There was this bit that I read in today’s Today that struck me:

Urging the MOE to change people’s perception of “neighbourhood schools”, Minister of State (Trade and Industry) Teo Ser Luck said: “All schools are good schools and all schools are in the neighbourhood – so why should we have a connotation of ‘neighbourhood school’ and ‘branded school’?”

It’s very nice to be idealistic but let’s be honest, that’s not the way the world works.

The good minister is probably right to say that “All schools are good schools and all schools are in the neighbourhood” (at least I wouldn’t argue about his assertion that all schools are in the neighbourhood) but in all likelihood, that’s on an absolute basis, not a relative one.

Now, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has criteria on what they’d like all students to be (see here). There’s also a whole lot of information of what primary school, secondary school and post-secondary education entails over at MOE’s website so implicitly, MOE does have some indication of what makes a school good in absolute terms at least.

Alas, the world works in relative ways. To paraphrase an old saying on being wealthy, it describes one being rich as long one earns $100 more than one’s brother-in-law. And that’s the truth of it- human psychology works in relative ways. Of course not all people subscribe wholly to that notion but as long as a fair portion of people subscribe to that notion, it is enough.

“Brand-name” schools exist, rightly or wrongly, for a multitude of reasons or fallacies such as: they ensure more certain passage to a university education (probably a fallacy since the PSLE cutoff point ensure they take in more academically inclined students in the first place), the school provides a network of who’s who in Singapore, thus enabling one’s career or opportunities set and etc, or as always, could be a symbol of their past efforts.

This is what is creating the perception that brand-name schools are better than neighbourhood schools. It’s the same reason why some people pay thousands of dollars for a bag made by Louis Vuitton or Gucci versus a couple of hundred for a Fossil or less than a hundred for a ‘no-name’ bag. Sure, the leather used might have subtle perceptible differences but for that difference to be a factor of 10 or 100?

In order to change that perception, it’s important to know the origins of the perception. If that perception is rooted in human psychology and is only natural of a functioning competitive system, I’m not sure why (or more importantly, how) they would take it away.

If there’s one thing that these politicians want to do for students of neighbourhood schools, it’s to narrow the opportunities of access to higher education, or to de-emphasise the necessity of higher education (unlikely to succeed in my opinion since starting salaries for degree holders provide a big enough premium over diploma holders).  One example I can immediately think of would be the quotas for polytechnic students entering our local universities. I can’t think of a good reason for there to be quotas in the first place since it makes no sense that one is better suited for university education by virtue of a A level certificate versus a poly diploma. In fact, it would seem to me that a poly student, by virtue of having studied a certain discipline (e.g. accounting) for 3 years would be even more grounded in the subject and hence more suited to taking on advanced studies in the discipline thereafter.*

In sum, I cannot understand why someone would even suggest trying to change the perception of neighbourhood schools. Such indicators exists in all facets of society and the human mind will only create new ones in a free society. It seems to me more useful to acknowledge this and instead work on ensuring that the underprivileged have as huge an opportunity as possible for social mobility.

*Disclaimer: I came from a brand-name school and took the JC path to my higher education. My good fortune really, when there would probably be more deserving candidates that took the non-JC route. Thankfully, times are a-changing.