An edited version of this commentary was first published in NVPC’s SALT, “A Cutting Report Restarts Academic Meritocracy Debate“.
While individuals are still trying to make sense of the supposed funding cuts to some independent schools and the confusing exchange between the Ministry of Education and The Straits Times over fund-raising, the back-and-forth has reignited a discourse over wealth and meritocracy. Meritocracy has been a key feature in the formulation of public policies, including education, but its efficacy has been compromised by increasing wealth inequality.
The MOE – perhaps let down by the shoddy reporting of the ST (Feb. 3) – might have communicated its intent poorly. Four schools have had their funding trimmed: because the MOE has reviewed its disbursement policy, and noticed that schools with large enrolments get disproportionately higher sums. A directive advised schools to moderate fund-raising: because some parents and stakeholders ‘felt the burden of fundraising”.
These are rational and straightforward justifications. Notwithstanding the lack of information – for instance, over funding differences between independent and non-independent institutions, and the types of infrastructure a school can construct through personal fund-raising endeavours – the MOE and ST could have made it clear from the get-go.
A proposal to cut funding substantially, if it did exist, is horribly misinformed. Instead of curbing access and the availability of resources, it would make more sense to broaden that accessibility, especially to new schools that do not have the same support from parents and the alumni. As some have noted (Feb. 4), “[f]unding levels for independent schools should be maintained, so they can set the benchmarks by which other schools may pursue a higher standard of education”. In that vein there is an incentive for school administrations to build a strong school culture, so as to ascertain greater alumni strength and support in the future.
Premised upon the “every school a good school” mantra, the MOE has commendably sought to broaden definitions of success and to remove the pedantic reliance upon examination grades per se. At the same time the government has to recognise that growing income disparity has stunted the promises. Some might disagree. A ST forum writer (Feb. 4) has claimed that “[t]he public has confused meritocracy with aristocracy, and assumed that there is a firmly entrenched ‘elite’ class whose children are guaranteed a free pass to the top, as enshrined early on by the education system”.
Students from low-income households can still rise up the ranks, but it is hard to deny that the process is becoming more difficult. And while cuts and illogical redistribution are not the answers, those from affluent backgrounds should recognise – not deny – their privilege, as the government seeks to address an increasingly uneven playing field.