There has been a lot of talk about how every school is a good school, regardless of whether they are neighbourhood or elite schools.
For the past few years during the National Day Rally 2014, PM Lee spoke about the de-emphasis on grades and paper qualifications. I looked through some archives and realized he has been talking about this for the past few years since National Day Rally 2010 to be exact.
The whole narrative since then has been like: “As a government, we are trying to de-emphasize grades, school prestige and university degrees in our society”
I feel this whole “Every school is a good school” thing is a nice initiative with good intentions. However, few people are really convinced that Singapore is going to shift away from school prestige and grades.
Even educators are skeptical. The previous year, Jurong West Secondary School (JWSS) vice-principal Pushparani Nadarajah said:
“How many of our leaders and top officers who say that every school is a good school put their children in ordinary schools near their home? (Only) until they actually do so are parents going to buy (it).”
This statement went viral with many people coming forward and expressing their respect and agreement with this accidental hero.
There are some pretty idealistic people who think both neighbourhood and elite schools in Singapore are the same. I see plenty of comments on news articles and Facebook saying things like “Oh it doesn’t matter which school you study in, you can still be successful in life if you work hard” or “School doesn’t matter at all. It is really about parenting.”
I do agree that parenting is one of the key factors that influence how children turn out but that doesn’t discount the importance of the school and it’s impact at all.
Having studied in both an average and an elite schools in Singapore, I would like to share my insights on the difference between both institutions.
Please note that I am no expert in this field. These are just generic observations that do not represent every single student studying in those places. After all, I have only studied in two schools and have not been to every single school in Singapore.
Just to share a bit of my background:
I studied in an average secondary school. If you enter by affiliation, you only need a PSLE score about 188. As it is a mixed stream school, there are also the normal academic and normal technical stream students, who are pretty much similar in terms of demographic, family income and behaviour as the kind of kids you see in other neighbourhood schools.
For JC, I went to Victoria Junior College. VJC is ranked third behind RI and HCI. Admission requirement is 4 O level points but if you are good in playing a musical instrument or sports and willing to help the school win prizes through that CCA, you can always opt for the DSA route. Most of the kids here come from schools like St. Nicholas Girls School, RGS, Dunman High and Anglican High.
Before I begin, I feel it is important to differentiate what a neighbourhood school and elite school means.
It is not about the name of school because clearly institutions like Xin Min Secondary School, Tanjong Katong Secondary School, and Anderson Secondary School are really good.
Rather I would classify both schools based on how tough entering the school is with elite schools being institutions which highly competitive admissions and neighbourhood schools being those with low admission requirements.
Here are the differences I’ve noticed from my experience:
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1. Elite schools provide students with good networking opportunities
In general, elite school offers a lot more opportunities for you to mix with the type of people who would be useful to you to your career or higher education in the future.
Like elite schools like RI, HCI and VJC, you see your seniors and alumni doing things like getting good grades, H3, taking more subjects than required, excelling in sports, music, building portfolio, being involved in research with ASTAR, internships, securing leadership positions, organizing community service initiatives with pretentious titles like “Community Leaders Forum” or “Global service learning conference” etc.
Most people in Singapore think the best of the best are just nerds but the truth is that there are plenty of all-rounders who excel in all fronts.
Being in close proximity with such ambitious and high achieving people, you automatically know what is important for scholarships and having a good CV, and work hard to achieve those aims. You can even ask your ever so accessible seniors for advice and help.
Upon graduation, elite school children benefit from having a network of elite friends too. Most of my friends are studying in places not just in our big three local universities but also places like Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, Peking University, University of Tokyo and other popular US and UK universities.
Generally I find students who go abroad to study at top schools a lot more ambitious. I get most of my ideas from them about how to become even more successful through social interaction or watching what they do on platforms like Facebook and Linkedin.
In contrast, many people from mediocre or neighbourhood JCs and schools didn’t even know about the importance of building portfolio. The driven ones there just focused on good grades and CCA. While many top JC students sought to secure prestigious internships or run their own startups after JC and NS, the others chose temp jobs or admin work.
Being in this type of social group or circle has benefited me a lot in my career and education by setting high standards, pushing me forward and inspiring me.
On the other hand, I didn’t really experience as much role models in my secondary school or accessible help which would take me from good to great. A lot more focus and resources are being devoted to the average type of student to make it through their exams.
Another strange area of emphasis for mediocre school was also attendance and attire rules. In my secondary school, there was a huge emphasis and resources being spent on getting kids to conform to attire rules, skipping classes were very difficult which I felt was really stupid because why were things like not wearing ankle socks so important that they had to take up one hour after assembly? Or, doesn’t it make sense for the student to self-study if the teacher wasn’t an effective or good one?
VJC didn’t really care forcing all students to conform to attire rules.
I observed that many NA and NT students in general don’t really have a conducive environment where they can flourish in and meet their fullest potential. In my experience in school, most of the youth crimes and rule breaking were done by this group of people. The ‘popular student’ is not really your peer who excels in every field but rather your rebellious gangster senior who stood up to authority.
Why the difference in behaviour and goals? Based on my experience, I felt that mostly neighbourhood school children are a lot less wealthier than those from elite schools.
Many of them also come from dysfunctional families where there is neglect, abuse, one parent in jail and divorce. As such, they lose focus of their studying and end up in those streams. At that age, they are also vulnerable to the influence of older figures which make them feel powerful, and loved such as those ‘pai kia’ seniors, which makes them susceptible to all these negative influences.
On the contrary, if you were to place a kid from a dysfunctional family in a top school probably he or she may be even more motivated to study because the status symbol there isn’t being the baddest and most intimidating kid but the smartest and most elite one.
2. Elite school students are usually wealthier
Another major difference I noted in neighbourhood schools and elite schools generally is family income and level of education of the parents.
In fact, I feel many of the students in elite schools are not there because of capability alone but because they had many advantages in life to begin with.
In 2010, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew shared some glaring statistics about how privileged children with parents who are university graduates have a much higher probability of exceling in school.
More than half of students studying in top schools like Raffles Institution, Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and Nanyang Girls’ High had fathers who were degree holders and came from rich families.
In contrast, the percentage at Chai Chee Secondary School, a neighbourhood school, was only 13.1 percent and this was the highest percentage amongst four schools where data was obtained. I noticed the same trend when I compared my peers in Victoria Junior College to my friends in the Normal Academic and Normal Technical streams secondary school.
The reason for this startling statistics, according to former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was that privileged children had a “more favourable learning environment at home” shaped by better-educated parents.
Better-educated parents are more supportive generally because they know what is important. They have been though university, have friends who teach there and are more updated with the latest trends on what is needed to excel.
A simple example would be that educated parents tend to see enrichment as necessary for growth or an advantage, while the less educated parents may see it as a ‘waste of money’. I have had friends who could not go on overseas programs because of lame reasons like ‘safety’, ‘waste money’ and they could only watch as their more well-to-do peers had something prestigious and new to add to their portfolio.
Similarly I faced the same problem in trying to convince my dad who is a business owner but a non-graduate about concepts like portfolio, overseas internships and even simple things like why I need tuition or I will lag behind classmates who had tuition for every subject due to the bell curve system.
Besides which, richer parents also have a higher amount of disposable income. This can be used to “buy a qualification” for their child or channel these resources into their children’s education and development – enrolling in tuition, paying for premium co-curricular activities (i.e. fencing, bowling, golf, tennis ) and enrichment courses. Some educational policies such as Direct School Admission based on special skills like sports and arts may favour richer children as well. More educated parents would usually have the sense and financial means to develop their kid in a particular sport or art/music i.e. piano, violin, giving them a distinct advantage even if they do not do well academically.
Don’t get me wrong. I am of course not saying that all rich kids will definitely make it in life. I mean if you parents are business owners or professionals and you still end up not going to elite school then perhaps the problem is in you and not the system.
3. Elite schools provide better opportunities than neighbourhood schools
I would say that elite schools generally more opportunities than neighbourhood ones.
As I have mentioned earlier, there is an opportunity for affiliation. For instance, if you enter Nanyang Primary school, you get an advantage in admissions for Nanyang Girls which would lead you directly to HCI and so forth.
It is the same in my secondary school where you only need 188 to move from the primary school to secondary school. Students are also able to enter ACJC much more easily. Even if you are not that smart, as long as you work hard and fulfil your basic student obligations of studying, you definitely can make it.
Teaching wise I would say mostly elite schools have slightly better teachers. In VJC, my geography and literature teachers were all imported from the UK. However, it is not always the case because I got a really mediocre mathematics teacher and average GP teacher.
I won’t say VJC had better notes as well. In fact, I had to outsource my notes for some subjects. I bought Jurong JC’s economic notes and ACJC’s geography notes which I found to be way more useful than the ones I was getting in school. Basically I just skipped all the lectures and did my own self-studying.
However, it is worth noting that while elite schools have a lot more funding and opportunities, I feel that competition for all these resources are way tougher. Everyone wants to go for this conference, this seminar, this study trip, this conference to build their portfolio. I applied for a lot of stuff but failed to get in because admissions were just so competitive.
Thus, you see many elite JC kids helping out at NGOs, Meet-the-people sessions and grassroots (Youth Executive Commitees). I know that some of them have good intentions but for some others, it may be because opportunities are a lot easier to acquire outside of school than in school.
Whereas if you are in a neighbourhood jc, all you have to do is be a big fish in a small pond to access these opportunities and it evens out eventually.
4. Elite school students are exposed to different aspects of life
A lot of people think that elite school kids are not really exposed to society. I agree but I feel it is about exposure to different things.
If you come from a neighbourhood school, generally you are more exposed to shit that happens to some of classmates like how they have problems in their families etc.
If you come from an elite school, you are exposed to a different kind of environment which makes you less impressed by things. For instance, a neighbourhood school kid may be very impressed by a peer who is a national player.
However in elite schools, having classmates who are Singapore national players are like a freaking norm. I had one or two in my class of 20 people and they were scattered throughout my level too.
5. Elite school students may have different priorities
Character wise, I didn’t really like the attitudes of some of my acquaintances from top JCs. There is this whole elitist mindset and judging people for their achievements thing going around.
I even had schoolmates who told me things like they will not consider dating a girl or guy who scored 9 points and below for their L1R5 in O levels. At inter-JC events, I have encountered many students who ask my JC and credentials before they ask my name.
I also had a classmate who would deliberately suck up to people who scored good grades or who were popular. Interacting with such people was a huge turn off.
I feel there is a lot of snobbery going on because many of them feel very insecure about themselves because they are in an environment where it is hard to stand out and everyone is just too smart and high achieving.
Another contributing factor is because they are unaware of the concept of inherited meritocracy and think that working hard and being smart were the only two main factors that got them where they were, thus assuming everyone else are useless bums.
However, this doesn’t mean that neighbourhood or mediocre schools are entirely free from discrimination. There are other kinds of discrimination, like lookism was one of them. In my secondary school, girls deemed as ‘fat and ugly’ were often the target of mockery by other students. It was a really disturbing thing for me given the fact that it was a Christian school and the teachers did almost nothing to intervene.
Conversational topics wise, based on my own experience, I would think that elite school children and neighbourhood school ones talk about very very different things because they generally have different concerns and focus in life.
When I mixed with the neighbourhood kids, topics revolved around things like Maplestory, Gunbound, how to look nice, how to be slim, which senior they like, popular culture etc. When they grow up, ‘maplestory’ and ‘gunbound’ changes to things like KTV or clubbing.
These topics were also prevalent in elite school environments. However, they tend to discuss other things which were not say nerdy but indicative of a person who came from a higher social class like literature, society, history, insights, H3, the scholarship they wanted, entrepreneurship, whether they wanted to go to NTU open house or US university fair or the college they wanted to go to. When they grow up, the topic of higher education changes to what business they wanted to start, their bond at X organization, their business or the MNCs they applied to.
Do note that this observation is based on my own personal experience and the difference could be because one was a secondary school and the other one was a junior college.
Having shared my experience, I hope you realize that being in an elite school and neighbourhood school does provide a rather different environment for young people.
I don’t feel it is wise to ignore the difference and go on being idealistic about how hard work is the only factor for success it life.
From what I have described, I will leave it to you and your own experiences to decide what kind of school you think would be better or what type of school you would like your child to study in.
If you enjoyed this article, do check out my other posts on Why elitism in Singapore exists and how we can change it.