Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pri 1, PR, proximity and the need for principles in policy making

On 25th March 2012, the Ministry of Education announced some changes to the Primary 1 registration exercise. Basically, there will be no changes to the current phases of registration. But, there would be differentiation between Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents where a particular phase is 'oversubscribed'. MOE's press release states this:

"when balloting is necessary in a specific phase, SCs will be given absolute priority over PRs. SCs and PRs will continue to be eligible for the same phases, and all applicants will be admitted if the total number of applicants in any phase does not exceed the number of vacancies. However, if the number of applications exceeds the number of vacancies in a specific phase, SCs will be admitted first ahead of PRs, before home-school distance is considered."

This is clearly intended to win political capital by pandering to the section of the electorate that is clearly unhappy with the huge influx of foreigners. There is nothing stated by way of principle by the Ministry of Education as to why the differentiation ought to be made. There are possible ways that a principled argument could be mounted for the differentiation. But MOE does not seem to find the need to justify and I can only surmise that it is a response to electoral backlash.

In this piece I am not going to look at the need to differentiate between citizens and PRs. Instead, I wish to focus on another issue that I have been concerned about for some time: the lack of principles in the primary 1 registration exercise. The Pri 1 registration exercise is split into a number of phases. Each phase caters for different categories of 'interests'.

Phase 1
For a child who has a sibling studying in the primary school of choice

Phase 2A(1)
(a) For a child whose parent is a former student of the primary school and who has joined the alumni association as a member not later than 30 June 2011.

(b) For a child whose parent is a member of the School Advisory / Management Committee

Phase 2A(2)
(a) For a child whose parent or sibling has studied in the primary school of choice

(b) For a child whose parent is a staff member of the primary school of choice

Phase 2B
(a) For a child whose parent has joined the primary school as a parent volunteer not later than 1 Jul 2011 and has given at least 40 hours of voluntary service to the school by 30 Jun 2012

(b) For a child whose parent is a member endorsed by the church/clan directly connected with the primary school

(c) For a child whose parent is endorsed as an active community leader

Phase 2C
For all children who are eligible for Primary One in the following year and are not yet registered in a primary school

Phase 2C Supplementary
For a child who is not yet registered in a school after Phase 2C

Phase 3
For a child who is neither a Singapore Citizen nor a Singapore Permanent Resident

From the first time that I became aware of the phases, I have been uncomfortable with the way in which priority is given to parents offering voluntary services to the school and parents that are deemed to be active community leaders. Under its FAQ section, the MOE explains community leaders as follows: "Current serving executive committee members of the Residents’ Committee (RC), Neighbourhood Committee (NC), Citizen’s Consultative Committee (CCC), Community Club Management Committee (CCMC) and the Community Development Council (CDC) are eligible to register their children under Phase 2B."

A crucial issue in making education available to all and accessible to all is to consider the child's interest. A young child would need all the assistance necessary to make the transition into a competitive school environment a smooth one. Distance may be a factor to be considered. If a child has to travel a long distance to and from school, precious time is lost and the child gets understandably tired. This can affect the overall concentration and performance of the child over the years. The fact that a sibling is presently studying in a particular school appears to be a relevant factor that is capable of improving the child's performance. Clearly a child is likely to benefit from the presence an older sibling in the school. These methods of giving priority can be classified as 'principled'.

What befuddles me is that someone that has joined a Residents' Committee or has helped out as a parent volunteer (and often does so out of self-interest), can easily fit into phase 2B and that person's child will be given priority over a child living in vicinity of a school. By officially maintaing a category for parents serving the community or the school, a wrong behaviour is encouraged. Community service should be undertaken with the spirit of service and not through expectation of benefits. But, the current registration system encourages many parents to join RCs simply because of the benefit of priority in pri 1 registration. Whilst proximity ought to be a superior factor in comparison to RC membership by virtue of the principled position adopted, proximity is subordinated.

If this was not official policy, it would be the offence of corruption. Parents providing volunteer services to schools do so with the expectation that their child will get priority in registration. The schools receive this benefit of services provided by the parents and know that they are expected to reciprocate. I am drawing this comparison with the corruption offence to put things into perspective. There is no principled approach to Pri 1 registration.

It is important that public bodies rationalise their policies in a principled way instead of catering to 'interests' in an arbitrary fashion.

(On a personal note: About 5 years ago, I was strongly encouraged by an active RC member to join the RC as it would enhance my son's school registration. I found the suggestion repulsive then and I still feel the same way about it today. I continue to receive the same suggestion today. My son will be going through his Pri 1 registration in the middle of next year. I refuse to give myself an advantage by joining the RC. I think that there is a more important value that I need to inculcate in my son. Sometimes, it is a matter of principle.)


Ricky Goh said...

I agree completely. The following letter was sent to Minister Heng on 28 Feb 2012:

Dear Minister Heng,

It is with great relief that I read on The Straits Times (dated 23 Feb) that the Ministry of Education is reviewing the Primary 1 Registration Exercise. In my opinion the current system is not only unfair and impractical, it is also elitist and subjects your ministry to unwarranted claims of favouritism due to the opaqueness of the system. Here are the problems with the current system:

1. The current system allocates a number of places in each cohort to children associated through clans or religious bodies. This goes against the brand of meritocracy that Singapore is known for, since it gives priority of admittance to children born under a certain race, dialect or religion. Unless these schools can be run privately without any funding, support and overview from the Ministry, it would be unfair to other citizens to be placed at a lower priority when they contribute just as much to nation-building.

2. I can literally hit a neighbourhood primary school with a stone thrown from my home, but we have no intention to register our child there because this was the most popular primary school for last year’s registration exercise and we rather not leave things to chance. When I was young I woke up at 5am to be ready for the school bus, and there are parents who move homes just to be close to a school in order to avoid that. This move could have been in vain if the child is posted to another school not within the vicinity. With the rules in place for property ownership and current property prices, how many times can an average family practically afford to move home so that their child get the sufficient rest that he/she needs in order to be attentive in class?

3. The current system also gives priority to children whose parents are alumni members of the school. This perpetuates elitism and again run against the grain of meritocracy. Moreover it is likely that these parents have had no interaction with the school at least for the last 20 years, between the ages of 13 (when they graduate from the school) and 33 (when their first child is probably old enough for Primary 1). How is this fair to other parents who have contributed in some way or another to the school? be continued

Ricky Goh said...


4. This brings me to the next point of parent volunteers. Children whose parents are volunteers are placed on a higher priority than those whose parents are not. However even this is no guarantee of a place in the school, as evidenced by the case of Mediacorp artiste Zoe Tay and her husband, who wasted more than 40 hours of their time. Given that there is an increase of dual-income families to cope with the rising costs of living, how can an average family juggle work, family and volunteering at a school?

5. I understand that parents go through an interview with the school before being selected as volunteers. However there are no clear guidelines on the measurement of the value of work that a parent provides to the school. Who is to say that a tennis coach works harder, is more valuable or performs better than a traffic warden? The valuation and evaluation of such services to the school currently resides with the person(s) that selects the parent volunteers, and the subjective nature of this task may open this person(s) to all manners of kickbacks, which may result in perceptions of favouritism, collusion or even worse, corruption.

6. Parents who are grassroots leaders or participate in residents’ activities are also given priority in the registration exercise. Again who is to say that organizing a residents’ event takes more effort than providing after-school care for the school’s pupils? In this case the persons evaluating these services are not even the same, so figuratively we are asking chalk and cheese to compare apples and oranges. Moreover the constituency that the parent volunteers at is tied to the school that he is eyeing, which makes it even harder to explain away the opaqueness, subjectivity and lopsidedness of the system.

The whole registration and admission exercise should be focused solely on the well-being and welfare of the child and nothing else, and I would suggest that the review takes the following points into account:

1. Any child with siblings in the school should get first priority, since it does not make sense that a parent has to send his children to three different locations in one morning.

2. Children who live near the school should get greater priority, since the net total cost (time, effort, money) to get him/ her to school on time is lower.

3. There is no point in parents volunteering in order to try and get their child into the school, since their efforts typically cease after the aim is achieved and does not benefit the child at all. If the school has need for certain talent or resources, they should requisite it from the Ministry itself. School volunteers would still welcome, and in any scenario a parent who is volunteering because he/she genuinely believes they can make a difference to the school or their community would be more committed than one who is simply there to fulfill a quota of hours. To maintain the transparency and objectiveness of the system, all kinds of gifts, whether in the form of cash, services or in-kind should not be taken into consideration during the registration exercise.

I thank you for your time, and I trust that your ministry will be able to work out a fair and equitable system for the good of our future generations.

Amused said...

It will be interesting to see the result of this "SC first" policy after the registration is over. How much does it benefit SC?

Subra said...

Hi Ricky,

I agree with you completely. I have only raised the issue of parent volunteers and RC members getting priority as an example of a lack of a principled approach to policy making.

You are right in asserting that clan/church membership sets us against the stated principle of meritocracy and affiliation through the alumni status of parents has the ring of elitism.

One has to question the moral health of the nation when in a key institution in society (education), we show the lack of principled policy making

Din said...

This is to always pitch one parent/person against another parent/person in order to divide the and conquer. As long as people are kept divided in so many aspects of our lives, the incumbent always wins! They appeal to the base instincts of self-interest and self-preservation (heard of the prisoner's dilemma?

Principles were never the foundations. BTW, does S'pore have a time-tested constitution?

Subra said...

Din > it is good that you pointed out that we don't have a time-tested Constitution...

In one sense, we are now going through a time when our constitution is beginning to get tested... the conversations that we begin today will lay the foundations for change in the future. Any constitutional value system of the future must arise out of contested positions and perspectives that beget principles.

Anonymous said...$1m-boost-to-encourage-more-youth-involvement

And you think those RC/NC/CCC/CCMC/CDC etc are bad, wait till you see how they intend to infiltrate the younger ones now, so that they can 'catch' them before they turn 'rogue'. Only $1m. I am sure there are privileges being in the club, all on pretext of 'youth movement'.

Anonymous said...

Volunteering so as to stand a better chance to get your child into your choice school to me is just how parents are taken advantage of by the school. Further, not all parents can afford to do that because both parents have to work to survive in our expensive singapore. So they loose out. Things like this are how Kiasuism manifest.