It is that time of the year again when the apprehension of parents with six-year-olds will grow by the day as they watch the places in popular primary schools like St. Nicholas Girls’ School and Nan Hua Primary get snapped up quickly.
In the early phases of the Primary One Registration Exercise, children of parents who are former students, or who are members of the school’s alumni association, are usually given priority.
But why should alumni parents have priority over others? Also, is there even a need for an alumni association?
First, the purpose of having an alumni association.
Associate Professor of Sociology at National University of Singapore Tan Ern Ser said, “The alumni promotes a sense of belonging to the school, and could serve as mentors to students, members of school committees, sources of funding and access to networks.”
There are other benefits. Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University Eugene Tan Kheng Boon said that the alumni helps to “mould distinctive identities for our schools” and can aid in MOE’s plans to make every school a good school.
“The school’s alumni are an important source of the school’s spirit, traditions and heritage. These ties help to create a shared sense of belonging between past and present.And what better way to build such bonds across generations through enabling children of alumni to have some measure of priority in P1 admission?” Prof Tan added.
However, he stressed that schools have to remain open and inclusive institutions despite the need to establish strong alumni connections, which are “necessary for strengthening our schools.”
“It is also important for schools to be infused with “new blood” – students with no parental alumni connection,” he emphasised.
Singapore’s education system predicates itself upon the principle of meritocracy, a principle where the most hardworking and the most talented are rewarded. And because rewards are distributed in a fair manner – according to merit – this principle is hitherto seen as legitimate.
But if merit were the sole criteria for someone to be deserving of rewards, or scarce opportunities, then giving privileged access to children of alumni parents appears to upset the entire logic of this fundamental philosophy which our society rests upon.
Tan Ern Ser said, “Strictly speaking, it (entry to school) should be based on pure merits in terms of academic results and other skills or talents deemed important to the school.
“But at the same time, there is also an argument that membership should come with privileges. For instance, Singaporeans expect certain privileges not accessible to non-Singaporeans, regardless of merits.”
Tan Ern Ser also highlighted a sobering reality that we need to be aware of – the fact that the distribution of opportunity is unequal.
“I have always argued that people in the higher classes have access to social and cultural capital that the lower classes do not. So in a race, the lower classes are at a disadvantage. Meritocracy only recognises whoever crosses the finishing line.”
“We help the disadvantaged to run the race, and we judge them on whether they cross the finishing line.
“But what we need is equality of opportunity, not affirmative action. However, in the real world, it is unlikely that we’ll have perfect equality of opportunity.”
Perhaps now is the best time to rethink the Primary One admission criteria.