“‘Bridges and ladders’: The paradox of equity in excellence in Singapore schools”: The problem of inequality beyond the schools

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Book chapter: Kwek, D., Miller, R., & Manzon, M. (2019). ‘Bridges and Ladders’: The Paradox of Equity in Excellence in Singapore Schools. In Equity in Excellence (pp. 87-108). Springer, Singapore.

That the Singaporean discourse on inequality has centred disproportionately on schools and the education system is unsurprising, especially since meritocracy remains perceived as the country’s main principle of governance. Yet, notwithstanding the elitism and lack of demographic representation associated with top schools, if sources of inequality stem from economic or labour policies, the hypothesis that the education system could in fact be mitigating the effects of socio-economic disparities should be taken more seriously.

Against this discursive background, this book chapter by Kwek et al. (2019) is premised upon the “bridges and ladders” model in Singapore, the idea that both horizontal (moving between a junior college and a polytechnic) and vertical (moving from primary to secondary school) movements are possible. They conclude that even though students have more choices and differentiated schooling experiences, the education model “paradoxically increases equity and excellence while simultaneously exacerbating injustices and inequity” (p. 87). This claim stems in part from Singapore’s principles of a meritocratic system:

“At first sight, such an educational system would provide greater opportunities for able and hardworking children from lower-status families to move up the social ladder. Simultaneously, children from higher status families would have to prove themselves in school if they wanted to maintain their benefits, thus allowing education to break down the intergenerational reproduction of the social divide.

However, inequities begin to appear when the meritocratic imperative comes up against an education system where relative performance (how a student performs relative to other students) and a limited positional good (certain schools, pathways, and trajectories are preferred over others) are the norm” (p. 90).

Through fairly brief case studies of three specialised secondary schools – a madrasah, a specialised school for Normal (Technical) students, and an independent school – the argument is that the diversity of horizontal and vertical pathways has been an improvement from a one-size-fits-all approach, but “systemic considerations beyond the classroom may impact equity” (p. 102). Flexible and differentiated pathways still advantage students who are privileged with (familial) resources, and while curriculum or pedagogies may have shifted over the years, pen-and-paper-based and high-stakes examinations is still used to evaluate students.

Kwek et al. (2019) propose good policy strategies – answering the “so what?” question, in other words – for greater equity: First, providing more diverse opportunities for students of different background (which they contend has been achieved through “bridges and ladders”); and second, improving family social status (such as extending pre-school education and second-chance education as well as providing grants and loans to children of low-income families).

What the researchers do not do enough of is to question the empirical picture of the “bridges and ladders” model and to perhaps place less emphasis on teachers at the school level per se, and instead broaden the social justice framework for equity to a broader population:

  1. The multiple pathways “bridges and ladders” model is said to be differentiated and flexible, which is then associated with improved social mobility. Reasonable data-based questions can be asked about the horizontal and vertical movements, such as: How many students in a cohort take a step backwards on a ladder (or stay put in the same position), and what are the socio-economic background of these students? How common are moves between secondary schools or junior colleges and polytechnics? And how have these numbers changed over time?
  2. While it is useful for teachers, school leaders, and policymakers to be guided by a social justice framework (p. 105) – that is, “Who gets what?”, “Who is treated in what way?”, and “Who can do what?” – it would also be meaningful to consider the problem of inequality beyond the schools. The onus could be on parents and their children, especially those from higher-income backgrounds, to evaluate their privilege, social networks and interactions, and their potential complicity in the (educational) structures or systems in terms of perpetuating inequality and poverty.

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