Social Mobility – How does it affect us?

Social Mobility

Recently, the news has been abuzz with how education brings about social mobility. Dr. Ng Eng Hen, the Minister for Education, argues that social mobility still happens. Poor students in Singapore continue to be given a chance to climb up the social ladder through education. He says that 20% of the PSLE, O-Level and A-Level cohorts live in 1- to 3- room HDB flats. The fact that this porportion remains the same throughout each level since 1980s show that poorer students can climb up the social ladder.

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However, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minster for Finance, admits that with each cohort, the opportunity of moving up the social ladder becomes more difficult, especially those from poorer families.

There are many reasons why they have difficulties catching up. For example, some of them have no access to any tuition classes. Others are simply too distracted with helping their families to survive to put in any effort in their studies.

Nevertheless, we have achieved social mobility over the years and we cannot deny that. It is still happening now, but why is it slowing down? And what can parents do about it?

Dr Irene Ng YH, an Assistant Professor at the NUS, seems to have the answer. She wrote in to the papers sharing that Singapore‘s intergenerational mobility is similar to that of the United States. The main reason, she suggests, is that countries with varied education systems tend to have low mobility. In other words, she is suggesting when there are many different types of schools, the ability of students to climb up the social ladder is hindered.

Social Mobility: What changed?

While I believe that are many factors that influence social mobility, let us explore if Dr Ng makes sense. In the past, the government had a more or less standardised curriculum. The different language medium schools became nationalised. Even the supposedly different Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools took the ‘O’ Levels.

However, in 1987, something changed: some better schools converted into independent schools. These schools enjoy autonomy in staff deployment and salaries, finance, management and curriculum, while continuing to enjoy substantial government financial support. In 2004, some of these schools started to offer the Integrated Programme (IP), a scheme which allows the most able secondary students in Singapore to bypass “O” levels and take “A” levels, International Baccalaureate or an equivalent examination directly at the age of 18 after six years of secondary education. By 2013, 18 secondary schools / junior colleges will be offering the IP. Therefore, Singapore moved away from standardised system to a varied education system, which explains stagnating social mobility.

What’s the impact of this? Firstly, ordinary students find difficulty enrolling in elite schools as their intake is already made up of students from the IP. In other words, ‘O’ levels has less importance. Secondly, the importance of the Primary Six Leaving Examinations (PSLE) has increased drastically. This is because it is even more important to enter these schools immediately after PSLE to do their IP programmes. Thus it is imperative for students to do well in PSLE.

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  1. Gilbert Goh

    do a survey, how many of your ministers, parliament speakers stayed in 3 room flats when they were little, and how many of them did not further their studies abroad? with these answers, I’ll be sold.

    • hardric

      Unfortunately, slowing down of social mobility only started in the late 1980s when independent schools started in 1987. And its has since accelerated in 2004 with the establishment of IB schools. I believe the youngest Minister is Mr Chan Chun Sing, who is 43 this year. This means all the Ministers graduated from the secondary school system before the slowdown took place. So, I can’t do any survey.
      On the other hand, let me point out that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had figures showing that more than 50% of the students in Raffles Institution had parents who were graduates. And the highest neighbouring school figure was 13%. That was in 2011. I believe this is really a sign.
      Maybe we can look at your survey in 10 years time. The students who graduated in 1990s will have a chance to be in the Cabinet then.

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