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Photo: MP Indranee's Facebook

Education Ministry taskforce to find ways of leveling the playing field for students of different socio-economic backgrounds

Second Education Minister Indranee Rajah wants Singapore to find a way to address the issue of unintended labeling or stereotyping of students that happens as a result of the streaming system in schools. These unintended side effects, she says, affects how pupils view themselves and are perceived by others.

She was responding to a question posed to her following a screening of the Channel NewsAsia documentary ‘Regardless of Class’ hosted by Senior Ministers of State for Communications and Information Dr Janil Puthucheary. A question was asked on how the Government plans to alleviate the stigma that students from different streams and classes face – an issue that was highlighted in the documentary.

The dialogue, which was held at Shaw Lido Cinema on 29th October included students, teachers and social enterprise workers.

Ms Indranee noted that while the streaming system was started to address the ‘stark outcomes’ between students of different abilities and foundations, the well-meaning move came with some unexpected consequences. As the documentary makes clear, students in the Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) all view themselves and each other very differently and they don’t often interact with each other, thus creating a social divide.

Acknowledging the flaw in the system, Ms Indranee added that this gap can be bridged if Singaporeans recognise the intrinsic worth of people which is not measure by socio-economic status.

On the Sunday before the screening, it was announced by the Education Ministry that Ms Indranee will be chairing a new taskforce to identify and address gaps in important areas in education such as motivations of students from disadvantaged families, absenteeism and dropout rates, and conducting outreach to parents.

She said on Monday that the taskforce will be charged with helping those who do not have the same advantages and will help level the playing field so that they are afforded equal opportunities and help in specific areas that are relevant to them.

Continuing with that, Ms Indranee pointed out that these differences in opportunities that children face can go beyond income, stating that their parents job and abilities also shape their worldview and motivations. She noted that a child with an investment-banker father would be more likely to be educated about global finance than someone whose parents are in a different job, perhaps in a manual field. Similarly in Language, if a child’s parents aren’t fluent in English, then they won’t have a good grounding in that language either.

So what the taskforce is will do is link up these students with different agencies that are well-equipped to deal with specific issues, like language improvement or even counselling where necessary. Essentially, the taskforce will function as a sort of coordinator for the various learning support organisations and programmes that are already available and make them accessible to those who need it most.

She added, “we are trying to see how, holistically, we can bring all the different pieces together to make sure that the child who comes from a disadvantaged background has the chance and the opportunity to realise his or her full potential.”

It’s a commendable effort on the part of the Education Ministry to try and address these delicate issues and address the ever-growing gap between students of different streams. I am wondering, however, at which point of a student’s journey will the taskforce intervene? Streaming happens at Secondary School and by then, the differences they see in themselves are solidified.

So one has to hope that these interventions and programmes that the taskforce is hoping to introduce and make available will kick in way before that, giving every student an equal opportunity to grow and evolve in their primary years before they are streamed and are resigned to their ‘labels’.

And then of course, levelling the playing field alone does not directly address the issue of stereotyping at all. That's a moral lesson that needs to be taught in an out of the classroom constantly. It requires a paradigm shift in the way the society at large views people - something an education taskforce cannot do.

In that CNA documentary which was presented by Janil Puthucheary, a student from the Integrated Programme said that it "may not be very viable in terms of closing the [social divide] gap" for students of different streams to be in the same class.

Unsurprisingly, this caused inspired some backlash among netizens. It is proof that the streaming in schools, which is inevitably correlated to socio-economic status, serves to encourage the social divide. A complex issue requires a carefully considered, complex solution.

It was later revealed by Rice Media that there had been some questionable editing by CNA and there has not been any statement to address the allegations made.