P1 registration fix is long overdue

My wife and I just registered our son in Henry Park Primary School, which is within 2km of our home. It was a school that I was an ex-student of and, fortuitously, it was also near where we lived (I’ve lived in this area since I was a child). Even at this early stage of registration, the news reports had confirmed that a ballot was required.

The P1 Registration is broken – it flies in the face of meritocracy and is a tear in the fabric of our society. ST’s Sandra Davie has summarised the possible solutions in her piece last week, more comprehensively than I have hoped:

1) Eradicate Phases 2A1, 2A2 and 2B. No more fair-weather alumni and “volunteers” looking for favours.

2) The problem of the clustered “good schools” in wealthy neighbourhoods can be solved by uprooting them and placing them in HDB towns. It is time to tear apart these bastions of misperceived achievement. Alternatively, those who live nearby can be given priority over alumni (though I think this will not work).

Primary Schools are part of our meritocratic education system. They do not need to build a deep individual “culture”. Our society only stands to lose if certain primary schools come out tops in the “reputation” and “school culture” race. Primary education should be the level playing field every meritocratic society needs. Yet now it is a minefield of entitlement.

MOE has yet to make good on its boast that “every school is a good school”. The G’s failure to properly address the elitism still rampant in primary schools makes Heng Swee Keat look like a liar. The institutional way of trying to fix problems with “tweaks” falters in the face of a deep-rooted problem such as this – one reinforced by the basest kinds of kiasuism and one-upmanship. The tuition addiction continues to blight our children’s progress.

It seems that nobody in the ministry has the guts or fortitude to deal decisively with the problem at hand.

My wife (who is not Singaporean) marvelled at some of the literature that nearby primary schools were handing out – how even schools with nearly no accolades to boast about made desperate attempts to list their achievements, as if clutching to a fig leaf in shame, ironically entrenching their positions. How well-regarded schools likewise put their achievements on display, goading “lesser” schools and the ignorant public to play, and lose, the ranking game with them.

Our son’s pre-school teacher gave the most damning advice of all – when we asked her why they were teaching Primary One syllabus at preschool, she matter-of-factly replied that “teachers in primary school don’t have time to help your child keep up. If he falls behind, that will be the end.”

If that is truly the case, then it is the end for all of us.

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21 thoughts on “P1 registration fix is long overdue

  1. Daily SG: 16 Jul 2014 | The Singapore Daily

  2. Hi there, I am writing to you seeking permission to reproduce your post sharing personal experiences about the P1 registration (https://doulosyap.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/p1-registration-fix-is-long-overdue/) at our portal http://www.domainofexperts.com; explicit mention shall be made of the fact it first appeared on your blog. Should you require us to add in further details about you as the author please do let us know. Hope to hear from you soon! 🙂

  3. Hi Daniel, will certainly do that. We shall cite Daniel Yap as the author as well. 🙂

    PS: Is there any chance I can interest you to also write a guest article for our website? I believe the audience will embrace your insights.

  4. Hello Daniel,

    1) Have you wondered why the current system came about in the first place? It’s a concession granted by the Government for making private schools illegal.

    Let’s not fool ourselves. As a fellow parent I know peer groups are crucial to a child’s development. I can accept that elites prefer to mix amongst themselves, and they will always find a way to do so. In the West, selective private schools are the weapon of choice.

    Even liberals don’t play games with their childrens’ futures. Barack Obama doesn’t send his kids to a public school.

    2) Keep in mind that secondary school admission is strictly by merit only. See how the Government manages the interests of different constituencies?

    I thus think the current system strikes a good compromise between the interests of the elite and the hoi polloi. And I consider myself a member of the latter.

    • I think meritocracy is a fundamental tenet of our school system, and therefore any aggregation of the elite should be secondary, even though it may be natural. Let them have their out-of-school gatherings, I care not, but to have elitism built in to our system? No thank you.

  5. The irony is that Singapore’s education system is much more level than most.

    I’m actually moving back to Singapore, partly because a decent private school here easily costs 1-2K a month, per child.

    “Primary education should be the level playing field every meritocratic society needs.”

    I think any attempt to “fix” the system is futile. A simple counter to a proximity based system is that elites will simply cluster in desirable postcodes, bid up property prices and take over the school. Asians love doing this.

    • I guess we look good compared to systems that are really really broken, but I don’t think that’s cause for back-patting and maintaining the status quo.

  6. Hello Daniel,

    A few observations:

    1) It’s not a good look for you to criticize this “tear in the fabric of our society” yet still take advantage of it.

    2) Why was this system implemented in the first place? It’s a concession by the Government in return for eliminating private primary education.

    3) As a fellow parent I understand the importance of peer groups. People will associate with whomever they wish, this cannot be policed. In the West, selective private schools are the workaround of choice. Even liberals don’t take chances with their kids’ futures. Barack Obama doesn’t send his kids to a public school.

    4) Uproot Henry Park to the heartlands and its replacement will be the new Henry Park. The students are the key, not the school per-say. Use a proximity-based system and parents will merely bid up property prices.

    5) Keep in mind that secondary school admissions are purely by merit. See how the Government balances the interests of various factions?

    6) The Singapore education system is already more level than most realize. It accomplishes this by providing excellent basic opportunities for all Singaporean children, without exceptions. Basic != equal.

    Over here, a decent private school education easily costs 1-2K per month, per child. Notwithstanding that some schools are perceived to be better, MOE’s boast that “every school is a good school” is not too far from the truth.

    Live in the West and see for yourself.

    • Ah, so I must disadvantage myself to prove my sincerity? I already have. I decided not to pay $400 to buy my way into Phase 2A1. It just so happens that the system is broken and I’m part of the system, so I have to register my child in Phase 2A2. Shall every Singaporean (and foreigner) stand accused of hypocrisy as well? That looks like what you are saying.

      On point 2 – I propose doing away with the last vestiges of private primary education. No more compromises.

      On point 4 – That will then give credence to the G’s boast that every school is a good school, if there would arise a “New Henry Park”. I welcome the move. These “brand names” can be physically moved every decade to prevent association. Where rich people live is up to the URA. MOE deals with the effects.

      Point 5 – I’m not talking about secondary school

      Point 6 – Every school receives equal resources, so internally MOE has done that job well, but there is more to be done, including fixing P1 registration and the teacher crunch and the tuition plague and the perception gap… yes, we’ve had successes, but does that mean we don’t have faults? That we should rest on our laurels?

      I’ve lived in the West. What do you mean “see for yourself”? See what? The West? Which West? Have you seen all the West?

  7. Hi Daniel,

    Sorry for the double post, wasn’t sure if the comment went through. Feel free to delete the first post.

    1) 2A2 is not much of a sacrifice. I’m not making personal attacks or judging you here. I am merely saying it hurts your credibility.

    “Shall every Singaporean (and foreigner) stand accused of hypocrisy as well?”

    Only those who publicly proclaim their commitment to anti-elitism. Just my opinion – blaming it on a broken system looks weak.

    2) “I guess we look good compared to systems that are really really broken, but I don’t think that’s cause for back-patting and maintaining the status quo.”

    I think that argument is disingenuous. We do not merely “look good compared to systems that are really really broken”. We look good compared to our contemporaries – more specifically the public school systems of Australia, the US and the UK.

    I think that focusing on admission policy is missing the forest for the trees. By nitpicking about perceived elitism you are overlooking the opportunities which the system provides. Does it really matter if elites cluster together as long as every Singaporean child receives an excellent education? Is such a system really elitist?

    Keep in mind the status quo gives the Government enough political capital amongst elites to accept the public school system. Upset this and there will be pushback. It balances the interests of various factions, so why should we not maintain it? Because a vocal minority, seeking to increase their political influence, are ideologically opposed to any form of compromise?

    3) “I propose doing away with the last vestiges of private primary education. No more compromises.”

    That last bit doesn’t sound very balanced.

    4) “That will then give credence to the G’s boast that every school is a good school, if there would arise a “New Henry Park”. I welcome the move.”

    I think you have missed the point entirely. The new Henry Park would be the old in all but name. It will be dominated by the same elite students and parents.

    You claim to be opposed to elitism being built into the system. Yet this is the case in almost every other country via private schools, with the possible exception of some Nordics. Take a while to ponder why.

    My strong impression is that you don’t mind if the system doesn’t actually eliminate elitism, as long as it’s perceived to be doing so. That form is preferable to substance.

    I actually agree with that. It’s precisely what happens elsewhere anyway. Ideologues can pretend that they have achieved “equality”, while elites continue to mix amongst themselves. Everyone gets what they want.

    It’s all a farce. The only difference is that in Singapore we are upfront about it.

    5) “Point 5 – I’m not talking about secondary school”

    You should. Otherwise you are (deliberately?) not addressing the full picture. This compromise was made for primary school precisely because secondary school admissions are fully merit based. You shouldn’t misrepresent the situation to help your argument.

    6) “yes, we’ve had successes, but does that mean we don’t have faults? That we should rest on our laurels?”

    The same strawman again. I have nothing against idealism and wanting to improve the system, but defining “improvements” is a contentious business. And translating such urges into tangible benefits is much harder.

    Above all, we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    The key questions are a) whether the majority of Singaporeans agree that this is a fault, b) whether your proposed “cure” will work, and c) whether it is worth the trouble (bureaucratic effort etc).

    To sum up, I think what you have proposed is more form than substance. I don’t see how this significantly benefits the man in the street.

    7) Re: the West, Have I lived in all the West? No, but I think I’ve experienced enough of it, and in greater depth than most. As a result I’ve learnt to appreciate the good bits about Singapore.

    Just curious – where have you lived in the West?

    • So your overall take is that things are fine in Singapore and there’s nothing we need to do to improve it? That the system and all its failings are not big enough of an issue to warrant the effort to change?

      Primary school admissions are not merit-based, but they should be. Secondary school admissions are also not merit-based (affiliated schools). I am saying that we do away with these failings.

      Is that too much to ask? Will you brand me a hypocrite and excessively critical for saying that our system is not meritocratic enough?

      I’ve lived in the USA, London, and spent significant amounts of time in western Europe and Scandinavia. I am intimately acquainted with the Finnish system in particular. I don’t see how any of that has an immediate bearing on the points I raised. I’m not here to compare – I’m here to do better.

  8. Hello Daniel,

    My overall take: that the current equilibrium, although nominally unfair, enables a net good. To better the system, consider a) the costs of disrupting this; b) the interests of all actors, not just our own preferences. Otherwise we might not genuinely improve it.

    Indulge me for a moment. As a reader I’ve noticed you approach topics in ‘far’ mode from a moral perspective (system favors elites, system is broken, fix it). I prefer a political perspective in ‘near’ mode (why does the system favor elites? how were decisions arrived at?)

    (If you are interested Google ‘near/far thinking’ or ‘construal level theory’.)

    The weakness of ‘far’ mode thinking is that a) being judgmental distracts from the details, but b) sometimes that’s where the devil lurks. Naturally, everyone prefers a more meritocratic system. But I reiterate that your suggested specifics clearly have not been thought through.

    Proximity-based systems and quotas are easily circumvented. I don’t think that forcing hundreds of schools to play musical chairs every decade passes the laugh test. And merit-based primary school admissions will likely exacerbate the tuition arms race, which you clearly detest. You have not fully considered the collateral effects.

    (BTW thank you for correcting me on secondary school affliations. But I believe the larger point remains, that primary admissions were allowed to be even less meritocratic because the PSLE counterbalances that)

    Another example: your recent Catherine Lim piece. Instead of judging/criticizing the G for being too harsh on her, I think it more useful to reflect on why the contradiction exists.

    Again, the answer comes naturally: when the G/Han Fook Kwang ruminate on rebuilding trust, they aren’t addressing the Westernized cultural elite which Catherine exemplifies, but the 8% of heartlanders who swung in the last election.

    Re: comparisons with other systems, I think the value of making comparisons is that it tempers our idealism. It speaks volumes that despite nominal efforts to the contrary, most countries have not curtailed elitism. In fact, it has flourished because elites span all political stripes. The only difference is which elites are in power.

    I only bring up ‘The West’ because I experience this hypocrisy every single day. In contrast, the G’s sincerity in its commitment to meritocracy is unquestioned – I am moving back precisely for the opportunities the G provides non-elites. Substance over form.

    Perhaps Finland is the exception. Then share your experience and understanding with us. Or perhaps that would have been your next blogpost. How are they better? Why are they better? A genuinely egalitarian culture formed over centuries? Can their good bits be transplanted into ours – or not?

    Again, the contrast between ‘near’ and ‘far’ mode.

    I understand your idealism because I’ve been there. In turn, do you see where I am coming from?

    To be blunt, it’s easier to get invited to the decision table if you a) understand others’ motivations, and b) bring something they want. For those who genuinely prioritize majority welfare, this is more effective than agitating for cultural change.

    Ideologues would see this as a lily-livered compromise. Activists would see this as giving up political/cultural power. Welfarists like myself see it as delivering tangible outcomes.

    P.S Yesterday I came across an interesting example of the tuition arms race in NY. May this never come to pass in SG. http://www.unz.com/isteve/are-you-smarter-than-a-nyc-5-year-old/

    • The P1 registration system is something that people on nearly every position of the sociopolitical spectrum agree is faulty.

      I offer both a “far” and “near” perspective. I believe that our G is wildly successful in the things it has done so far. But we are starting to realise (or change) that we no longer value the old outcomes. I, and the ST columnist I quoted, offer real solutions (although you seem to think that I and the ST writer suggested to rotate hundreds of schools every decade, which we did not).

      I am concerned with and work towards tangible outcomes too, in case you only measure me by my blog (no fault of yours – it is one of my channels). This is why I engage with the G and other establishment entities regularly. This is why I (largely) walk the middle ground of compromise between the establishment and the alternatives.

      You see, I am not sure that an invitation to the decision table is truly predicated on the two points you listed above.

  9. Why don’t we address the “alumni” issue. There are many alumni who ignore their alma mater except when they need to invoke the link for registration purposes. Set a quota for each school to admit children of alumnus. Further, if demand exceeds quota the school admin and the alumni leadership should pick from those who have contributed to the school in whatever way they deem fit. The criteria need not be the same for all schools. Lets give the power back to the schools’ “leaders”. Volunteers and grassroots participation should NOT be a separate criteria but taken into account as part of the alumni evaluation or the neighbourhood residency cohort as the case may be. To ameliorate the “buy up property” tactic, G need to commit to co-mingling good schools with public/private housing.

    • I don’t even think alumni are relevant enough for admission. Active alumni should be paying it back as gratitude to their alma mater rather than looking for placement for their kids. Their contributions should be recognized in other ways.

      • I grew up believing in the Singapore meritocracy. But now, that very meritocracy looks like a myth and a sad joke to me. So much of what is important to us is arbitrarily determined – housing (beware of the bubble as well as those surprise cooling measures) , car ownership (ditto as above and surprise policy calls to the COE quantum) and primary education.

        Despite living within 1 km of Henry Park, my child was not able to get into the school as there were 24 vacancies available for 39 registrants (all Singaporeans, all within 1 km) in Phase 2C. That’s less than 10 percent of vacancies available for “outsiders” living within close proximity. At the beginning of the balloting process, the principal announced that about a third of the vacancy had gone to its alumni. It was hard not to be outraged – what has happened to that very meritocracy, that now, because of decisions made two generations ago (to enroll a parent into a surviving school – MOE had closed some primary schools and these parents had no alumni priority anywhere), children who happen to live close to a popular school are being displaced? Why even subject the primary school registration to such arbitrariness?

        If every school is a good school, why can’t I, as a parent, have access to basic information like the summary statistics (mean and standard deviation) of the PSLE t-scores over the years for all schools? Shouldn’t I be allowed to judge a school with some objective information other than the T-score of a top student – or am I to blindly believe MOE’s tagline when I see oversubscribed schools year after year?

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