The Heart Truths

How Is Singapore’s Education System Unequal?


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said at the National Day Rally 2013 that the PAP government will, “do more to keep paths upwards wide open to all. Keeping paths wide open has been a fundamental principle for Singapore for a very long time. It is how we have enhanced our human potential. How we have created hope for every Singaporean and is especially true in education and that is why we have invested in pre-school, adding 20,000 places in the next five years as I said just now in Chinese.”

He also said that, “Whichever school you go to, whichever class or principal you have, you will get a good education. And we give every school the teachers, the resources, the backing. We help many of our schools develop niches of excellence. We make sure that the whole system is of a high standard. Every school is a good school.”

This was also echoed by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in parliament, when he said that it, “is also MOE’s concern (that all children should be given equal and good opportunities in education). That is why MOE is committed to providing a high quality of education in our schools for all our students.

How true is this? Let’s take a look at the statistics to find out. In the comparison statistics below, I have included the countries of a similar high-income level to Singapore, as well as the countries which have done well in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, an international survey which evaluate education systems worldwide.

It was revealed in parliament that, “Expenditure on education has increased over the past 5 years by 40% – from $7.5 billion in FY2007 to $10.5 billion in FY2012, equivalent to 3.1% of our GDP, and accounting for more than 20% of government expenditure.

But do you know that as compared to the other high-income countries, Singapore’s expenditure of 3.1% of GDP on education is actually the lowest, and has been the case for the past few years (Chart 1)?

Chart 1: World Development Indicators

But when you look at Chart 2, you can see even though the PAP government spends the lowest % of GDP on education, they actually spent the highest % of total government expenditure on education – more than 20%.

Chart 2: World Development Indicators

Why is this the case? According to Mr Heng, he explained that, “While OECD countries and other top performing education systems (as measured by PISA) spend between 4 – 7% of GDP on education, but because their governments tax and spend more as a percentage of GDP, expenditure on education makes up, on average, only about 13% of their government expenditure – significantly less than Singapore.”

The key phrase is this – “their governments … spend more”. In the other high-income countries, because their governments spend more money on their citizens, even as the expenditure on education is high, it still makes up a smaller proportion of the total government expenditure, as compared to Singapore.

But the issue isn’t in so much as to how much the government spends on education. The issue is whether the money is fairly distributed to Singaporeans.

Take a look at Chart 3 – Singapore actually spends the lowest % of GDP on primary education.

Chart 3: World Development Indicators

We also spend the lowest % of GDP on secondary education (Chart 4).

Chart 4: World Development Indicators

However, when we compare with the other high-income countries, Singapore actually spends a relatively higher % of GDP on tertiary education (Chart 5).

Chart 5: World Development Indicators

And if you look at it in nominal terms, you can see that Singapore spends one of the lowest on primary education – at PPP$5,879 (Chart 6).

Chart 6: Global Education Digest

We are spend the one of the lowest among the high-income countries on secondary education – at PPP$8,948 (Chart 7). Most of the rest of the countries which spend a lower amount are the Asian countries which have a significantly lower national income than Singapore.

Chart 7: Global Education Digest

But again, when it comes to tertiary expenditure, Singapore spends a relatively higher amount – at PPP$14,676 – as compared to the other high-income countries (Chart 8).

Chart 8: Global Education Digest

But why is there such a discrepancy? Why are we spending so little on primary education, but investing more significantly on tertiary education?

It might not be immediately apparent that the spending in Singapore is uneven and results in an unequal education system. So, let’s take a look at more statistics.

Do you know that when compared to the other high-income countries, Singapore has the one of the highest pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) in primary education (Chart 9)? This means that if you look at Sweden, for example, there is one teacher for every 9 pupils. However, in Singapore, there is one teacher for every 17 pupils – which means teachers are more stretched in Singapore. Does this has anything to do with how Singapore spends the least on primary education?

Chart 9: World Development Indicators

Singapore also has one of the highest PTR in secondary education (Chart 10). In Singapore, there is one teacher to 15 pupils, whereas in some of the other countries, there is one teacher to 10 pupils. Again, is this because of the low expenditure on secondary education?

Chart 10: World Development Indicators

It was also updated in parliament that the, “PTR has improved from 26 in 2000 to 18 in 2012 for primary schools, and from 19 in 2000 to 14 in 2012 for secondary schools.

But don’t just look at things on the surface.

The PAP government goes on to say that, “a PTR of 18 in our primary schools does not mean that our class sizes are 18 in our primary schools – it simply means that we have one teacher for every 18 students”. They add that, “The same PTR can result in different class sizes – as it depends on how we deploy our teachers.” The government goes on to say that, “if we choose to deploy our teachers in classes of 18 students each, it would imply that all our teachers would have to be teaching a class all the time”. They claim that, “This is clearly not tenable.”

So, what is the truth then?

This is the truth: “Most primary and secondary schools have classes of 40 students or fewer, while Primary 1 and 2 classes have 30 students or fewer. We plan on the basis of 30 students per class at primary 1 and 2 and 40 students per class at the other primary and secondary levels.

You see, what’s the point of saying that we have a PTR of 18 in primary schools when each class doesn’t actually have 18 students? It is very different when each class actually has 30 to 40 students – which is more than twice the PTR of 18. The amount of attention that the teacher can give to each student is thus much reduced.

But what is more glaring is that when you compare our class size of 30 to 40 with the other high-income countries, you will see that none of them have class sizes bigger than 30 (Chart 11).

Chart 11: OECD How does class size vary around the world?

The question we have to ask is, what effect does this have on our education system? What does it mean when we spend so low on primary and secondary education? How will that affect the progression of our students?

As such, when you compare our primary school students’ progression to secondary school, what is shocking is that Singapore actually has the lowest proportion of primary school students who actually progress onto secondary school (Chart 12)!

Chart 12: World Development Indicators

Does the fact that our students are not able to receive adequate attention from the teachers – because of the huge class sizes and the lack of financial investment – a key reason as to why this is so?

Not only that, there are other statistics which exposes the inequality of the Singapore’s education system.

When compared to the other high-income countries, the “advantaged schools (in Singapore) are more likely to have more or better resources” (Chart 13).

Chart 13: OECD Programme for International Student Assessment

The advantaged schools are also more likely to have a higher proportion of teachers with university-level education. They are also more likely to have a higher quality of educational resources (Chart 14).

Chart 14: OECD Programme for International Student Assessment

In fact, if we adjust the PISA reading performance for the socio-economic profile, you can see that the PISA score for Singapore would have the greatest improvement (Chart 15) – which shows that we probably have one of the highest inequalities.

Chart 15: OECD Programme for International Student Assessment

Finally, when you look at the difference in standards between the schools, you would see that Singapore actually has one of the largest differences between the schools (Chart 16).

Chart 16: OECD Programme for International Student Assessment

So, PM Lee might have said that, “I believe we can make every school a good school and we have done a lot of that to ensure that every school provides a good education for the students. We give them the resources, we give them the good teachers, we emphasise values and we have made a lot of progress towards this goal.”

But is this the case? The “advantaged schools” are able to receive more and better resources and have better teachers. As such, this has caused the standards between the schools to have huge variations.

PM Lee might say that, “we value every child and that we want to give every person the best possible chance to start off well in life”. But has this been the case?

It is all well to say that they believe that every school should be a “good school”, but is this just lip service? Clearly, the statistics are showing vast differences in the standards between our schools. Clearly, not every school is given adequate resources to become a “good school”.

In fact, we have to question – Singapore has a very low level of investment in our primary and secondary education. Is this also the reason why our schools have become so unequal? Are resources unevenly distributed such that “advantaged schools” are able to get ahead with more investment? Should the PAP government increase its financial investment into our primary and secondary schools?

Perhaps let me take you through a few more statistics to let you have a better understanding of how unequal our education system is in Singapore.

Some background first: The PAP government has created schemes such as the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), to cater to the “intellectually gifted”. They have also created the Integrated Programmes (IP) for the “academically strong”. The GEP and IP are essentially similar programmes as the Ministry of Education (MOE) had said that ,”the secondary GEP organised by MOE was integrated into school-based programmes in the Integrated Programme (IP) schools which were hosting the GEP.”  MOE had also said that, “Since the introduction of Integrated Programmes (IP) schools in 2004 and the establishment of NUS High School of Math and Science in 2005, MOE-organised GEP has ceased as such schools could cater to the learning needs of GEP and other high-ability students through school-based programmes.

According to the MOE, there are only 9 primary schools which offer the GEP. There are only 18 schools (including the NUS High School) which offer the IP.

And when we drill down into the statistics, this is when we would see how unequal the education system is.

“Advantaged Schools” Receive More Resources

As mentioned, the “advantaged schools” are given more and better resources. Indeed, do you know that for the primary schools which offer the GEP, they are “provided with additional teachers” and they also also given “an annual programme grant of $53 per pupil“.

According to the MOE, “The Edusave Entrance Scholarships for Independent Schools (EESIS) is given to the top one-third of pupils who are posted to Secondary One in independent schools, based on their PSLE results.” Again, you would see that the students who enter the “advantaged schools” would receive more resources – over the past five years, 78% of the students in the Independent Schools were given the Edusave Entrance Scholarship.

As such, do students from the “advantaged schools” progress more easily? According to the MOE, “Over 90% of GEP students score among the top 10% of PSLE candidates.” It is easier for them to apply to the schools that they would want to go to as, “On average, over the past five years, more than 80% of each GEP cohort, or around 400 pupils, entered secondary school through the (Direct School Admissions) DSA exercise.” And once they go to the IP of their choice, “Of the 94% of the IP students who went on to complete the IP and sat for the A Levels or equivalent qualifications, almost all qualified for publicly-funded universities in Singapore.

And thus, when we look at the students who are able to eventually end up in the public universities in Singapore, “From AY2007-2009, over 70% of the applicants to the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (YLL SoM) obtained 4As or better in the GCE ‘A’-level examinations.” (Chart 17)

Chart 17: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

So, where then does this leave the other students who choose to go on the other pathways?

Let’s take a look at how the polytechnic students would fare. According to the MOE, “Over the past ten years, about 200 local polytechnic graduates have been admitted to the Architecture, Dentistry, Law and Medicine undergraduate courses in NUS and SMU.” In 2012/2013, there were 741 students who were admitted into these courses at the NUS and around 133 students who were admitted into SMU – a total of 874 students.

So, if 200 local polytechnic graduates were admitted to these courses over ten years, this means that on average, about 20 local polytechnic graduates were admitted every year. Of the 874 students who were admitted, the local polytechnic graduates would thus represent only 2% of the total enrollment (Chart 18)!

Chart 18: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Indeed, when we look at the admission of local polytechnic graduates to law courses at NUS and SMU from 2007  to 2012, there was only an average of less than 2 students from the polytechnics admitted every year (Chart 19)!

Chart 19: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

There were around 384 spaces in 2012/2013 at NUS and SMU, which means that polytechnic graduates would make up less than 1% of the new admissions every year (Chart 20)!

Chart 20: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Is our education system equal then? Students from “advantaged schools” are almost guaranteed a pathway to “success” whereas the fate of other students are unclear. And if you are from a polytechnic, chances are very slim. If it’s already so slim for a polytechnic student, you can imagine what the chances are for a student from the ITE.

Indeed, the household sizes of the students from the “advantaged schools” would also give you a very good indication as to the inequality in our education system.

Of the students who had attended Raffles Girls’ Primary School, Methodist Girls Primary School, Henry Park Primary School, Anglo Chinese Primary School, Nanyang Primary School and Tao Nan School (schools which offer GEP), only 40% of these students live in HDB flats. This is compared to the “80% of all primary school students reside in HDB flats” (Chart 21).

Chart 21: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Also, “Among the Secondary 1 students who enrolled in Integrated Programme (IP) schools in 2009, more than half live in HDB flats.” This is similar to in 2002, where, “About 50% of Singaporean students in Independent Schools live in HDB flats in 2002. (Chart 22)”

Chart 22: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

It was also revealed that, “About 17% live in 4-room HDB flats or smaller.” However, there were about 56.5% of Singapore residents living in 1- to 4-room flats. Yet, only 17% of the students in the Independent Schools live in 1- to 4-room flats (Chart 23).

Chart 23: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies, Household Size and Structure

Finally, there were only “One in eight undergraduates in our public Universities come from households who live in 1- to 3-room flats” – which is about 12.5%. However, there are 24.6% of Singapore residents who live in 1- to 3-room flats (Chart 24). Shouldn’t there be more students from the smaller housing type, and from the lower-income group who should be attending university, but are not, or might not actually be able to?

Chart 24: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary RepliesHousehold Size and Structure

Perhaps, the table below would give the most evident illustration of the inequality in Singapore’s education system.

Chart 25: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Of those who had entered Primary One in 1990-1992, only 40% live in 5-room & exec HDB flats, or private housing. But of those who entered university, this rose to 55%. On the other hand, there were 23% of students in Primary One who live in 1, 2, 3-room HDB flats. But of those who entered university, this was reduced to 13% (Chart 26).

Chart 26: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

What happened?

PM Lee had said at the National Day Rally 2013 that, “we value every child and that we want to give every person the best possible chance to start off well in life.” He had also said that, “I believe we can make every school a good school and we have done a lot of that to ensure that every school provides a good education for the students. We give them the resources, we give them the good teachers, we emphasise values and we have made a lot of progress towards this goal.”

He had said that the PAP government should not breed elitism because, “Outstanding students must always be able to make it to the top to get into these institutions and you cannot have a closed, self-perpetuating elite.”

But, from the statistics that we have seen so far, is what PM Lee saying true? Does the PAP government truly doesn’t believe in promoting a “closed, self-perpetuating elite”?

More importantly, is the Singapore education system equal and do all our children really have a equal start in school, and most importantly, in life? Are some of our students damned to a certain way of life, precisely because of the education system in Singapore?

PM Lee might have said that, “I think it is also good that we have top schools nationally, schools which are acknowledged as outstanding, so long as we keep our system open. The system has to be open, meaning there cannot be barriers to entry.”

But what do you think? Is Singapore’s education system open? Or is our education system unequal?

Do you know that of the “93% of each Primary 1 cohort progressing to post-secondary education”, 30% went to the junior colleges, 40% to the polytechnics, 20% to the ITE, and 3 to 4% to the private education organisations?

If 60% of the polytechnics and ITE students can hardly make it to the public universities and the rest have have to enter private education organisations, with only 30% in the junior colleges who have the most likely chance of entering the public universities, how equal or “open” is our education system when it favours only 30% of the students in Singaporeans, while the rest of the 70% would be disadvantaged by the system (Chart 27)?

Chart 27: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

How is every school a “good school” and how equal or “open” is our education system when the education system is already structured to marginalise the large proportion of Singaporeans?

If the PAP government is sincere in creating an education system which is open and ensures that all schools are “good schools”, is this the way to do so? It is one thing to say that they want all schools to be “good schools”, yet say that even if you are in a “good school”, you might not be good enough to enter the local public universities. This is as well as saying these schools are not good enough.

Quite certainly, the PAP’s pronouncement of all schools being “good schools” cannot be backed up by how unequal and unfair the education system in Singapore evidently is, and only further entrenches the inequality in Singapore. Such a system that baits our students and Singaporeans into discriminated pathways early in life should be treated with abhor and Singaporeans must rise up and stand up against such discrimination and inequality. 


If you are inspired to want to discuss more about how we can change the education system in Singapore, you can join other Singaporeans at this upcoming workshop to design solutions to make the education system more equal in Singapore. 

For more information, you can visit the Facebook event page here