“For years, critics have pointed out that the scheme – introduced in 2004 – has deviated from its original objective. It was started with the aim of recognising and admitting students into secondary schools based on talents in areas such as sports and arts instead of general academic ability” (Revamped DSA Scheme to Give Students from Disadvantaged Families a Leg Up, Faris Mokhtar).
The latest round of tweaks to the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme – making applications free of charge and centralising the online submission of applications (TODAY, Nov. 7) – will not fix more fundamental disparities between students and the families they come from. Furthermore these changes, and how they have been communicated thus far, are not helped by the lack of more precise data and information on the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the students who benefit from the DSA: The employment status of their parents, their housing type and household income, and perhaps even their primary schools (and how they were admitted).
In fact, that the Ministry of Education (MOE) declined to give a breakdown of the socio-economic status of students admitted through DSA” is unfortunate. Without knowing the distribution of students and how that might have changed over time, the public will not have a good understanding of the effectiveness of the scheme, and why the aforementioned changes are therefore needed.
Another dimension which requires more measurement-related attention, along this tangent, is porosity across pathways. Because the DSA is oftentimes tied to the integrated programme (IP) – which offers a through-train route without the pressure of one fewer standardised examination – an unintended consequence could be less mobility between the secondary schools and the institutes of higher learning (IHL). In other words, a student not under the DSA who excels academically later in the secondary school may find it more difficult or competitive to enter an IHL. The MOE has emphasised that such movements are possible in theory, yet again facts and figures are needed to, for instance, compare the number of such switches, and how that may have changed after the introduction of the DSA.
At the heart of these issues in the context of Singapore, it would appear, is a lack of comprehension of how early childhood or adolescent disparities persist, and the extent to which the education system perpetuates or moderates these differences. The expectation for the education system – including policies such as the DSA or IP – to be the be-all and end-all when it comes to addressing inequality and the class divide, in addition, is not only unfair, but also overlooks other structural challenges related to the country’s economic and labour policies. In this vein, having more data and information as well as being more deliberate with early childhood interventions are useful starts, yet endeavours cannot end there.