““Getting ahead in Singapore”: How neighbourhoods, gender, and ethnicity affect enrolment into elite schools”: Using JC yearbooks as data

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Journal article: Chua, V., Swee, E. L., & Wellman, B. (2019). Getting Ahead in Singapore: How Neighborhoods, Gender, and Ethnicity Affect Enrollment into Elite Schools. Sociology of Education, 92(2), 176-198.

Given the challenges associated with obtaining complete data of the socio-economic diversity of Singapore’s top schools, Chua et al.’s (2019) research strategy of using 40 years of junior college (JC) yearbooks (1971 to 2010) as data – to study the influence of neighbourhoods, gender, and ethnicity on elite school enrolment – is therefore a very interesting workaround. After the researchers sampled for three elite JCs (Anderson, National, and Temasek JCs) and three non-elite ones (Catholic, Nanyang, and Tampines JCs) based on O-level entry scores and A-level points:

“Our team went through many pages of the yearbooks, recording the number of students in each classroom by gender and ethnicity for the 40-year period. In addition, we collected information about the language medium of each class [as well as their subject specialisation] … Our data collection produced a sample of 5,453 classes spanning 40 student cohorts (1971 to 2010) across six junior colleges” (p. 181).

The photographs and the names in the yearbooks – to ascertain the gender and the ethnicity of the students – are of particular interest, because the researchers hypothesised that female students will be better represented in elite JCs housed in wealthy neighbourhoods (p. 180), while Malay minorities will be less represented in these schools (p. 181).

The first hypothesis is anchored by three potential explanations: That parents perceive wealthier neighbourhoods to be safer for their daughters; that female students in elite secondary schools – concentrated in the same wealthy neighbourhoods – are more likely to move on to elite JCs; and that wealthy families are influenced by similar others in their social circles.

The second hypothesis is anchored by two: That Malay residents are underrepresented in wealthy neighbourhoods; and that wealthy neighbourhoods have more elite secondary schools with disproportionately more non-Malay students.

Finally, the six JCs are located in Singapore’s three most populous census neighbourhoods (central, northeast, and east, compared to the north and the west), though their neighbourhoods differ in the wealth of residents. Neighbourhood wealth in the study is determined by the share of private housing. The central census neighbourhood is high-wealth, housing National (elite) and Catholic JCs (non-elite); the northeast is medium-wealth, housing Anderson (elite) and Nanyang JCs (non-elite); and the east is low-wealth, housing Temasek (elite) and Tampines JCs (non-elite).

The findings – consistent with the two aforementioned hypotheses – are unsurprising: That the gender gap in enrolment into elite JCs has closed more quickly than the ethnic gap. “The elite status of schools in wealthy neighbourhoods has boosted women’s situation, whereas Malays are still less likely to attend schools (especially elite schools) in privileged neighbourhoods” (p. 191). The more precise mechanism or explanation for female students is that wealthy Singaporean neighbourhoods have a higher number of elite all-female secondary schools which feel enrolment into the elite JCs. On the other hand, Malay students are demographically underrepresented in wealthy neighbourhoods.

(In addition to the creative data collection plan, the analytic plan of using a panel fixed effects model and robustness checks deserves greater attention, but it is beyond the scope of this review. And to some extent, it is also beyond my technical abilities at the moment too.)

Given the ongoing discourse on (educational) inequality, one can identify the long-term implications of these findings. It is plausible for a female student, for example, to only be exposed to particular elite schools and neighbourhoods – the demographic and socio-economic profiles of which are not likely to be representative of the broader Singapore population – which may, as a consequence, structurally dictate her lived experiences and interactions. The converse can be said of the education and social circles of the Malay students. Chua et al. (2019) conclude:

“The intent of our research has not been to interrogate the value of an elite junior college education set against living in a wealthy neighbourhood. Instead, we addressed the ways gender and ethnic inequalities amplify inequalities in elite schooling. Rather than treating wealthy neighbourhood-elite schools only as a prized outcome – which it most likely is – our research treats wealthy neighbourhood-elite schools as an important source of social stratification” (p. 192).

The analysis of gender and ethnicity as individual factors – instead of understanding how they may intersect or interact – was highlighted as the first limitation, though data accessibility is probably the bigger challenge. The use of JC yearbooks as data was no doubt creative, yet one wonders whether the schools and the Ministry of Education have administrative datasets already providing such information, the access to which should significantly reduce and time and effort needed to scour through yearbooks so as to classify the students.

Substantively too, more could be said about the ethnic gap and the structural influence of wealthy neighbourhood-elite schools. Put otherwise, in terms of application, so what?  How has the ethnic gap changed over time? What do we still not understand about the structural disadvantages faced by Malay students, or are we simply overlooking the problems and solutions? And above all, what are the next steps, and what is the role of public policy, for housing, and for education?

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