Support for At-Risk Pre-Primary Children and Families
Singapore offers extensive supports for children and families, particularly low- income families. Many supports have been significantly expanded in the last few years, including doubling the childcare subsidy for low-income families and creating a public kindergarten system, as part of an effort to ensure that the country is globally competitive.
Prior to independence, only the children of the colonial elite were guaranteed quality education in Singapore. Even after a comprehensive system of compulsory education was created, there remained a significant achievement gap among students of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Chinese students tended to be top-performers, while Malay and Tamil students lagged behind. The series of reforms through the 1970s and 80s did a lot to reduce dropout rates and promote equity, and the recent switch to ability-based subject bands rather than tracks has quieted critics who maintain that tracking promotes disparity. Bands are much less rigid than tracks; if a student is able to perform at a higher level, they can easily move into a higher band for one or more of their classes. However, there is still a large gap between Singapore’s top-performing students and its lowest-performing students – a gap that was made apparent in the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results.
Support for At-Risk Primary and Secondary Students
Educators hope to alleviate this gap through early diagnosis and intervention. Students are screened at the beginning of first grade for reading aptitude, and students who are considered to need extra help (approximately 12-14%) are taught in small learning support programs to ensure that they keep pace with their classmates. In these programs, teachers work with groups of six to eight students for thirty minutes a day in order to keep them up to speed with their classmates. The government funds preschools for low-income students who would otherwise not be able to attend. Students are also not hampered by previous academic performance if they show improvement. When Singapore switched from a tracking to a banding system in the 1990s, lower secondary school became much more flexible. Students can move between bands, or take courses in other bands, if necessary.
The Singapore government believes that environmental conditions, such as a single-parent household, can affect a student’s performance. To that end, the government has instituted local community councils responsible for identifying families in need and for providing aid and support in multiple forms. Each ethnic group also has a similar committee in local communities. The government also provides monetary assistance to low-income families. In February 2014, Singapore announced that it would provide grants to low- and middle-income families to defray the costs of pre-primary childcare and higher education. Families who earn up to $2,374 (US dollars) a month now only pay $2.37 a month for pre-primary childcare, down from a maximum cost of $59. For families who earn $3,798 a month, the cost decreases from $103 to $67. The government offers grants for all students to attend college; these grants increase substantially for lower-income students.
The Ministry of Education and the National Council of Social Services also fund special education (SPED) schools. These schools are typically structured around the type of disability they cater to, such as students with sight or hearing impairment or students with learning or developmental disabilities, and have long waiting lists for admission. Special needs education is available through the post-secondary level, where students with intellectual disabilities are prepared for the workforce through special training programs. Whenever possible, the government encourages students to join the mainstream educational system either initially or after having met certain benchmarks in special education. To help facilitate this “mainstreaming,” Special Needs Officers are placed in mainstream schools to help students with conditions such as dyslexia or high-functioning autism. The ministry also announced that in the coming years, they hope to have 10% of all primary and secondary school teachers trained in special education, in order to provide a strong support system for these students in mainstream schools. Singapore does not require students with special needs who are unable to attend a mainstream school to complete compulsory education. The Singapore government estimates the special needs population who cannot or do not attend school to be just 0.01% of the population.
Funding to Promote Equity
The Singapore Ministry of Education also promotes equity by funding all schools on a standard and equitable per student basis. The Ministry allocates extra funds for special needs students (at 150 percent and 300 percent of the base per student cost, depending on whether students are mainstreamed or served in special schools) and funds learning specialists at each school to address learning needs of primary and secondary students who need extra help in small groups.
The Ministry also gives each school a standard amount of extra funds to use flexibly for low-income students at the school, allowing schools to provide enrichment activities or extra help or to buy computers or books, as needed. Low-income students are also given funds directly, for travel to and from school and breakfasts, as well as individual student accounts with funds for educational activities.
Singapore assigns well-regarded teachers and school leaders to help schools and teachers who are struggling. It is very hard, if not impossible, for teachers to move up the career ladder unless they have served in schools serving high proportions of disadvantaged students.
PISA 2015: Variation in Science Performance Explained by Socioeconomic Background
Annual Expenditure by Educational Institutions per Student for All Services
(2013, in equivalent USD converted using PPPs for GDP, by level of education for public institutions only) Source: OECD