Explicate whether and how the meritocratic Singapore education system may contribute to this phenomenon and to social stratification in general, referring to sociological theories and existing educational policy and practices?
While schools are important institutions in the society, because students from different backgrounds converge to learn necessary skills that will improve their social advancement, I found that deeply camouflaged in these institutions are factors such as: gender, class and ethnicity (Luke 245). These have influenced greatly how resources are allocated and how students are taught. With time social inequalities are reproduced through interaction and structural configurations. I found that Students from a class higher in the society hierarchy, are sent to good schools which have got more resources and competent tutors. It can be gainsaid that excellent academic achievements on the part of such students is inevitable. Consequently, they will be able to get higher paying jobs in the society. The contrary can be said of a student who comes from way below the society’s hierarchical rankings. The end result of all such is social stratification. My goal or aim in this paper is to try and show how education has enhanced social stratification in the society in the course of appealing to the ideas of meritocracy.
To achieve this, I have organized the paper into various sections that will help us understand what meritocracy is, what social stratification entails and how these two affect are related to the education system in Singapore. I will end the paper by a summary of my findings on how education, social stratification and meritocracy and their interrelations and the risks posed.
What is Meritocracy?
Meritocracy is a government system where the responsibilities vested in the government are appointed and assigned objectively and purely based on the merits of the individuals being assigned or appointed (Bellows 24). In most cases, the “merit” being taken into consideration is based upon a person’s intelligence, credentials and education. The individual is taken through lots of evaluation or examinations to determine their “merit”. A person’s “merit” is normally measured by IQ or standard achievements tests. Meritocracy has sometimes been confused to mean a form of government; however, this should not be the case as meritocracy is mainly an ideology. Ideologies do not have a common footing especially as regard too their definition . Therefore, it does not come as a big surprise when supporters of meritocracy do not agree on the nature of “merit”, what they however agree on is that, “merit” should be a fundamental consideration during evaluation.
Application of Meritocratic Ideology
The education systems that exist in different parts of the world today form part of this meritocratic ideology: especially when the issue of college degrees is raised. Higher education has become a very imperfect meritocratic screening system because there lacks uniform standards worldwide, in addition, the lack of scope because not all occupations and processes are included, finally, the lack of access. Lack of access implies that not all talented people are able to access or participate because education has become a very expensive venture particularly in developing countries. Therefore, it becomes unfair to only conclude that the individuals who have excelled were the only people a certain society could produce.
Society has never and will never be equal. The level of education for instance is not horizontal amongst each member of the society. The truth is that (in the case of education) it has existed and will continue to exist in a vertical order. When such happens, educational stratification emerges. People with similar level of education will be seen to group together. This amplifies itself to include up to social stratification. This type of stratification is destructive as it pits some individuals and groups as more deserving than others. It concentrates on hierarchical grouping in the society. In the long run, inequality surfaces in the society. The hierarchal grouping is normally based on ability to access scarce but valuable resources.
Social Mobility and Equal Opportunities in Education
Social mobility and equal opportunities in education are often linked to the concept of Meritocracy. Governments around the world have put in place educational systems which they believe will help in preparing minds of the young generation run institutions vital to drive a country forward. Education in this sense has therefore been regarded as the gateway to mobility in countries that ascribe to the meritocracy ideology. People earn their positions based on merit in these societies. The assumption that is made in these societies is that every person has been given equal opportunity to achieve the best they can.
Meritocracy in Singapore’s Education System
Singapore, just like most countries, has been affected by the meritocratic ideology (Appold 17), especially towards how its education system has helped reproduce social stratification. Singapore’s meritocratic educational system has been said to promote social mobility. The Ministry of Education has maintained that studies which have been undertaken indicate that students from less fortunate homes were still able to move up in Singapore. They site PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment ) concluded that Singapore had one of the highest proportion of students from lower social economic backgrounds doing better. Furthermore, the ministry of education still puts it that the country has got good primary schools in neighborhood estates which provide access to high quality education. Moreover, the ministry of education explains that differentiated teaching has made students excel more as the schools can now handle different learning needs. Financial assistance schemes have been applauded by the ministry of education as they have ensured that needy and deserving students do not miss a chance to further their education ambitions.
Social Immobility in Singapore
Even with this positive observation from the ministry of education, the worry of social immobility looming due to Singapore’s education system is still very real (Rossi 170). A National Youth Survey in 2002 and 2005 was conducted. The young people’s earnings were compared with their parent’s earnings. It was established that , the children of rich parents grow up to be rich while the latter is true. These findings indicate then that intergenerational mobility is low. It has been established that; the type of education system has an impact on mobility. For instance, countries that have got private and varied education system tend to have low mobility. However, countries with public and universal systems have a high mobility. Expensive education further drives social mobility on a low while low cost education boosts mobility. Parent’s education has also been found to be a major factor that affects participation and leadership in groups like games and sports.
I asked to teachers why they think we have a decrease in mobility. One of the teachers informed me that entry into prestigious schools is not based entirely on merit, but it takes into consideration a parent’s connection to the school being pursued. He viewed Singapore’s education to be highly differentiated and he also said that it would continue to be so. Another teacher explained to me that, she saw that parents viewed education as an investment channel in the human capital of their children. Therefore, she was of the notion that parents work extra hard to ensure that their children gain access to better schools –in terms of facilities- so that they can be guaranteed of academic excellence. She explained that, apart from this schools being very expensive especially in tuition fees, they are seen to enhance the social status of a person in the various social groups. In addition it shows how economically viable a family is.
The two teachers were of the idea that the education system in Singapore remains much differentiated. They explained that students have been grouped in different groups –depending on their academic caliber- and hence their social lives don not mix.
It may be true that some of the students from below the hierarchy in social stratification have been able to eke a good living for themselves. It comes rather as a surprise that a society which has based its education system purely based on merit abuse the same ideology behind meritocracy. Merit should be applied in a horizontal society. A vertical society cannot encourage merit. The educational system in Singapore is an example of what education can do to enhance social stratification. Just like the principle of democracy, the idea of “merit” should be seen to actually work in real life and not in the minds and unrealistic minds of its proponents. It does not need science to see that categorizing students into different schools enhances social stratification which brings inequality in the society.
Singapore’s government is aware of this. The leaders understand that social immobility married with deteriorating income inequality pose a risk. Fortunately they have put in place measures to curb this. As a state, Singapore has made tremendous steps in development, the nation can be said to have reached financial maturity and the populous is becoming increasingly vexed by inequality issues. The fact that Singapore’s educational system is brooding social immobility should serve as a warning to make the government and the ministry of education re-thinks of streamlining if not rethinking the entire educational policy together with the economic policy (Sharpe 160).
Bellows, Thomas J. Meritocracy and the Singapore Political System. The Asian Journal of Political Science. Vol.17, Issue 1, p24-44 April, 2009.
Sharpe, Leslie, Gopinathan, S. After Effectiveness: New Directions in Singapore School Systems? Journal of Educational Policy.Vol.17, Issue 2, p151-166, April 2002.
Rossi, Tony, Ryan, Mary. National Education as a ‘Civics’ Literacy in a Globalized World: The Challenges Facing Education in Singapore. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. Vol. 27 Issue 2, p161-174, Jun 2006.
Luke, Carmen. Cultural Politics and Women in Singapore Higher Education Management. Education and Gender. Vol.10, Issue 3, p245-263, September 1998.
Appold, Stephen J. Is Meritocracy Outmoded in a Knowledge –Based Economy? Singapore Economic Review. Vol.46, Issue 1, p17, April 2002.
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