Ministry is doing little more than ensure equitable funding to all schools. This was unfortunately lambasted for its excessive socialist approach, or appealing to the lowest common denominator. If MOE had continued as before to fund well-off independent schools, regardless of their intake numbers, it would have been chastised for favouring elitism. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
But the taking of sides in this issue is irrelevant. For parents or educators, to focus on the issue as one of how well schools are equipped as a measure of how good a school is, would be to miss the entire point of what the Ministry’s “every school is a good school” concept should really be about.
Facilities at schools do play an important part in education. We have progressed far as a nation, and the classrooms of old have given way to technology, learning environments that have the potential to stimulate imagination and enhance learning. But to look at technology as the determinant factor in raising education standards, as Dr Koh has and other like-minded parents would likely have done, is to enslave ourselves to the endless pursuit of upgrading.
We have let ourselves fall into the trap of thinking a school is better if it has better facilities to show for it.
And the Ministry has not done anything in recent years to dissuade this new rat race. To move focus away from an excessive focus on academic achievement, MOE played up publicity around the unique specialisations of each school – sporting achievement, special co-curricular activities, school culture and heritage, IT equipment, and others such. A comfortable learning environment figured in this equation as well.
While these create more diversity and, rightly or wrongly, levels of school achievement that move away from purely academic ones, schools keen to compete in these new levels have a new problem: The need to demonstrate these achievements to parents. Physical facilities are the most tangible proof, something that you can troop around in during an open house.
It is impossible for the government to level up every school immediately to the same level of facilities, nor was it interested in doing so. Schools are left to do their own fund raising, and the greater the amount asked from parents, the larger the proof needs to be. The rest is plain economics.
In that sense, the move away from academic achievement was little more than adding more angles of competition, without actually relieving the pressure valve at the core of why parents compete to get their children into “good schools”.
And there is something fundamentally wrong when our basis for evaluating the quality of a school is centered on what we can see before our eyes, rather than the quality of the education provided by each school.
The politics of envy are at play, and all of us merely actors. To really change the perpetual cycle – air-conditioning today, something else tomorrow – we need to change the script, to one that puts the student at the centre.
It is not about putting air-conditioning into every classroom, but thinking of ways to engage students even in adverse weather. It is not about having the best basketball coach, but thinking of ways to allow aspiring basketball stars to reach their potential. It is not about having the coolest heritage centre, but putting in programmes that intrigue students and encourage them to discover beyond the classroom.
The cost of installing and maintaining high-end facilities is exorbitant, and fueling this habit can only mean that we will never have enough funds to build and run all the “necessary things” that we have created and use to measure how good a school is.
But if we were to take a step back and think about what really makes education good, facilities become secondary. Because there is really nothing more assuring than a school that does all it can to make the lives of its students better, no matter what little facilities it has.