BY RURU HOONG
Singapore’s Ministry of Education recently announced a change to the 2022 Primary 1 registration exercise that would set aside more places for students who do not qualify for priority admission, increasing the number of places in Phase 2C—the phase for students with no ties to a particular school—from twenty to forty. The recent change to the registration framework effectively reallocates places from earlier phases of the exercise (that prioritise applicants with sibling, alumni, and parental volunteer affiliation) to Phase 2C. Despite Education Minister Chan Chun Sing’s assurances of the Ministry’s dedication to “ensur[ing] that our schools remain accessible, open, and inclusive,”[i] this change shifts registration places here and there without addressing the underlying issues of educational equity.
At the outset, the recent change seems like a move towards a fairer admissions system, since giving preference to children of alumni or parents who have time to volunteer has long been criticised as a practice that gives advantage to students from wealthier families. However, it is questionable whether this truly improves equity. While the reform increases the number of spots reserved for students with no previous affiliation to a school, one in three schools go to ballot in Phase 2C, where priority for the ballot is determined by how far the student lives from the school. For in-demand schools, we could just be shifting places from students whose parents have alumni or staff affiliations, to students who come from families who are able to afford expensive properties located close to schools.[ii]
Why should we be concerned about the composition of students that get spots at each primary school? Recent research in other countries has shown that equitable access to early education is particularly important for social mobility.[iii] This is likely to be especially true in Singapore, where the standardised exams (PSLE) taken at the end of six years of primary education have a strong role in determining what sorts of secondary—and later tertiary—education are available to students.
If we are truly concerned about maintaining educational equity to allow for continued upward social mobility, we should not be focused on shifting places between different phases of the exercise. Instead, there are two potential policy interventions we could consider that would be far more effective in improving educational equity than the recent shift: (i) assessing whether or not we should be removing some of these priority schemes in the first place in order to attain more equitable outcomes, and (ii) re-evaluating the overall structure of how the exercise is facilitated to increase procedural equity.
1) Rethinking Home-school Distance Priority and Other Advantages
The clearest step towards increasing educational equity in Primary 1 admissions would be to rethink the priority schemes of the current exercise. The existing system is demarcated by different phases, and vacancies within each phase are allocated based on home-school distance in the following order of priority: within one kilometre of the school land boundary, within one to two kilometres of the school, and outside two kilometres of the school. This priority is absolute: in other words, within each phase, those that live less than one kilometre from a certain school will be admitted first, followed by the other distance categories. As a result, more well-off families often plan years in advance to purchase or rent apartments near their desired schools in order to increase the chances of their children getting in.
Traditionally, the argument for home-school distance priority has been to allow children convenient access to a school near their homes. However, in a country that spans fifty kilometres from east to west—and where public transport is easily accessible, efficient, safe, and relatively inexpensive—there is perhaps little reason why this should be a large consideration over equity concerns. As such, we should be re-evaluating the structure of priorities that we give to kids who live nearby.
Recently, education scholars Dr Hoi Shan Cheung from Yale-NUS and Dr Mira Debs from Yale have written about how parental advantage is compounded by complex choice structures, specifically in the context of Singapore’s primary school registration process.[iv] They suggest simplifying school choice systems by giving priority to families with limited resources. Setting aside Primary 1 spots for low-income families especially at the most in-demand schools would be a good thing, and they urge policymakers and the general population to think strongly about supporting such measures. It would be beneficial to have more discourse about whether we should remove distance-priority, alumni-priority, or volunteer-priority schemes, for these are measures that very clearly give advantage to those who already have a socioeconomic leg up.
There is naturally some resistance to changes to the status quo, especially so from parents who may desire their children to attend their alma mater, or who may have purchased homes years in advance of their children reaching primary-schooling age in order to secure better chances of getting into popular schools. Parents will naturally want to get their children into the most competitive schools, and to make use of whatever advantage they can get to give their children the best education. They cannot be blamed for doing that: we all want our kids to have the best.
In order to effect change in our society, then, we have to start by changing the structure of educational admissions, beyond just shifting twenty spots here and there. We should not be perpetuating the advantage that wealthier people have by, for example, having distance-priority schemes that benefit those who can afford to purchase expensive real estate near more desired schools. If every school is truly a good school, then we should be willing to remove schemes like distance-priority so that any student has a good chance of getting into any primary school. And if these schemes are removed, there is little doubt that wealthy parents would be willing to invest resources in the schools that their kids attend, making more schools into “good” schools. For example, they would be willing to donate to fund extracurricular activities and overseas trips that presently only some of the perceived “better” schools have adequate funds for. Children will also benefit from the peer effects of having classmates from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Then, we might have a chance of achieving our mission of having every school be a good school.
2) Changing the Overall Structure of the Exercise
Besides reconsidering the priorities that we give to families who live nearby, we should also consider changing the overall structure of the exercise, which is currently convoluted and disadvantages parents that do not know how best to “game” the system. Every year, over 40,000 Singaporean prospective Primary 1 students and parents undergo the undeniably stressful registration exercise. The current exercise uses a “priority matching” system that has been in place since the 1980s; over time, more rules have been added to its structure, resulting in an increasingly convoluted and hard-to-navigate system, carried out through several phases. This is very inefficient and causes a fair amount of stress for parents.
From an economics mechanism design standpoint, this can be resolved by making the exercise transparent and “strategy-proof”—that is, to move to a system that does not give any parent/student any incentive to misreport their preferences. In other words, a “strategy-proof” system is one that people should not be able to game. The current system is definitely not strategy-proof, as can be seen from KiasuParents.com: prospective parents trawl the site to compute oversubscription risks for each school and to figure out the best schools to apply to. Since parents can only apply to one school in each phase, more savvy parents might strategise to apply to a slightly less preferred school in an earlier phase to maximise their child’s chances of getting into their top choices. This predisposition for “gaming” the system heavily disadvantages families that do not strategise, or that strategize inadequately, implicitly disadvantaging parents from less well-off backgrounds.
This is a problem that many school districts have grappled with across the world. Most famously in 2005, the Boston Public Schools moved from the “priority matching” system that Singapore currently has now to a “deferred acceptance” system, to much success.[v] The deferred acceptance system takes into account each students’ ranked list of preferred schools and each schools’ priority hierarchies, and allocates students to schools in a fair, algorithmically transparent way. As Thomas Payzant, then the superintendent of Boston’s public schools at time of implementation, wrote, “A strategy-proof algorithm levels the playing field by diminishing the harm done to parents who do not strategize or do not strategize well.”[vi]
Even whilst retaining the current hierarchy of priorities specified by the Ministry, it would be a straightforward task to implement an alternate strategy-proof matching system for Singapore’s registration exercise that would be simpler for parents to follow.[vii] Rather than having to strategise over which school to apply for in each phase in an exercise that takes over two months from start to finish, parents would only have to specify once what their preferred list of schools would be in ranked order. In future reviews of the registration framework, the Ministry of Education should think about how they can redesign the P1 admissions process to make it easier to navigate for parents.
A clear benefit of moving to a more transparent system would be the removal of a complication that unfairly benefits parents who are able to navigate the system. But the advantages go beyond this and extend to all parents: if there is no way to “strategise” primary school admissions, then parents will be less stressed about the educational admissions system. Parents and potential parents are stressed now because there are ways to game the system. Parents are worried that if they don’t do so, their kids will be left behind. We therefore have to change the structure to get to a better equilibrium, where parents can truthfully list their preferred list of schools for their children and trust that the system will be fair and transparent in allocating spaces. This reform, coupled with rethinking the priority schemes of the registration exercise, would be far more effective than the recent change at furthering the Ministry of Education’s goal of ensuring that our schools remain “accessible to children of all backgrounds.”[viii]
Ruru Hoong is a PhD candidate in Business Economics at Harvard University. Her research interests are currently in empirical behavioural and public economics. She is also interested in issues at the intersection of law and economics, such as how privacy regulations can impact consumer behaviour. Prior to graduate school, Ruru graduated from Stanford with a BA in Economics and has work experience with the Singapore government (including the Ministry of Education), GIC, and Boston Consulting Group.
[i] Ang Hwee Min, “Primary 1 places reserved for Phase 2C will double to 40, changes include revised priority for alumni members,” Channel NewsAsia, September 9, 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/primary-1-registration-changes-phase-2c-places-phase-2a-2166041.
[ii] Housing prices have been shown to be affected by the popularity of the proximate primary school. For example, see Sumit Agarwal et al., “School Allocation Rules and Housing Prices: A Quasi-Experiment with School Relocation Events in Singapore,” Regional Science and Urban Economics 58 (2016): pp. 42-56. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.regsciurbeco.2016.02.003.
[iii] Sneha Elango, Jorge Luis García, James Heckman, Andrés Hojman, “Early childhood education and social mobility,” VoxEU, 2016, https://voxeu.org/article/early-childhood-education-and-social-mobility.
[iv] Hoi Shan Cheung and Mira Debs, “Structure-reinforced privilege: Educational inequality in the Singaporean primary school choice system,” Comparative Education, 57, no. 3 (2021): p. 398-416. https://doi.org/10.1080/03050068.2021.1926126.
[v] Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag Pathak, Alvin E. Roth, and Tayfun Sonmez. “Changing the Boston School Choice Mechanism,” NBER Working Papers 11965, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc., 2006, https://economics.mit.edu/files/3030.
[vi] Alvin E. Roth “The Art of Designing Markets,” Harvard Business Review, October 2007, https://hbr.org/2007/10/the-art-of-designing-markets.
[vii] Ruru Hoong, “Singapore’s Primary 1 Registration – Changing the School Choice Mechanism,” Personal Blog, September 8, 2018, https://ruruhoong.com/2018/09/08/singapores-primary-1-registration-changing-the-school-choice-mechanism/.
[viii] Supra [i].