Inequality in education, Part 2

Wong Wee Nam

There are many aims of early education. The most important is to prepare the child for the school. For the lower income group the preparation must be adequate enough to bring him to the same starting line as the rest of the cohort.

In Singapore pre-school education is not given the attention and priority that it should. The providers are the private play schools and kindergarten. Children are also taught by parents and other childcare centres.

These arrangements may be adequate for the well-educated families, but it is certainly not enough for those in the lowest income group and those who cannot afford (even though there are subsidies).

Even at the pre-school level, there is already a difference in mental and social development between the various social classes and a disparity in linguistic and motor abilities even before they start. As the pupil-to- teacher ratio is too big at this level, it is not possible for the teacher to give individual attention to each and every child to remedy the situation.

Therefore by the time a child enters actual schooling, there will be a wide gap in the development and educational standards between children of different social backgrounds. Furthermore, English is the main language of instruction in school.

For the children of the poor, English is a second language and if they have not mustered this in pre-school, they would be greatly disadvantaged when they start school. The formal school would also not be able to remedy this deficiency because the classes, too, are big and teachers are rushing to finish the syllabus. Not only will they struggle with English, they will also have to struggle with problem mathematics and understand science that uses English.

In 2009, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tested students from OECD member countries on their reading ability. Research shows that reading skills are more reliable predictors of economic and social well-being than the number of years spent in school or in post-formal education. The average student in the OECD scored 493 out of 600.

It is, therefore, not how many years a child spends in school but what the school has given him that is important.

Moreover, when in school, it is not likely for a child to develop the self-respect without some mastery of reading and verbal skills. Only with a good pre-school foundation can this gap be closed.

More than just reading and writing

The aim of early education is also to identify a child’s own interest, his/her capabilities and his/her initiative and to stimulate the child’s awareness and growth of his/her heart and mind. For pre-school, the focus must be on the individual and not just pre-academic learning. No one child can fit into a standard school mould. There should not be labels like “slow learners”, “trouble-makers” etc. Classroom should not impose conformity. It should not be overcrowded.

For the children in the upper social classes, there is no doubt that they have more opportunities to pursue a wide range of experience and stimulation than those in the lower ones. It is likely from the time that they are born they would be enrolled in playschools, exposed to books and computers and exposed to a lot of recreational activities. There is also a better home environment and better nutrition and healthcare. Through these, there is likely to be more communication and bonding between the parents and child. The quality of such relationships lays the foundation for self-confidence, sound mental health, motivation to learn, higher achievement in school and a well-adjusted individual all round.

Apart from parents, teachers form the most important part of this relationship. In the case of children from lowly educated, low income and dysfunctional families where parents do not have the time to provide a meaningful relationship, the teacher becomes the major relationship provider.

According to a working paper, Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships, by the Harvard’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, “Children who develop warm, positive relationships with their kindergarten teachers are more excited about learning, more positive about coming to school, more self-confident and achieve more in the classroom.”

For children of the lower social class, therefore, there should be standardised pre-school centres, adequately financed and run by the state with well-trained professional teachers and specially-designed programmes. They must be accessible to those who cannot afford school fees to enjoy the stimulation of private kindergartens.

The class size should be small enough so that the teacher can pay attention to each and every child’s needs and the curriculum should be cognitive-orientated. Teachers must be trained to have the skills and attributes to detect and help the child overcome common behavioural problems so that the relationships would be one that is nurturing, stimulating and reliable.

With such a big responsibility, the teachers must be paid adequately so as to encourage them to stay in the profession and accumulate more experience and be a better teacher with time.


According the paper “Children’s emotional Development is Built into the Architecture of their Brains” by the Harvard’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, it is recommended that the early childhood education include:

  1. All early childhood programs must balance their focus on cognition and literary skills with significant attention to emotional and social development.

  2. The science of early emotional and social development must be incorporated into services in support of parents

  3. Providers of early care and education must have sufficient knowledge and skills to help children who present with early emotional problems early on, particularly those who exhibit significant aggression or difficulties with attention and “hyperactivity’.

  4. Expertise in early identification, assessment and clinical treatment must be incorporated into existing intervention programmes.

  5. Suspected abuse or neglect must be investigated.

In today’s world, knowledge and technology are advancing so rapidly that if any individual is unable to keep abreast, he/she will be left far behind. The change is especially rapid in education.

The children of today must be taught to live in tomorrow’s world. Otherwise, society will not only have to shoulder the burden of the ageing population but also a huge percentage of an inadequately educated population.

At the 60th Anniversary dinner of the Malay-Muslim Women’s Association, the Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam hit the nail on the head when he warned of the danger of the underclass becoming a permanent feature. He outlined three approaches to address the problem: early intervention, addressing specific disadvantaged groups and building a force of social workers and specialists. This is not enough.

The more fundamental solutions would be to reduce income inequality, give the poor a decent income, make healthcare affordable and provide good early childhood education for the poor.

Read Inequality in education, Part 1

Dr Wong Wee Nam is a medical doctor and a member of the SDP’s Healthcare Advisory Panel. Dr Wong has taught in Marsilling Primary School and was a clinical teacher with the Department of Occupational, Community and Family Medicine at the National University of Singapore. He is also on the SDP Advisory Panel for Education.

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