Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Budget Debate 2019
Watch the speech here
Sir, inequality has been a buzzword in recent years and it is a positive sign. It shows that as a society, we are not just concerned about ourselves, but we are also concerned about those who have fallen behind those who need our help.
What is the best way to reduce inequality? The answer is ensuring social mobility and social mixing.
In this respect, I agree with what PM Lee said in October: “We must not allow social stratification to harden in Singapore.”
We have done well to ensure that there is less social stratification where we live. PM gave the example of our HDB towns, which mix rental blocks with owned blocks, and have flats of all sizes within the same building.
PM said, “We want high and low income families to live together side by side, get along with one another, interact with one together. Not live apart and treat each other as aliens from a different world.”
But what about social stratification where we study, especially in our secondary schools? Students spend perhaps half or even more of their time in schools. In these environments, it is surely just as important that high and low income children learn together, play together, and mix with one another.
A good education system
Sir, we have a very well respected education system that many countries aspire to emulate.
The recent OECD report titled “Excellence and Equity in Education” similarly shared many positive aspects about our education system and about how disadvantaged students here do well compared with their peers around the world.
But as MOE has acknowledged, the report also showed that more work needs to be done to ensure good social diversity and mixing in schools.
The impact of streaming on social stratification
One of the things that might prevent social mixing and harden social stratification in our secondary schools is the practice of streaming.
We introduced streaming in 1980, and I understand the rationale. It caters to the different learning needs and pace of our students and it has helped to lower our attrition rates which is now at less than 1%, compared to 30%-40% at the start of our education journey.
Dr Intan also said in 2017 that streaming “helps teachers in being more focused in their teaching so that they are able to pitch their teaching content and pedagogy that is suitable for the students they teach.”
But the problem is that we are not just streaming our students based on their academic results. As Minister Ong has stated, “Social economic status has become significantly correlated with PSLE results.”
The reality is that students in the Normal streams tend to have a lower social economic status than those from the Express stream.
We know that from 2014 to 2018, 69% of secondary school students who received assistance from the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme were from the Normal stream.
We also know that the percentage of students living in public rental flats is higher in the Normal streams than in the Express stream.
We all know that we hang out with our classmates much more than with our schoolmates. What streaming has possibly done is to reduce social mixing and harden social stratification.
I spent the last year researching for this speech, filing questions in Parliament and I spoke with parents, students, and teachers.
Everyone understood why we started streaming. But quite a number of them gave pause and raised concerns when I suggested that streaming could be stratifying our schools and preventing our students from mixing across social economic backgrounds.
I am sure streaming was not meant to divide our nation by social economic status, but we now see streaming does contribute to it. We have tried so hard to prevent social stratification in our homes; we must try just as hard to do so in our schools.
The lack of inter-stream mobility
The next logical question is whether students move between streams. After all, if a Normal (Technical) student can move easily to the Express stream, we could all afford to be less worried about social stratification.
Unfortunately, we cannot, as it seems that the social stratification has hardened. Each year, 530 Normal (Technical) students transfer to the Normal (Academic) stream. Of these students, 10 to 20 of them eventually move on to the Express stream.
Here’s what it means: If you are a student from the Normal (Technical) stream, you have less than one percent chance of moving to the Express stream.
What’s worse, the stratification continues further up the education ladder. Over the past three years, Normal (Technical) graduates have made up only 5 per cent of those who graduated from public polytechnics and only 1 per cent of those who graduated from autonomous universities. Most finish their studies in ITE.
Data provided by MOE show that ITE graduates earned a starting salary of $1,900 in the private sector in 2017. By contrast, public university graduates earned a starting salary of $3,300.
The reasons for limited inter-stream mobility
Why do students from the Normal streams struggle to move to the Express stream?
One reason could be the psychological barriers that streaming imposes on Normal-stream students. Minister Ng last year acknowledged concerns that streaming could inadvertently discourage students.
Dr Intan also said, “Academic streaming tends to pigeon-hole students and inadvertently places expectations about their intelligence or abilities according to the stream they are in.”
Indeed, for some students there is a strong stigma associated to being in the Normal stream.
One 2006 research paper, titled “Building Teacher Capacity In Curriculum And Pedagogical Design In Normal Technical Classrooms,” provided this summary: “Perhaps the most common and injurious perception associated with NT or EM3 students is stupidity. Other negative perceptions of people interviewed on the streets are: ‘attitude not good’, ‘Ah Beng type’, ‘hopeless’, ‘can’t do anything, cant go anywhere’, ‘unmotivated’, ‘lazy’ and ‘ill-disciplined’.
Some students may even have internalised such negativities. It is not unusual for students in the Normal streams to blame themselves, leading to the worry that such students suffer from low self-esteem.”
The impact of this stigma was already raised in this House by Mdm Cynthia Phua 9 years ago. She said, “The present streaming of students in secondary schools have much psychological impact on the youths. The Normal stream is not normal, according to how the students and parents feel. They feel that they are inferior to their academic-better fellow schoolmates. And why do we have a system that makes our youths feel inferior at a young tender age?”
There are of course students from the Normal (Technical) stream who have done well and we have featured them regularly.
I met David Hoe and am so inspired by his story. David is the poster child of a successful student from the Normal (Technical) stream who has made it.
He scored 110 for his PSLE. Today, he is an economics teacher at a Junior College.
David’s success was almost not to be. His parents divorced when he was young, and he lived with his mother who was visually impaired. He went around selling tissue papers together his mother to make ends meet.
His mother passed on when David was 12. He did not do well for his PSLE, and went into the Normal (Technical) stream. He fell into bad company, and took up drinking and smoking.
As he shared with the media, “I hung out with these people for a few months before I met the right ones.”
His new group of friends often hung out in the canteen to do their homework. They also helped to coach him in his studies.
He had a dream of becoming a teacher, and worked hard for it for his N-Levels, in hopes of eventually being able to do his O-Levels.
He did well and was one of the top-scorers for his N-Levels. But he was still not allowed to do his O-Levels.
Desperate, this 16 year old wrote an email to then Minister of Education, Tharman Shanmugaratnam who intervened on his behalf. It was only through this intervention that he was able to get past the system and eventually take his O-Levels.
David is a success story and he worked hard to succeed. But his story is also about how social mixing made a difference for him.
While we share the success stories, we also need to remember that David is not a representative of the majority of Normal stream students.
In fact, he is unfortunately a minority. While we celebrate the successes, we need to remember those who have been left behind.
Time to eliminate streaming
Sir, it is time to eliminate streaming in secondary schools in favour of Subject-Based Banding.
I believe the debate we need to have has already happened. The concerns I raise today are the same ones students, teachers, and Members of this House previously raised about primary school streaming.
In 2008, MOE listened to these concerns and replaced primary school streaming with Subject-Based Banding. Subject-Based Banding kept the good parts of streaming while cutting out the bad parts.
As Minister Ong shared this month about the replacement of streaming with Subject-Based banding, “We believe that this has helped raise the confidence and motivation of students while customising education to their aptitudes and pace of learning.”
He added “there are also more opportunities for interaction among students across the different subject combinations, as a form class can have students of several subject combinations. Concerns about labelling and stigmatisation has diminished.”
Both teachers and parents have also expressed support for Subject-Based Banding.
It would seem strange that we did away with streaming and adopted Subject-Based banding in primary schools for very good reasons but somehow those reasons do not apply to secondary schools.
We have already expanded Subject-Based Banding to all secondary schools, to benefit more students. So what is stopping us from abolishing streaming in secondary schools? What is stopping us from preventing this kind of social stratification?
Sir, there are schools that have made progress on this and I hope that MOE studies what Boon Lay Secondary School is doing.
Students there are grouped not based on their streams, but by CCA groups. This means that students of different social economic backgrounds are more likely to mix with one another.
In 2018 the school reported that the new system has led to an increase in attendance rates and was met with a positive response by students.
I hope that MOE can study what this school has done.
Sir, MOE has worked hard to make changes in the right direction over the last few years, trying to steer the focus to aptitude instead of academic achievement and removing rankings.
As a parent of young children, I’m thankful for these changes and hope that we can do more. We have to do more.
Sir, there is a quote which reads, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
There will be inequality in our education system. The fact is that not everybody is the same. But our students are not stupid and should not feel that they are or face that kind of stigma.
We need to make sure their future is not decided by one major exam. We need to make sure that like where we live, we don’t have social stratification in where we study.
Every school is a good school and now let’s make every class a good class.
Like our primary schools, let’s completely replace streaming with Subject-Based Banding in our secondary schools.
Sir, I know that streaming is a sacred cow and this practice has existed for many decades. Members will know that I don’t like to cull animals but sir it really is time to slain this sacred cow.