Thursday, January 27, 2011

Education and the great divide

A few days ago, the local news profiled MM Lee as saying that the main difference between students in "branded" and non-branded schools is parents' educational backgrounds. Branded schools have a much higher proportion of students with graduate parents, which according to him, provides for a more favourable learning environment for the child.

His advice to less educated parents is to bring their kids to the library early and teach them to acquire knowledge by themselves.

If only it were that simple! While I agree that the free educational resources in Singapore, like libraries, access to IT etc, are excellent, they're not enough to make up for the enormous disparity in resources and opportunities (which I feel is the real crux of the matter but not an issue MM Lee would want to address because it's an inevitable fallout of a capitalist system and has no solution).

The proliferation of tuition centres and enrichment programmes across the island demonstrates that these are no longer occasional luxuries, they are de rigueur in many families. How then, do you compare the standard between a child who has individual coaching in every subject and is groomed to answer each question to a T versus the child who has to depend solely on what he learns in school, without parents able to provide additional guidance?

You may say, well the second child just has to work harder. True, but more and more in our society where the playing field is constantly being leveled up exponentially, the odds of his ability to play catch up are quickly diminishing. I feel that's why these days, you hear less and less of national scholars with hawker or taxi driver parents. They're now largely from middle class families.

It's time for the zonal badminton school competitions once again and yesterday, I was at one of the matches to support Andre, who incidentally has been appointed co-captain of his school's junior team this year. The school they were playing against is a neighbourhood school not known for its academic standards. As I looked at the kids, I realised instantly these are not privileged kids. They wore faded PE t-shirts and school shoes. They were as hyper as hamsters on steroids and I'm guessing, not the type who would typically do well in school academically.

Those kids clearly had no external coaching and were participating in the competition for the first time. Nevertheless, they showed unbridled enthusiasm and even as they were getting trounced, they gave everything they had. Their team mates cheered with gusto every time one of their friends managed to win a point. One boy in particular, impressed me. He's pint-sized, skinny and even though his opponent was making him dance circles around the court, he ran down every single shuttlecock like Speedy Gonzales. Andre's school coach told the team, "see, I want that sort of determination!"

Andre's team eventually won the match 5 games to nil and that was a great boost of confidence to the school but amidst the celebration, I just felt for the kids at the other school. Their spirit was such a contrast to the students from those of one of the top national badminton school teams (and a branded school), which was also at the venue yesterday. Those students showed an aggressive, competitive streak. They trained up to 7 times a week, most of them had additional coaching outside of school. They played badminton purely to win.

The thought then hit me how lucky our kids are. Where we see talent, potential or interest, we can provide the opportunities for them to nurture these areas. From yesterday, I saw that many other kids are not so fortunate. Even if they have the passion for badminton, their parents may not have the time or money to help them develop their skills.

Singapore can claim to have the Junior Sports Academies and the Sports School to groom sports talent but I know for a fact that to pass the trials, you need to already have some level of proficiency in the sport and those who make the grade almost always have external coaching. Potential and interest are not enough to get you past the door, which means kids like those at the school Andre played against yesterday will never get the opportunity.

I don't believe that money can buy success but it's hard to dispute the fact that money can buy you opportunities which increase your chances for success. If there was a Lee Chong Wei or Lin Dan from a disadvantaged family in Singapore today, would we be able to discover him?

We all love to hear underdog stories but instead of merely celebrating how some guy managed to beat the odds, it's my wish that our society can help increase the odds for these folks.


Lilian said...

This post made me tear up :( My heart really goes out to these kids. I can imagine their bright enthusiastic faces. Reminds me of the old days when inter-school sports wasn't so intense and the discrepancy in skills wasn't too great. You know, in Malaysia, the famous Sidek brothers came from very humble background and went on to be All-England and Thomas Cup champions. Amazing family...there was Misbun, Razif and Jalani and Rashid...not sure if I missed another brother. But they all went on to achieve international success. Wonder if poor kids can still reach the top these days. Who doesn't like stories of kampung kids make good.

I'm just glad these kids from the other school didn't lose heart and continued to chase after every shuttlecock. That's the spirit. I hope they don't lose that spirit.

monlim said...

Lilian: You know, I read that Lee Chong Wei and even the legendary Yang Yang both started badminton training only at age 11! In Singapore, parents send kids for sports training ridiculously early, some even before p1. Trials for Junior Sports Academy take place at p4 which mean kids have to show proficiency already at that age in order to be identified.

The Sidek brothers are amazing and so are the other Malaysians who've made it to the global stage. I'm not sure they would have had the same success if they were in Singapore, they probably would have been told to give up sports, buckle down and study :P

Anonymous said...

A good and timely post. Thank you for sharing this.


Anonymous said...

Very true. Look at the recent years' PSLE top scholars - almost always with doctors/lawyers parents. Take at a look at the top scorers in your children's own primary school - usually with graduate parents too. These parents can also better afford expensive tuition which is a necessity in some cases nowadays due to quality of school teachers. The statistics on background of parents in branded sec schs further support this observation. CCA nowadays is about winning medals, not for recreation. So sad. Another vicious cycle - DSA. As good sec schs have to be "well-rounded", they recruit top sportsmen via DSA to win medals in sports. Thus primary school children join CCAs which enable them to DSA and that's why they have to be so competitive in the sports. Win the national championship and the whole load of them can DSA to top IP schools, regardless of their lower than COP PSLE scores. Wonderful article as usual, Monica.


Petunia Lee said...

You are my soulmate.

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