(Note: There is a short poll at the end of this article. Please take the poll too on the education system in Singapore.)
Four days ago, Oxfam released its second Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index which ranked Singapore “in the bottom 10 countries in the world in terms of reducing inequality”. Two days later, the World Bank released the Human Capital Index which ranked Singapore tops in terms of “the amount of human capital that a child born today can expect to achieve”.
So, which is right?
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said that Oxfam’s index is “a completely wrong analysis”.
He added: “As we know, what really matters to our people is the outcome. It’s the health outcome, it’s the educational outcome and those are fairly objective measures.”
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee also refuted Oxfam’s report and said: “We think it is more important to look at the outcomes achieved, instead.
He added: “In education, our students consistently outperform others in international rankings. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), our 15-year-olds rank first for mathematics, science and reading, and our students from the poorest families perform significantly better than their counterparts in OECD countries.”
Commenting on the World Bank’s report at the Human Capital Summit dialogue, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “We want to bring everybody to a good starting point as early as possible in life, regardless of whether you are rich or poor, whether your parents are advantaged or disadvantaged.”
So, who is right?
With all the talk about “outcomes”, let’s look at the outcomes.
It is true that Singapore “outperforms the rest of the world” in education – in science, reading and mathematics, and ranks top in human capital.
But it is also true that the education outcomes are also very unequal.
In Chart 1, you can see that at the easiest level of difficult (Level 1), both the richest and poorest students in Singapore perform well in reading, mathematics and science.
However, as the difficulty level increases (to Level 4), you can see that the achievement gap widens.
Next, let’s look at Singapore in comparison with the other high-income countries. I use science at the lower secondary level for illustration because the comparison is more distinct.
At Level 1 (easiest level of difficulty), you can see that Singapore’s students generally perform well, but even then, you can see that when compared with the top 13 performing countries, Singapore has the widest gap in performance between the richest and poorest students (Chart 2).
At Level 2 (Chart 3), Singapore’s students still perform well but the gap between the richest and poorest widens and is also the widest among the top 7 performing countries.
At Level 3 (Chart 4), Singapore has become the top performing country, and the gap between the richest and poorest has also widened.
You can see a pattern where at Level 1 (Chart 2) for the group of countries which did not perform as well at the Level 1, their gap between the richest and poorest was already wide (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, etc.), but at a higher level of difficulty, at Level 2 (Chart 3), the group of countries at the next performing level would start to see their gap widen (e.g. United Arab Emirates, Cyprus and Italy, etc.). At an even higher level of difficulty, at Level 3 (Chart 4), countries like Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands saw their gaps widen.
By Level 4 (Chart 5 below), the gaps in most countries would have narrowed for the majority of the countries – at the level of difficulty where each country has attained its overall optimal potential, this is where the gap is the highest, where their richest students would still be able to outperform their poorest students. But beyond the level of difficulty where the overall student population would have difficulty in performing in, the gap between the richest and poorest would narrow.
At Level 4 thus, for most countries, the gap between the richest and poorest therefore narrowed because even among the richest students, they would have difficulty performing well at the highest level of difficulty. However, Singapore bucks the trend where the richest students are still performing fairly well.
But this is where the inequality becomes glaringly obvious. In fact, the poorest students perform behind the richest students in the top 20 countries. What this shows is that yes, Singapore’s overall education outcomes is good, but it is also true that the education outcomes are very unequal, where the gap between the richest and poorest is also very high.
The same story plays out in science at the primary level (Chart 6) and science at the upper secondary level (Chart 7), at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4) – at the upper secondary level, the poorest students in Singapore perform behind the top 35 countries, and even behind the middle-income students in the top 25 countries.
It is also interesting to note that because Singapore’s education system is unequal, that even at the lowest level of difficulty for science at the primary and upper secondary level, Singapore does not rank at the top, but at the 10th and 9th, respectively.
In mathematics at the primary (Chart 8) and lower secondary (Chart 9) levels, you see the same situation at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4) – the gap between the richest and poorest is also the widest in Singapore.
What these charts show are that the richest students in Singapore outperform students in the rest of the world, and are still able to perform fairly well at the highest levels of difficulty (Level 4). However, Singapore’s students do not perform equally well, and the gap between the richest and poorest widens as the difficulty level increases.
In other words, by looking at “outcomes”, as Heng Swee Keat and Desmond Lee purported, not every school is a good school.
Interestingly, when you look at Chart 10 – in the area of mathematics at the upper secondary level, again at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4), Singapore is still at the top but the other countries are quickly catching up, in spite of being much further behind at the primary (Chart 8) and lower secondary level (Chart 9), which suggests that too many examinations and streaming at too early the years of education might not be necessary, since students do catch up to perform similarly well in their later years – as Chart 10 below evidently shows, from the example in other countries.
The question therefore, is there a need to put our students through the stress of examinations and streaming at their earlier years?
Finally, in terms of reading, Singapore also performs the best at the primary level (Chart 11) at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4), but the gap between the richest and poorest is also the widest, with the poorest students performing behind the richest students in the top 25 countries.
For reading at the upper secondary level (Chart 12) at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4), Singapore’s students also come up tops but the gap between the richest and poorest is also the widest. In fact, the poorest students also perform behind the richest students in almost all the countries ranked.
In fact, at the lowest level of difficulty for reading at the primary and upper secondary level, again because of Singapore’s inequality, Singapore does not rank at the top, but at the 17th and 9th, respectively.
Also, Chart 12 shows again that by the upper secondary school level, the other countries are catching up, and not only that, they are able to do so without as wide a gap as Singapore.
This suggests that there is really no need for us to push our students to be streamed at such an early age when they would evidently be able to catch up in their later years – at least by the upper secondary level.
Also, what is clearly a concern in these comparisons is that even though Singapore provides a good basic foundation-level education, education outcomes at higher levels of difficulty is vastly unequal.
Looking at these charts, what Lee Hsien Loong said then made some sense, when he said: “We want to bring everybody to a good starting point as early as possible in life, regardless of whether you are rich or poor, whether your parents are advantaged or disadvantaged.”
But this raises some questions:
- After “bringing everybody to a good starting point”, does the government intent to help everyone move up together, or will the richest students have more access to better education, as is the case? In other words, is every school truly a good school?
- Second, the government might say that they are “bringing everybody to a good starting point as early as possible in life“, but if other countries have shown that by the upper secondary level, students will catch up anyway, is there a need to put that much stress on students at such an early age? Is there a need to stream them at age 10 (Primary 4), age 12 (Primary 6) and age 14 (Secondary 2) when an examination at age 16 should suffice?
- Finally, if students are only brought to a good starting point but they are not helped to perform well all the way (where the gap between the richest and poorest is the highest in Singapore for the highest level of difficulty), then does it help to narrow the gap between the “rich and poor”, and between the “advantaged and disadvantaged”, or is the education system therefore actually perpetuating inequality?
According to the OECD which conducted PISA, “Upper secondary students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to perform well in PISA assessments.” The “outcomes” of Singapore’s inequality – which is the highest among the advanced economies – is therefore a threat to Singapore’s education system.
We really have to question if we want a more equal and less stressful education system for our children.
Below are five short polls on Singapore’s education system. After reading this article, how would you answer the questions below?
I have also previously written about the inequality in Singapore’s education system. You can read it here.