JC mergers: not every school a good school after all

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This morning, Deputy Director-General of Education (Schools) Liew Wei Li had this to say to parents. “Look at each of the schools. Look at which of the JCs attract you in terms of their programs, in terms of their culture. You have 12 choices. That’s plenty!”

Someone should remind her that people who don’t score 6 points or below exist as well, and that these people form the majority, not the minority. Hopefully, after this reminder, she would have concluded that a vast majority of students do not actually have “12” choices. Anyone scoring above 10 points post-merger will have perhaps, at most four, in the worst-case scenario they will have one choice.

It is disappointing to hear that the Ministry of Education will be merging 8 junior colleges (“JC”).[1] The Ministry cited Singapore’s fall in birth rates as the main driving factor.[2] This will bring the number of JCs down to 15, after taking into account the Ministry’s decision to open Eunoia JC.

The Ministry has very clearly indicated to us where they stand – certainly not in favour of institutions such as Serangoon Junior College, which has a track record for value-adding to the education of students who did not start off as top-academic achievers. In 2008, the cut-off point was no less than 17 for its arts stream. Today, it is 11. This cut-off point steadily decreased because of the school’s assistance in constantly improving its students’ performance year after year. While some might see this as a school serving its core purpose, this is apparently not good enough for the MOE.

It is also apparently a waste of resources to have smaller class sizes for the students at the JCs which are going to be closed. Yet, such smaller class sizes have been proven to be beneficial over large classes. It is for this reason that universities like Oxford and Cambridge have a maximum of two persons to each tutor, per tutorial class.

On the other hand, MOE has no qualms about building a new junior college for IP students. So much for “falling student enrolment”. Even if we grant the MOE the benefit of the doubt – that they have some justifiable reason for building Eunoia JC, what leaves much to be desired is the way they have handled this entire affair.

Very curiously, the Ministry cited birth “rates of Singapore citizens and permanent residents between 1993 and 2002 which “fell from about 49,000 to 39,000”.[3] It is odd, and perhaps suspicious, that the MOE picked the statistics from that particular time period when a broader set of statistics are available.

I have decided to include some statistics produced by the Singapore Department of Statistics, which represent a much broader time period in order for you to draw your own conclusions as to whether the Ministry’s decision to shutter several JCs is justified.[4]

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Furthermore, the Ministry also cited Geographical considerations as contributing to their decision. “While there is a higher demand for school places in newer housing estates, the demand in more mature estates has fallen,” it said.[5]

If that were true, why are Hwa Chong JC and National JC not being merged? They are across the road to each other. They also occupy a disproportionately huge amount of space on premium land in a very mature estate – Bukit Timah. Why didn’t MOE merge the schools? What made them so special such that they were exempt? When will the Ministry finally admit that it does not, and has never treated its schools equally?

Could it be possible that the “scholar elite” exhibits certain preferences with regard to certain schools, given their sentimental attachments to their alma-mater, such that other people’s alma-mater become less of a priority? Personally, I don’t think so, given how straight laced our civil servants are reputed to be. However, it really seems to come across that way.

To put things into perspective, consider the following table produced by The Straits Times for 2016’s JC cut-off points.

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The red boxes indicate the schools that are to be merged. I do not think further elaboration is necessary here – a picture is worth a thousand words. Actions speak louder than words, and the Ministry’s actions are deafening.

One interesting fact: IP schools have emerged unscathed. It is disheartening for me to see that, once again, it seems like it is ‘the elite’ who emerge unscathed from a crisis, and it is us ordinary folk who are most shaken by such upheavals. Even if I can accept that MOE might have the best of intentions in merging the JCs, the insensitivity in their messaging is troubling.

The Ministry also gave the empty assurance that “all students who qualify for JC will have a place”. I say this is empty because obviously, all those who qualify will have a place. It is a tautology. It’s the same as saying that those who make it to the finish line will be considered to have finished the race. Well, of course lah! How is this an assurance?

The problem has never been with qualified students not getting a place; the problem is that JC education has always been seen as exclusive and elitist to begin with and this sordid merger makes it even more exclusive and elitist.

What troubles me is that our education ministry is being helmed by not one, but two ministers. Ex-high-flying Chief of Defence Force Ng Chee Meng and former Principal Private Secretary Ong Ye Kung. If these two next generation Ministers cannot even handle what should have been a rather simple affair with sensitivity, it really does indicate how out of touch the next generation leaders of the establishment remain.

Am I reading too much into this entire issue? I’d like to think that I am. But the actions of our government makes that very difficult sometimes.

See also JC mergers: uncaring attitudes and the supply-demand argument

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Photo credit: Channelnews Asia

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NOTES

[1] Lianne Chia, Anderson, Serangoon JCs among 8 junior colleges to merge (CNA, 20 April 2016 < http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/anderson-serangoon-jcs-among-8-junior-colleges-to-merge/3690100.html> Accessed 20 April 2017.

[2] Ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Department of Statistics Singapore, population trends 2016 (Singstat, 2016) <http://www.singstat.gov.sg/docs/default-source/default-document-library/publications/publications_and_papers/population_and_population_structure/population2016.pdf&gt; Accessed 20 April 2017

[5] Ibid n 1

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