On 25th March 2012, the Ministry of Education announced some changes to the Primary 1 registration exercise. Basically, there will be no changes to the current phases of registration. But, there would be differentiation between Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents where a particular phase is ‘oversubscribed’. MOE’s press release states this:

“when balloting is necessary in a specific phase, SCs will be given absolute priority over PRs. SCs and PRs will continue to be eligible for the same phases, and all applicants will be admitted if the total number of applicants in any phase does not exceed the number of vacancies. However, if the number of applications exceeds the number of vacancies in a specific phase, SCs will be admitted first ahead of PRs, before home-school distance is considered.”

This is clearly intended to win political capital by pandering to the section of the electorate that is clearly unhappy with the huge influx of foreigners. There is nothing stated by way of principle by the Ministry of Education as to why the differentiation ought to be made. There are possible ways that a principled argument could be mounted for the differentiation. But MOE does not seem to find the need to justify and I can only surmise that it is a response to electoral backlash.

In this piece I am not going to look at the need to differentiate between citizens and PRs. Instead, I wish to focus on another issue that I have been concerned about for some time: the lack of principles in the primary 1 registration exercise. The Pri 1 registration exercise is split into a number of phases. Each phase caters for different categories of ‘interests’.

Phase 1
For a child who has a sibling studying in the primary school of choice

Phase 2A(1)
(a) For a child whose parent is a former student of the primary school and who has joined the alumni association as a member not later than 30 June 2011.

(b) For a child whose parent is a member of the School Advisory / Management Committee

Phase 2A(2)
(a) For a child whose parent or sibling has studied in the primary school of choice

(b) For a child whose parent is a staff member of the primary school of choice

Phase 2B
(a) For a child whose parent has joined the primary school as a parent volunteer not later than 1 Jul 2011 and has given at least 40 hours of voluntary service to the school by 30 Jun 2012

(b) For a child whose parent is a member endorsed by the church/clan directly connected with the primary school

(c) For a child whose parent is endorsed as an active community leader

Phase 2C
For all children who are eligible for Primary One in the following year and are not yet registered in a primary school

Phase 2C Supplementary
For a child who is not yet registered in a school after Phase 2C

Phase 3
For a child who is neither a Singapore Citizen nor a Singapore Permanent Resident

From the first time that I became aware of the phases, I have been uncomfortable with the way in which priority is given to parents offering voluntary services to the school and parents that are deemed to be active community leaders. Under its FAQ section, the MOE explains community leaders as follows: “Current serving executive committee members of the Residents’ Committee (RC), Neighbourhood Committee (NC), Citizen’s Consultative Committee (CCC), Community Club Management Committee (CCMC) and the Community Development Council (CDC) are eligible to register their children under Phase 2B.”

A crucial issue in making education available to all and accessible to all is to consider the child’s interest. A young child would need all the assistance necessary to make the transition into a competitive school environment a smooth one. Distance may be a factor to be considered. If a child has to travel a long distance to and from school, precious time is lost and the child gets understandably tired. This can affect the overall concentration and performance of the child over the years. The fact that a sibling is presently studying in a particular school appears to be a relevant factor that is capable of improving the child’s performance. Clearly a child is likely to benefit from the presence an older sibling in the school. These methods of giving priority can be classified as ‘principled’.

What befuddles me is that someone that has joined a Residents’ Committee or has helped out as a parent volunteer (and often does so out of self-interest), can easily fit into phase 2B and that person’s child will be given priority over a child living in vicinity of a school. By officially maintaing a category for parents serving the community or the school, a wrong behaviour is encouraged. Community service should be undertaken with the spirit of service and not through expectation of benefits. But, the current registration system encourages many parents to join RCs simply because of the benefit of priority in pri 1 registration. Whilst proximity ought to be a superior factor in comparison to RC membership by virtue of the principled position adopted, proximity is subordinated.

If this was not official policy, it would be the offence of corruption. Parents providing volunteer services to schools do so with the expectation that their child will get priority in registration. The schools receive this benefit of services provided by the parents and know that they are expected to reciprocate. I am drawing this comparison with the corruption offence to put things into perspective. There is no principled approach to Pri 1 registration.

It is important that public bodies rationalise their policies in a principled way instead of catering to ‘interests’ in an arbitrary fashion.

(On a personal note: About 5 years ago, I was strongly encouraged by an active RC member to join the RC as it would enhance my son’s school registration. I found the suggestion repulsive then and I still feel the same way about it today. I continue to receive the same suggestion today. My son will be going through his Pri 1 registration in the middle of next year. I refuse to give myself an advantage by joining the RC. I think that there is a more important value that I need to inculcate in my son. Sometimes, it is a matter of principle.)