School system ‘still best way to move up’

Dear Dr Ng,

I refer to the 8 Mar 2011 Straits Times articles:

– School system ‘still best way to move up’
– How high can Amos go?
– MPs speak for kids from poorer families
– The surgeon-turned-minister who grew up in a Queenstown flat
– Ensuring the S’pore Dream is not an impossible one

It is said that half of the students from the bottom third socio-economic group end up in the top 2/3 of the PSLE cohort while one in six end up in the top 1/3. With just these two pieces of information, it is entirely possible to construct a picture where there is very little socio-economic mobility as shown in the table below:

Fraction of whole PSLE cohort 1/9 2/9 3/9 4/9 5/9 6/9 7/9 8/9 9/9
‘Lower’ denotes lower socio-economic group lower lower lower lower lower lower
1/2 of lower household students in top 2/3
1/6 of ‘lower’ students in top 1/3

It might be clearer if the figures are presented as a percentage of the entire PSLE cohort instead.

While at least 10 pupils in every primary school reach the top 1/3 of the PSLE cohort, is the number significantly higher for the branded primary schools and if so, is this healthy?

Your own example and that of the twin from Hwa Chong whose father and mother work as a security guard and a cleaner respectively are heartening stories that bring hope to all. But are these examples typical? You said your example is not unusual amongst your generation. But according to Census 2000, only 7.2% of your generation (25 to 34 years old in 1990) have a university degree. Thus, your example is far from usual in your generation.

You said pointing out that 70% of the overall population go through tertiary education compared to 50% from one to three room flats is an attempt to conscribe groups in a win-lose mathematical game. But limited places of higher education necessitate a win-lose mathematical game. You either win yourself a place in the university or you don’t. We can’t have a situation where everybody wins because everybody gets into the university. We will end up with too many unemployed graduates.

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