Singapore took the accolades of being the top-ranking in all 3 categories of Reading, Maths and Science in 2016 – but not without a hefty price tag. According to a research paper by Blackbox in 2012, 51% of the households spent above S$500 a month on private tuition per child. Instead of crediting the Education Ministry, the S$1.1 billion tuition industry is the main driver behind Singapore children taking the top spot in the PISA test.
However, for Singaporean families especially in the bottom 20 percentile with a household income of S$2,000 a month, their children are struggling to catch up in their studies without the aid of private tuition. The ugly fact simply put in: the richer your family is, your exam results is better.
The income inequality-led problem is further worsened by the Singapore Education Ministry’s blind allegiance to meritocracy. Earlier in May 2016, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that 22 neighbourhood schools will “merge”, and in Dec 2015, 7 neighbourhood schools eliminated due to “poor demand”. Already laden with huge classroom size with low teacher-to-student ratio, the MOE is literally leaving neighbourhood school students who are mainly from low income households to rot. The shabby treatment of neighbourhood schools greatly contrasts the luxurious budget allocated for elite schools like St Andrews and Raffles Institution with their own private swimming pool and rugby field.
For a poor household in Singapore, many students forgo additional fees required for curricular activities like overseas performance for school bands and choir clubs. The real damage of income inequality is psychological for students from low income background. Unlike their richer classmates, they use hands-down textbooks in tattered conditions and they wear school uniforms from elder siblings in the same school. Many students from low income family do not participate co-curricular activities or after-class activities, further distancing from their peers. The family who can scrimp a bit for the month can still send their children to ad hoc subsidised tuition services by volunteers in local community centers costing S$150 a month, while the rest either skipped tuition entirely or self-study. With lower self-esteem from young, children from poor family background finds it harder to find success in the working society.
In July 2016, newbie Education Minister holding half the Education ministerial role, Minister Ng Chee Meng, announced that grading pressure will intensify for PSLE students aged 12. The new “hair-splitting” grading system put new grades at 5 marks apart, with 90 marks and 85 marks having two grading band. The announcement boosted the businesses of private tuition with richer parents searching for better tutors, while the poorer students increasingly resigned to their poverty fate in Singapore.