Females and non-Malays are likelier to enrol in elite junior colleges (JCs), particularly those located in wealthy neighbourhoods, a study by two Singaporean researchers has found.
Analysing data from more than 5,000 classrooms in six JCs over 40 years — from 1971 to 2010 — National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Vincent Chua and University of Melbourne economist Swee Eik Leong discovered persistent gender and ethnic disparities in the profiles of students who enrol into elite JCs located in neighbourhoods that have become wealthier.
Over time, the representation of females in elite JCs increased, while that of Malays decreased. Malays were less well-represented in elite JCs than in non-elite ones, with the gap being largest in the wealthiest neighbourhood, the data showed.
The three elite JCs (National, Anderson and Temasek) and three non-elite JCs (Catholic, Nanyang and Tampines) covered were located in neighbourhoods of high, medium and low wealth, measured by their share of landed property.
“Overall, we find that females are more likely to enter elite schools located in wealthy neighbourhoods because these neighbourhoods tend to be more centrally located,” the researchers stated in the study, which was presented on Friday (May 27) at an international sociological conference hosted by the Centre for Family and Population Research at NUS.
“We also find that minority Malays are less likely to enrol in elite schools located in wealthy neighbourhoods because these neighbourhoods lack the ethnic solidarity among minorities that less wealthy neighbourhoods have,” they added.
It was the multiplication of school and neighbourhood characteristics that produced segregated patterns of enrolment, the researchers argued in the study, which is being reviewed by a journal. “Therefore the argument in popular discourse — that education is a social leveller — is not supported by these data; instead, it illustrates that education can facilitate growing inequalities,” they wrote.
School performance indicators compiled by the Ministry of Education were used to distinguish elite schools from the non-elite ones. The study used data from the JCs’ yearbooks (documenting each school from its first graduating cohort), national censuses and statistical yearbooks.
The study controlled for the observation that schools with more arts classes tend to have more females and schools that offer more classes in a language medium tend to draw particular ethnic groups, Dr Chua said. It also controlled for gender and race over-representations at the neighbourhood level, as well as permanent differences among JCs such as the grade requirements that affect the enrolment of gender and ethnic groups.
Dr Chua said: “So having controlled for all of these (variables), we still find a strong neighbourhood effect. Indeed, the elite characteristic of schools interacts with neighbourhood wealth to reinforce certain patterns of educational inequality between gender and ethnic groups.”
The study suggests that the location of the JCs mattered. “We emphasise that social and spatial characteristics work in combination to shape and influence inequality outcomes. It’s not a case of one or the other, it’s a combination,” he said.
Both researchers said that the study exploited the unique setting of Singapore’s pre-university system, where public elite and non-elite schools are spatially well-distributed across neighbourhoods here.
The findings suggest that policymakers could adopt a “cross-cutting” strategy by locating elite schools in less wealthy neighbourhoods and vice versa, he added.
The research began in 2012, so it covered schools up until 2010. Dr Chua said that there could be changes due to policy shifts in education since 2010.
All neighbourhoods here are well-resourced but inequalities exist, and the Government’s initiatives to help disadvantaged families could also help narrow ethnic inequalities, he added.