Rather than giving priority to children of alumni and parent volunteers, more randomness should be introduced into the sorting process. We could imagine a two-phase process that first gives priority to students whose siblings or parents are studying or working at the school, and then holds an open ballot for all the other applicants. This suggestion has been
, although it is just one of many possible alternatives.
What about criteria for the balloting process?
In the current system, children living near the school have an advantage. Doing away with this criterion would make the process fairer. However, it does serve a logistical function, since it is easiest for a child to attend a nearby school. In addition, taking away the alumni and parent volunteer criteria without removing the proximity advantage could simply turn competitive parents’ attention solely towards buying properties near the schools of their choice.
Another question is how schools currently rely on parent volunteers, and whether they would be able to do without them should the volunteer criterion be removed. (Already, some schools have done away with their parent volunteer schemes because they cannot use the help.)
Developing a clean solution would require more data and multiple conversations with stakeholders like schools, parents, alumni associations, and clan associations. Even then, simply editing our sorting criteria will only do so much. If the advantage of focusing on specific policies is that it provides concrete direction, the risk is that we may give ourselves too much credit for too little change, ticking “inequality” off our Policy Priorities list and moving on to something else.
In the long term, the more sustainable solution is a change in the way we recognise “quality”—in our schools, but more significantly, in our students. The competitiveness of the admissions process—and the inequality that it therefore engenders—is fed by a hierarchical view of “elite” and “neighbourhood” schools, and by the belief that academic performance is the most important ingredient for future success. Tinkering with admissions policies without changing this fundamental view will simply result in MOE policymakers and “kiasu” parents trying to outsmart one another at their game.
Genuine cultural change will depend on a deep shift in our collective mindset. This means employers looking beyond academic credentials when hiring, parents recognising that there is more to develop in children than their ability to test well, and each of us chipping away at our entrenched stereotypes about students who go to “good” and “bad” schools. Only then can we move towards a system that truly values a range of talents, and away from our zero-sum game of academic winners and losers.
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