Inequality in education, Part 1

Wong Wee Nam

It is often said that education is a great leveller in society. Not only does it provide individuals with the knowledge, skills and competencies needed to participate effectively in society and in the economy, it also contributes to improving a person’s life in areas of health and social well-being such as civic participation, political interest and happiness.

Studies have shown that educated individuals live longer, participate more actively in politics and in the community where they live, commit fewer crimes and rely less on social assistance. In other words, not only does education contribute to society, it also reduces the burden placed on it.

It is, therefore, the inalienable right of children of all our citizens to have access to an education that will equip them fully to face the challenges of the future regardless of their economic status.

The aim of our education system is, therefore, to make sure that our students not only leave school with a school-leaving certificate but to also be equipped with quality skill.

In order to do this, it is imperative that all children, when they enter school, to start on the same starting line as the rest of his/her cohort. This can only happen when every child is well-prepared before he/she enters school. How well this preparation is will determine what he/she can achieve in education.

The state of early education in Singapore

Recently a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit on international early childhood education ranks Singapore just 29th out of some 45 countries across the globe.

Known as the “Starting Well Index”, three main factors namely, availability, affordability and quality, were used to rank the early education. Singapore scored poorly on quality, coming in 30th out of 45, but fared slightly better in affordability (21st) and availability (25th).

This is not surprising as quality is dependent on student-teacher ratio, the wages of preschool teacher wages, the qualification and training of preschool teacher and the extent of professional recognition. These factors also affect the morale and the high turnover of teachers. Unless the government takes the development of children seriously and considers it a priority, this sad state will persist.

It is not surprising that the Nordic countries such as Finland, Sweden and Norway ranked top three in the “Starting Well Index”. As a child, the Scandinavians, have maternity care centres to take good care of their health. As they grow older, the parents can depend on day care centres and pre-schools to look after the toddlers and pre-schoolers. Schooling is free. There is nothing for families to worry about their children’s educational development.

In Singapore, overworked parents often lack the time to get involved in their children’s development. We also lack behind the Nordic countries because, like health, the inequality in education is also the result of inequality in income. With a Gini Index of around 48, Singapore has one of the highest income inequality in the world.

It is for this reason that there is also an inequality of childhood development between the rich and the poor. It is a fact that the rich and those who can afford are likely to be able to provide their children with better education than the low income family by supplementing the national education system with private tuition and other enrichment programmes.

The affluent can provide their children with a stable home, good health and nutrition, stimulating playschool, early introduction to technology, home computers, holidays, extra-curricular activities, cultural enrichment and tuition. They are likely to provide a more conducive environment to motivate the child to achieve. In other words, they can make up for whatever deficiencies that might be in the pre-school or formal school education system.

On the other hand such privileges would not be available to the lower income group. For a good education, teaching and attending school are not the only ingredients to a successful education.

The physical and mental well-being of a child is equally important. A poor mother with poor nutrition is likely to give birth to a baby of low birthweight and this could affect his learning abilities in later years. As a child, he/she is also likely not to have a safe and secure environment to grow up. In school, children with poor nutrition are less alert, curious and less able to interact.

With such a disparity, the children in the higher income group are likely to be ahead of their peers from the low income group once they start formal schooling.

These low income group children will be the parents in 2030 and beyond and if they are left behind, they will have difficulty finding a decent job and in turn raise kids in a poor family. If poor kids turn bad, we should not blame the parents for “parental failings” because it would be education that had failed their parents in the first place.

In a nation where the income disparity is getting greater and greater, there is always a danger of ignoring the education of the children from poor families by labelling them as “not interested in studies”, “cannot be taught”, “problem kids” and consign the slow learners to their own fate. This will ultimately lay the foundation for the creation of an underclass. It is also a waste of potential human resources.

In Part II, I will explain why it is important to ensure that sound pre-school education exists for all segments of society.

Dr Wong Wee Nam is a medical doctor and a member of the SDP’s Healthcare Advisory Panel.

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