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Education Minister reiterate importance of “meritocracy” and defend PSLE in light of NMPs calling for it to be scrapped

In response to a Parliamentary motion filed by five Nominated MPs on “Education for our Future”, Minister of Education Mr Ong Ye Kung emphasised that assisting students of underprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds should not come at the expense of principles such as meritocracy that have long become the cornerstone of the Singapore education system.

In a speech in the Parliament on 11 July that outlined the main tenets of the education system in Singapore, Mr Ong has called upon Singaporeans to not lose hope in the principle of meritocracy, which he believes is “in danger of becoming a dirty word”.

The Minister stated that "Meritocracy," at its core, "recognises talent and ability, over wealth and circumstance of birth", which he believes has been the backbone of the Singapore education system, and perhaps Singapore society as a whole.

Thus, he said that “setting a quota” in “popular schools” for students from low-income families is not only contrary to “our societal ethos”, but is also “patronising” towards the innate abilities of such students, as it might be implied that their socioeconomic status is the primary reason why they are able to gain admission to such schools.

Mr Ong highlighted that “many of our popular schools are putting in extra efforts to attract eligible students from lower income families” in a bid to encourage “diversity" and greater assimilation among different levels of the socioeconomic strata”.

However, the existence of structural barriers in contemporary Singapore society brings into question the concept of meritocracy as a tangible reality.

Associate Professor and Head of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, Dr Teo You Yenn posits in her work, "This Is What Inequality Looks like", that socioeconomic inequality is manifested through the capacity of some middle-class to upper-class parents to afford paying for tuition to supplement their children's lessons in school, which gives their children a massive advantage over children of the same, or even superior, ability, who hail from working-class backgrounds.

She has also explained how by Primary 3, many children from low-income families are tracked and banded into lower-performing classes, which indicates that the education system might not be as meritocratic as suggested by Mr Ong.

However, Mr Ong has acknowledged "the paradox of education", in which he illustrated that "children today from more affluent families are now doing better from those from lower income families in school", and that meritocracy "seems to have paradoxically resulted in systemic unfairness".

Thus, the Minister has proposed the broadening of the "definition of merit” that "recognises a broad meritocracy of skills”, which lies at the heart of SkillsFuture, a "national movement to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points”.

He also highlighted that the pedagogical experience in schools is being geared towards a "more experiential, applied, and exploratory” one that “lead to lifelong learning” as opposed to merely chasing academic achievement in themselves.

He said, "As the educators in MOE will say in Chinese – 保底不封顶 – don’t cap the top, but uplift the bottom."

Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) should not be scrapped, Education Ministers insist

In his speech, Mr Ong addressed the PSLE, which he branded as "one of the sacred cows" of the Singapore education system.

He admitted that the examination "is far from a perfect system" and adds a great deal of "stress [...] to some students and parents".

However, he insisted that it is still the "most meritocratic, and probably the most fair, of all imperfect systems", suggesting that the Ministry of Education has no plans on abolishing the PSLE.

Mr Ong reasoned that the alternative that may be used to "decide on secondary school postings" is "likely to be worse".

He cited the education systems of Switzerland and Hong Kong, both of which had abolished their equivalent of PSLE.

However, it is found that most students do not have a choice as to which schools they could attend, as they are allocated their schools by proximity to their homes, in comparison to the meritocratic system in Singapore.

Children from affluent families, however, are sent to private schools.

He had also asked for the opinion of the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), a council that runs a Supervised Homework Group programme "where young volunteers spend few hours a week tutoring and helping students from lower income families with their homework".

It was found, according to Mr Ong, that the council disagreed with scrapping PSLE, as there are "resources" to help students from low income families, such as their aforementioned programme.

They added that the PSLE can also become an incentive for primary school leavers to work hard to achieve good results from a young age, as their results will inevitably determine whether they will enter the secondary school of their choice.

Second Minister for Education, Ms Indranee Rajah reaffirmed Mr Ong's statement, saying that "We are not removing the PSLE, but the transformation is still taking place as we move more towards Applied Learning".

In the Parliamentary motion, playwright and arts educator Mr Kok Heng Leun was one of the five Nominated MPs who had strongly advocated for the "slaughtering" of the "sacred cow of the PSLE".

Citing the Scandinavian education model, he expressed support for his fellow MP Denise Phua regarding her suggested master plan, which "should include looking at classroom sizes, assessment models, and the capacity of teachers".

In contrast, Mr Kok said, "our assessment methods are still focused on the quantity that students have learnt, rather than the quality of their learning and retention".

 He suggested greater utilisation of "diagnostic assessments", which should not be used solely to track a student's Key Performance Indicators (KPI), but instead "to harness his or her skills, to address his or her needs, and to encourage and groom each child’s unique strengths" based on the knowledge obtained about a student's interests and abilities.

Nominated MP Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin concurred that the PSLE should be scrapped, as she believes that it is crucial to give "more time and space for teachers to develop our children’s thinking without fear of messing up a high stakes exam".

In reference to the particular amendment proposed by Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC) MP, Mdm Rahayu Mahzam, Ms Kuik added that "A 16 year old is more cognitively prepared to deal with the psychological consequences of a high stakes exam than a 12 year old".

She also believes that abolishing the PSLE will pave the way for the end of elitism that appears to be deeply entrenched in Singapore's meritocracy.

She proposed: "Do we want to ensure all secondary schools are funded, resourced and governed the same way by MOE? If we do, we might have to remove all other kinds of admissions such as the Direct School Admission (DSA), and even end the special status of certain schools."

Dr Teo, in her book, supported the idea of doing away with the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), as early streaming might hamper otherwise valuable potential within students who might not fit the mold of the ideal academic achiever at such a tender age.

“We don’t have to be so quick to judge which child should be in which lane, which child should be in which kind of band. When we do that, we are losing our very precious human talent,” she said.

She implies that socioeconomic inequality is already being entrenched by the PSLE examinations and streaming into Normal and Academic streams, perhaps before certain children are able to fully explore where their true strengths lie, adding that “a huge purpose of the exams obviously is to sort and to create hierarchy,” according to Channel NewsAsia.

In summary, while the Ministers of Education have reiterated their support for maintaining the current merit-based education system, rejecting the bid to scrap the PSLE, they were in agreement with the rest of the motion, as they recognise the need for an expanded definition of meritocracy that encompasses all levels of abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds, not just the traditionally academically high-achieving, "elite" ones.