Equal opportunity, with pragmatism: S'pore's Pri. 1 registration changes explained

The changes mean that schools will have less places for those with parents or siblings who are alumni. Does this make the system more, or less fair?

Nigel Chua | September 22, 2021, 08:13 AM

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By hook or by crook, parents of children need to get their offspring registered for primary school when they are of age.

One could see primary school as a Singapore institution more universal than National Service (NS), made compulsory on the pain of a S$2,000 fine for each parent who does not ensure that their child attends a national primary school, or secure an exemption (for e.g., because the parents prefer home-schooling) from the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Because this experience is so universal, any changes to the registration system naturally have an impact on a large group of people, namely, parents.

Changes to the system were announced this month, with MOE's stated objective of helping more children obtain a place in a school near their home.

The system itself, and the recent changes, could perhaps be explained from the lens of equality of opportunity, taking into account some pragmatism in making exceptions to the rule.

But first, for the uninitiated, here's a brief summary of the system:

How does primary school registration work? (Prior to 2021 changes kicking in)

Generally, parents can register their children in any school.

Priority phases

But places in schools will be open for registration in progressive phases which give priority to certain categories of prospective students, including:

  1. Those with siblings currently studying in the school (Phase 1 of registration)
  2. Those whose parents are members of the school's alumni association or School Advisory/Management Committee (Phase 2A1 of registration, to be merged with Phase 2A2 from 2022)
  3. Those whose parents or siblings are alumni, or whose whose parents are staff (Phase 2A2 of registration, to be merged with Phase 2A1 from 2022)
  4. Those whose parents are parent volunteers or community leaders (Phase 2B of registration)

After these priority phases are concluded, any student can register for any available spaces in any school, from Phase 2C onwards.

Registration in each phase is open for one to three days, and MOE stresses that "P1 registration is not first come, first served" on its website.

Reserved spaces

There is also a certain number of spaces set aside before the phases commence:

  • 20 spaces set aside for those in Phase 2B
  • 20 spaces set aside for those in Phase 2C (will be increased to 40 spaces from 2022)

From 2022, one-third of any remaining vacancies at the end of Phase 2A will be allocated to Phase 2B, and two-thirds to Phase 2C.

Priorities within each phase

The list of phases does not entirely determine who goes to which school, as there could be more applicants than available spaces at any given phase of registration.

So, within each phase, there is also a system to determine who gets the slots.

Generally, those who live near to the school have priority over those who don't.

Singapore citizens also have priority over Permanent Residents.

Admission to a school will be given to children in this order of priority:

  1. Singapore Citizens living within 1km of the school.
  2. Singapore Citizens living between 1km and 2km of the school.
  3. Singapore Citizens living outside 2km of the school.
  4. PRs living within 1km of the school.
  5. PRs living between 1km and 2km of the school.
  6. PRs living outside 2km of the school.

One can imagine that the places get poured out like champagne at a wedding banquet, into a pyramid of cups — there needs to be enough to fill the higher tiers, otherwise, the lower tiers stay dry.

When is balloting carried out?

Random balloting is then carried out if there are too many applicants with the same priority, and not enough spaces for all of them.

Cap on number of PRs

There has been a cap on the number of PR children in each school since the 2020 registration exercise, which MOE said is to prevent a concentration of PR children in primary schools, and to encourage interaction between PRs and Singapore Citizens.

The cap is about 25 to 30 per cent of each school's planned P1 intake.

Here's how we could explain the registration system (and the changes) from the lens of equality of opportunity, with pragmatism.

Equality of opportunity, with pragmatism

The system which assigns children to primary schools is distinct from how students are allocated places at any other stage in the education system.

Secondary school selection, for example, is done on the basis of how well students perform in the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), with priority given to those who score well.

But there is no common exam where pre-schoolers can prove their ability and determine which primary schools they get to choose from — quite rightly so.

And because pre-schoolers are not assessed on their academic merits prior to P1 registration, the system needs to ensure that places are assigned fairly, and that factors such as demographics, income status, and social status should not have too much influence over which school each child can attend.

To be entirely fair to each student, they should all have equal opportunity to study at the school of their choice (or, their parents' choice), and competition for limited spaces should be resolved by randomised ballot, instead of being influenced by other factors like their family's socio-economic background, race, language or religion, and so on.

This equality of opportunity is indeed seen from Phase 2C onwards, though the other parts of the registration process make exceptions to the principle.

These exceptions could be explained from the lens of pragmatism.

One significant exception to equality of opportunity is priority based on nationality. Where limited places need to be balloted, they will be given to Singapore citizens above anyone else, and to PRs over international students.

While students from all nationalities could very well go on to live and work in Singapore and contribute to society, priority is likely being given to those who are (statistically) more likely to do so.

Pragmatism could also justify those with siblings in a school being given top priority for registration, in Phase 1:

  • Siblings attending the same school could all make their way down to school together, and travel home together.
  • Older children who attend the same school as their younger siblings could also relieve parents of the responsibility of bringing the younger ones home after school.
  • It also allows for all the siblings to pass down their used uniforms, textbooks, and other paraphernalia, making things easier for parents, and less wasteful.

Pragmatism also dictates that those who live near a particular school should be allowed to attend the schools near their homes. As MOE pointed out about the recent changes, which favour those who live near schools:

"This is in the educational interest of the child, to help them spend less time travelling and have more time to pursue other interests, as well as for the convenience of the family."

As for prioritising those whose parents are volunteers, members of a connected church or clan, or community leaders, this can be explained as a relatively low-cost way of encouraging such pro-social behaviours.

In theory, this leads to a win-win situation, even if it compromises equality of opportunity by rewarding the children of parents who can afford the time and energy to pursue these avenues of contributing to the school (or community).

The compromise is present even if the parents volunteered "genuinely".

There has been some uproar over the issue of parents who volunteer for the purpose of getting their kids priority registration, including a rather paradoxical suggestion that schools limit the number of volunteers, to ensure that all volunteers' children can qualify for admission.

But the practice looks set to continue, even though the changes from 2022 will mean less spaces under Phase 2B, due to the new rule that only one-third of the spaces available after Phase 2A will be available in Phase 2B, with the rest being set aside for those applying under Phase 2C.

How do we explain priority for alumni?

Compared to the other priority phases, the practice of giving priority to those whose parents or siblings are alumni is harder to explain, however.

Parents may want their children attend the same school as previous generations to continue a family tradition, but the benefits of this are rather intangible.

Isn't alumni priority mostly for "elite" schools?

It is likely that the appeal of having one's children attend your former school is strongest for those from "elite" schools, or at least, schools where spaces are more in demand.

It's easy to see why parents who attended such schools would want the same for their children.

After all, on top of continuing their family traditions, parents may want their kids to have a shot at scholarships, book prizes, donations, and other tangible benefits which alumni often give back to their alma mater.

So why does the registration system give priority to alumni?

It's because "we want families to build connections to their schools, and for each school to develop its own traditions, history, and identity," according to then-education minster Lawrence Wong, speaking in Parliament in March this year.

But Wong also acknowledged that "we do not want our primary schools to become closed circles, which you can only access if your parents or siblings went there," as he explained the reasons behind the changes that will soon take effect.

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Top image via @aloisk on unsplash

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