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Singapore has highest gaps in sense of belonging at school between students of different socio-economic statuses: Report

SINGAPORE — A report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has listed Singapore as having the largest gap in students’ sense of belonging at school, going by their socio-economic status (SES).

In Singapore in 2015, about 80 per cent of students of higher socio-economic status reported that they felt a sense of belonging at school, while about 70 per cent of “disadvantaged students” felt the same way, leading to a gap of about 10 percentage points.

In Singapore in 2015, about 80 per cent of students of higher socio-economic status reported that they felt a sense of belonging at school, while about 70 per cent of “disadvantaged students” felt the same way, leading to a gap of about 10 percentage points.

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SINGAPORE — A report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has listed Singapore as having the largest gap in students’ sense of belonging at school, going by their socio-economic status (SES).

Worldwide, this gap between students of higher and lower socio-economic statuses has widened for six countries, namely Singapore, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, the Slovak Republic and Sweden.

Only four countries — Bulgaria, Japan, the Netherlands and Portugal — have seen their gaps close.

The Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility report, released on Tuesday (Oct 23), takes part of its data from the 2015 results of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which are administered to about 540,000 15-year-olds in 72 countries.

In Singapore in 2015, about 80 per cent of students of higher SES reported that they felt a sense of belonging at school, while about 70 per cent of “disadvantaged students” felt the same way, leading to a gap of about 10 percentage points.

Comparatively, the average across OECD countries was 77 per cent of advantaged students saying that they felt they belong at school, whereas some 69 per cent of disadvantaged students felt the same. The socio-economic gap was thus 8 percentage points.

Back in 2012, when Singapore also took part in Pisa, close to 82 per cent of students of higher SES felt a sense of belonging at school, while about 81 per cent of “disadvantaged students” felt the same way. The gap then was about 1 percentage point.

“Disadvantaged students” are defined as students in the bottom 25 per cent of the socio-economic index in the country, whereas the “advantaged students” are from the top 25 per cent.

Students’ sense of belonging at school is the extent to which they felt accepted by and connected to their peers and part of the school community.

Pisa measured this by asking students to rate — from strongly agree to strongly disagree — whether they felt a sense of belonging at school.

The OECD report noted that, in general, students from “socio-economically advantaged” families enjoy a stronger sense of belonging at school than “disadvantaged students”.

It found that, across the countries surveyed, “interestingly… the socio-economic differences in sense of belonging at school disappear once student performance is taken into account”.

“This suggests that disadvantaged students who score higher enjoy a similarly strong sense of belonging at school as their more advantaged peers,” the report stated.

 

HARD TO ACCOUNT FOR WIDE GAP

Experts contacted by TODAY said that it was tricky to draw a conclusive explanation for Singapore’s large gap in Pisa 2015, given that it was a single question posed to students.

Associate Professor Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education suggested that one possible factor for the gap is the distribution of students of different SES across schools.

There is evidence to suggest that there is a “disproportionate percentage of high SES students who tend to be enrolled in ‘more prestigious secondary schools’”, and the converse is also true, he said.

He also said that there is insufficient data from the report’s results, given that Pisa did not take into account questions of factors — such as teachers, school leadership, as well as peers — leading to them feeling (or not feeling) a sense of belonging at school.

These questions could be useful to the Ministry of Education (MOE), as well as educators, to better understand the issue, he added.

Dr Timothy Chan, director of SIM Global Education’s academic division, said that to close this “perception gap”, schools need to have a “well representation” of students from across different socio-economic backgrounds.

“If the situation ends up that some schools attract more students with higher SES… then it may lead to (a widening of the gap),” he added.

Assoc Prof Tan said that one long-term effect of such a gap is how parents view their involvement in their school-going children’s education.

Stressing that it was speculative — given the lack of ample evidence — he said that parents who previously had poor experiences in school might view their involvement differently.

“Similarly, someone with a good experience in school… (and a sense of belonging to their school), would want the same for their children,” he added.

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore said that “in the worst-case scenario, the education system would become less of a vehicle for upward mobility, and in turn, lead to greater polarisation in society at large”.

 

‘ALL SCHOOLS WELL-RESOURCED’: MOE

The OECD report highlighted a trend from earlier reports that students from better socio-economic backgrounds tended to perform better at Pisa.

“Hence, disadvantaged students attending disadvantaged schools are… doubly disadvantaged as they strive for achievement,” the report added.

“Disadvantaged schools” refers to schools in the bottom 25 per cent of the national distribution, based on the average SES levels of students in the schools.

On average, among OECD countries, 48 per cent of disadvantaged students attended disadvantaged schools.

The MOE said that in Singapore, that figure is around 46 per cent.

However, Ms Cindy Khoo, divisional director of MOE’s planning division, said that some clarification was needed on OECD’s use of “doubly disadvantaged” in its report.

“In Singapore’s context, all our schools are well-resourced by international standards. Therefore, our lower-SES students in what OECD termed as ‘disadvantaged schools’ are actually not worse-off in terms of provisions,” she said.

“Nevertheless, MOE has been monitoring the trend independently of OECD and is concerned about the slow creeping up of the proportion,” she added.

The ministry regularly reviews the admissions processes and students’ total educational experience, “to ensure our schools do not become closed circles, and that our students continue to have opportunities to interact with people from diverse backgrounds”, Ms Khoo said.

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