It is quite timely that the Minister of Education revealed in Parliament that an ‘OECD report’ from 2015 revealed that 5% of Singapore’s 15 year-old students experienced physical bullying, and another 20% experienced verbal bullying. However, the report that he cited and was referring to, presumably the 2015 Student Well-Being Survey carried out by the OECD on the sidelines of the PISA test (which we celebrated repeatedly that year), was taken out of context.
While not factually inaccurate, it conveniently ignores the comparative basis and purpose of the OECD report – after all, we tend to compare when things are going well for us.
Here’s the full extent of the report:
- The total bullying rate reported by the students surveyed stands at 25.1%, putting us a whole 7% above the OECD average of 18.7%, and making our student-body the third most bullied bunch among the 40 nations surveyed. The 25.1% finding is consistent with our own Children’s Society reports that concluded that 1 in 4 secondary school students suffered from some type of bullying.
- The report also revealed that schools with high academic attainment have a lower incidence of bullying. This disparity is consistent across all countries, however, Singapore had one of the larger gaps, second only to France. This disparity deserves more attention.
- Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more 35% more likely to be the victims of bullying, as opposed to the OECD average of 10%. More importantly, the most common bullying experienced by students from better backgrounds was being called names (unpleasant), but that experienced by those from poorer backgrounds was to be purposefully left out of activities (exclusion). Once again, while this trend is consistent with the rest of the world, this disparity also warrants more attention.
So yes, the bullying problem is “stable and managed”, but definitely neither ideal nor acceptable.
Furthermore, the rest of the report also presented some worrying numbers that hints at the problems we might be facing as a society. For instance:
- In response to “I want to be the best in the class”, 82.3% agreed or strongly agreed – as opposed to the OECD average of 59.2%. Mindful that there is a difference between wanting to do well, and wanting to do better than one’s peers – the latter has the potential of developing into unwanted stress and unhealthy competition if not managed.
- In the same vein of stress, 76.3% of Singaporean students also agreed to the statement “Even if I am well prepared for a test I feel very anxious,” as opposed to the OECD average of 55.5%. There might be many reasons behind this, but perhaps this is further evidence pertaining to the psychological toll of our high-stakes examinations.
- On the page of socio-economic differences, Singaporean students from a white-collar background performed 16.8% better than their blue-collared counterparts in the PISA science tests. This puts us slightly above the OECD average of 14.7%, but places us far behind countries we often point to as societies with large income inequalities, posh private schools and the ultra-rich – eg. USA and the UK, which stood at 13.0 and 13.1% respectively. Despite the talk of schools as an equaliser, this certainly shows that there is more work to be done.
- Furthermore, it was also revealed that 32.7% of our students work for some type of pay outside of school hours. While there are arguments for this – such as gaining life experience and learning the importance of money, the report also showed that twice as many students from the bottom 50% work as compared to the top 50%, strongly hinting that this work was more for money as a result of socio-economic inequalities. We might have to start asking questions over what kind of support can we provide for students who are in need, and if the existing measures are sufficient.
The number of conclusions we can draw from the findings are virtually endless, but these global tests are useful in informing us in areas that are lacking, and how we can continue to strengthen and improve our system. So let us give credit where credit is due, i.e. like when we did well in the science and reading components of the PISA test, but let us not hide the uglier fact that elements of our system that is not as ideal. Let us not cherry-pick facts we like, and blind ourselves to the unpleasant news – we cannot celebrate the PISA test results, but at the same time ignore the accompanying satisfaction reports. Let us confront them openly and frankly, and improve. Let us have some humility to accept that nothing is perfect, and the work of education is a long and endless one.
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