What If We Just Let Go Of ‘Every School A Good School’?

Top image: RICE File Photo/Thaddeus Loh

This month, education made the headlines in two separate, but related, incidents. The first, as everyone knows by now, was Minister Vivian Balakrishnan being caught muttering about how NCMP Leong Mun Wai made it into RI. 

The other, which caused less of a stir online—albeit with greater real-life impact—was the announcement of changes to the P1 registration policy. Beginning next year, more places will be allocated to students living nearby a school, and fewer will be reserved for students with family ties.

Hanging over these events is ‘every school a good school’: a creed so ubiquitous as to be the lorem ipsum of every education debate. At the same time, they strengthen the case for why it should be retired. The phrase isn’t only vague; it is meaningless, and ultimately, distracting.

The plain, if unpalatable, truth is that most of us simply don’t buy into the myth of ‘every school a good school’. In fact, as the above events show, our leaders probably don’t believe it themselves. 

It’s worth taking a quick look at the origins of the soundbite, which was popularised by DPM Heng Swee Keat during his term as the Minister for Education. Tellingly, it created so much confusion that he ended up having to clarify its meaning in Parliament. 

According to him, it was not a suggestion that every institute of learning was the ‘same’, but rather that every school was ‘a good school in its own way, seeking to bring out the best in every child’. (MOE’s website doesn’t currently reference the phrase explicitly, but lists a set of aims along similar lines.)

Unsplash/Felipe Schiarolli

What defines ‘good’?

This tells us that ‘every school a good school’ was conceived as a statement of intention. So far, so vanilla; it’s hard to argue with an aspiration, and bringing out the best in every child is an unquestionably admirable one. 

But the continued attempts to unpack (or rather, defend) the phrase reflect two things: one, that it is commonly understood as a statement of quality, and two, that what is ‘good’ is, quite obviously, highly subjective. In the context of education—the source of social angst in Singapore—this becomes a tinderbox.

Is a good educational institution one which produces straight-A scorers and sends them on to equally ‘good’ JCs? Is it one with Mac-equipped computer labs, assiduously planned field trips, and Model UN summits? How much of this ‘goodness’ is associated with having specially-trained teachers and a Wikipedia list of distinguished alumni? Where is the line between ‘good’ and ‘good enough’?

And of course, what we think is good is also influenced by what others think is good. Good, often, is about credentials. Good is about status, and what that status confers on us in turn. Goodness, for better or worse, is bound up with desirability.

Unsplash/Charles Deluvio

What difference does a ‘good’ school make?

Let’s be real: fixating on where someone studied to is an obsession largely limited to people who attended these schools themselves—‘elite’, ‘branded’, call them what you will. But equally, no parent pays the GDP of a small country in tuition fees in the hope of their child getting into Tengah South Secondary School. 

This is not a slight on teachers and administrators of ‘less good’ schools, the students who attend them, or the families who send their children there. It is a recognition that these schools themselves, like society, do not operate on a level playing field—a fact which platitudes like ‘every school a good school’ obscure.

There is a huge difference in the resources disbursed and on hand, especially between schools with independent or autonomous status and those without, and the advantages their students enjoy as a result. The former means specialised classes and study trips to Germany. It means training in academic citation methods (in the expectation that students will be writing such essays in the future), dedicated support for internship and university interviews, more choice of CCAs, and shiny facilities. Many of these are beyond the budget or resources of most government educational institutions to offer.

My own secondary alma mater, while not ‘elite’, was autonomous, which allowed students to enjoy exchange programmes with other girls’ schools in China and India and subsidised trips to the theatre. At my JC, this escalated to Oxbridge interview guidance.

Contrast this with a viral anecdote from a former teacher at a ‘neighbourhood’ school, whose students were awed at being taken to the Esplanade for a field trip and seeing that the CBD skyline was ‘like in the postcards’. 

Linked to this is the question of what a school should do in this day and age. All schools should prepare their students for life after the classroom, but a ‘good’ school not only sets its graduates up with a stamp of competence on their CV; it endows them with confidence in their own prospects, and introduces them to a network of future colleagues. The quip that ‘RI boys run the country, and AC boys own it’ is cringeworthy precisely because it carries a grain of truth.

Unsplash/Jessica Lewis

The myth of the great leveller

‘Every school a good school’, ironically, is aspirational, but not in the way that DPM Heng intended. It is aspirational simply because it does not reflect reality as we know it.

Why else would 60-year-old men care about where someone studied at 16? Why do parents spend hundreds of hours—sometimes years in advance—volunteering to score their child a place at a coveted primary school, or, if they have the wherewithal, buying a house in the vicinity of one?

Nor can we ignore the growing body of research suggesting that the impact of education on social mobility should not be overstated. Much as we like to think of education as the great leveller, we know the circumstances a child is born into can give them a head start or set them back: whether they will grow up with access to books and laptops, a conducive space in which to study, or parents who can afford to hire private tutors.

In fact, at least two local studies have found that Singapore’s education system has characteristics that reduce intergenerational mobility, thanks to phenomena like streaming and the reliance on tuition. 

Similarly, a closer look at Singapore’s much-trumpeted PISA scores reveals disparities according to students’ backgrounds and the economic, social, and cultural status of where they studied.

Unsplash/Jason Sung

In recent years, moves like the replacement of streaming with subject-based banding, the introduction of the UPLIFT policy, and the recent P1 registration changes, suggest efforts by policymakers to level the educational playing field. If these entail a tacit recognition that such inequality exists, what if we went one step further, and finally gave up insisting that every school is a good school?

This should not be regarded as defeatist or a concession to unfairness, so much as a necessary step to correcting it. Accepting that some schools are much better than others puts us in a better position to narrow this gap.

Part of this involves a much broader national conversation about, amongst other things, the goals of education and what sort of work we value. But in the context of schools policy specifically, it might involve a deeper investigation of the types of school status, the criteria for attaining such status, and the differences in funding and resources this entails. 

It might look like tightening the restrictions on alumni-based admission even further, or eliminating this category altogether. It might entail greater investment in government schools—beefing up teacher numbers, helping them develop niche programmes, or funding for better facilities and equipment.

Letting go of ‘every school a good school’ is not the same as giving up on this ideal. There is far less shame in abandoning a comforting fiction than there is in clinging to one—at the expense of asking how we can do better for our schools and their students.

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