Parent volunteer scheme should be scrapped

By Perry Tan / Image from Meridian Primary School 

The Education Minister, Heng Swee Keat revealed the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) intent to review the registration process and criteria for primary school student admission via a report by Channel News Asia last year February. He acknowledged his ministry has received criticisms about the primary school system.

The primary school registration and admission system in Singapore is complicated, taking into consideration several factors: a sibling already enrolled, proximity of home to school, parental alumni, clan and church association and parental volunteerism.

The parent volunteer scheme is a controversial and problematic criteria in the current registration process. Essentially, it gives children whose parents perform “volunteer” work for the school of their choice preferential consideration for admission.

This has resulted in a large number of parents signing up to offer their volunteer services to “branded” primary schools, for as many as 2-3 years, up to 80 hours of work or more, before their children are eligible for registration. In the best regarded primary schools, the number of volunteers often exceeds demand, and parents have to take queue numbers and fill in forms stating their professions and spelling out how they can be of service to the schools. Schools then sieve through aspiring volunteers’ “resumes” before selecting those who are able to bring the most value to the schools.

Many parents feel compelled to participate, given the value our society places on grades benchmarked by “branded” schools as opposed to neighbourhood schools which the Minister has reassured are also good but which certainly fall behind in producing sterling grades. Few parents want their children to be “left behind”, especially in Singapore where kiasuism is a national trait. This results in a situation where parents, willingly or unwillingly, sign up in droves to volunteer, ironically turning parental “volunteerism” into a competition amongst parents, creating undue stress for the parents even before their children enter primary school. However, the merit of the scheme is hard to fathom, while the problems it creates are obvious.

The spirit of parental volunteerism is questionable in the way the scheme is implemented. Real parent volunteer work should be performed out of parents’ free will, with the motivation of contributing to the schools’ programmes AFTER their kids gain admission. What is happening now is that parents are doing it before the registration phase to improve the chances of admission. Interestingly but not surprisingly, in most cases, parents stop volunteering once their children gain admission, which suggests that the motive for “volunteering” is solely for admission and the scheme does nothing more than facilitate an exchange of parents’ time and effort for preferential consideration to admission.

The system disadvantages children from less privileged backgrounds and further exacerbates our social class divide. It is well known that schools would select parent volunteers based on their skill sets and the value of work they can bring to the schools. Upper middle class parents who are professionals are more likely to be given the chance to volunteer than parents from blue collar backgrounds. Schools are more likely to select a well-educated mother to help in reading classes than a mother who possesses lower education qualifications. Anecdotes are aplenty on parents who offer their impressive talent to schools: a parent built a satellite dish for the school; another conducted a legal clinic for staff; an ex-national table tennis player coached the school’s team; and everyone has heard about investment guru Jim Rogers’ volunteer work in a prestigious school. Even amongst volunteers, there is differentiation in the value of the service they bring to the table – a parent who has the resources to help a school build an eco-pond is likely to be held in higher esteem than one who serves as a traffic warden.

It is hard to imagine how working class parents holding jobs like hawkers, cleaners and taxi drivers are able to “compete” with their white collar peers. Similarly, parents from the lower strata of society who are struggling to make ends meet are disadvantaged as well, simply because they do not have the time to volunteer. The same applies to single parents and parents who have elderly at home to take care of, which also begs the question: who volunteers on behalf of orphans?

Giving preferential selection to parents who “volunteer” leads to two outcomes. One, branded schools have no shortage of volunteers with high-value skill sets, and non branded schools are hard-pressed for volunteers – resulting in good schools becoming better and the others remaining stagnant. Two, privileged children from upper middle class families have better chances of getting into branded schools, compared to their working class peers.

Lastly, in examining this matter, perhaps we should go back to the fundamental philosophy we hold as a society towards education and social mobility. One of the greatest philosophical underpinnings that made Singapore what it is today is our much vaunted meritocratic system, which rewards the ablest amongst us based on individual merit. The parent volunteer scheme runs contrary to our beliefs – why should the efforts and talent of parents have any bearing on the admission of their children to schools?

Of late, MOE has been talking about the importance of inculcating correct values in our children, and has embarked on the laudable project of developing a curriculum which embeds values that we want to impart to our future generations. What kind of message, therefore, are we sending to our children and society at large when we continue a policy where access to a public good is mediated by the talent and social class of parents?

Two other key criteria for admission consideration – home proximity to school and parental affiliations – have been criticised as benefiting middle and upper middle class children. Since the existing parent volunteerism scheme is similarly class-biased, it is no wonder that the classrooms of our top primary schools are getting increasingly stocked with a disproportionate number of students from well-to-do families, while “neighbourhood” schools get a higher-than-normal percentage of students from working class backgrounds. If left unchecked, what we have is a vicious cycle that compromises meritocracy, entrenches class differentiation and reduces social mobility. This certainly is not an outcome we desire in building an inclusive society.

Whilst it is true that parents’ mentality plays a part in the parental volunteerism “frenzy”, which further widens the gap (or public perception) between branded and unbranded schools, MOE cannot absolve itself from policy responsibility by simply asking parents to chill and telling them that “all schools are good”, because the ministry is the one which sets the regulations for school registration, and it has the power to review them and abolish the existing parent volunteer scheme.

This was first posted in Perry Tan’s facebook post, we thank him for allowing us to reproduce in full here.

This issue was recently brought up again in the news, where parents who become grassroots volunteers in the hope of getting priority for their children in the Primary 1 registration exercise will have to serve twice as long as before. They will have to do at least two years of grassroots work, not one, to qualify for the benefit. (see more)

A letter was written to the ST forum in response to the news, (see more)

“Given that some schools are even discontinuing their priority registration scheme for parent volunteers (“Schools closing door on parent volunteer scheme”; Tuesday), I am curious to know the extent to which the work of PA volunteers specifically benefits schools.

However, my main problem with the PA’s scheme bears repeating. Volunteering should not be about chasing after benefits because this does not promote long-term volunteerism. For example, some parents reportedly stop volunteering once their children start primary school. Does the Education Ministry support encouraging such short-sighted volunteerism among our youth by dangling material benefits in front of them?”

For those who wish to support the notion for the Parent Volunteer Scheme to be scrapped, visit this facebook group, Scrap the Parent Volunteer Scheme for P1 Registration” here.