Last month, Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said it is an "open secret" that the direct school admission (DSA) scheme benefits children who have more resources from a young age.
Now, in response to growing concern that children with richer parents can be groomed to enter top schools via this route, the Ministry of Education (MOE) says the profile of students who get into secondary schools through direct school admission (DSA) remains "fairly diverse".
About 60 per cent of students who secured places in secondary schools through DSA over the last five years live in HDB flats, an MOE spokesman told The Straits Times (ST). In comparison, as of last year, 81 per cent of Singaporeans reside in HDB flats.
Of the 126 secondary schools that accepted a total of 2,700 students last year, 18 are Integrated Programme (IP) schools, which admit more DSA students. MOE declined to provide details on the proportion of DSA students in IP schools who reside in flats. It also does not track the household income of DSA students.
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BUYING YOUR WAY IN?
IP schools contacted such as Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) declined to share the socio- economic make-up of their DSA students. A spokesman for Raffles Girls' School said it does not track the socio-economic status of its students, and that "all students are given the same opportunities".
MP Denise says the DSA tries to "expand the criteria by which students are admitted beyond the high- stakes exam cut-off points". But "popular schools now not only have access to students who are academically strong; they can now attract those who are top in the arts and sports, further entrenching their positions of superiority", she tells ST.
"There are ways by which some skills in the arts and sports can be nurtured from a young age if resources were available. Some are known to pay coaches who claim to be DSA-savvy," she adds.
But Jacqueline Chua, a former Raffles Institution teacher who was on the school's DSA selection panel for nearly 10 years until 2014, said its DSA students were from a mix of backgrounds. "Some were on financial assistance. They were talent-spotted at competitions and recommended by primary school teachers," says Jacqueline, who now runs Paideia Learning Academy, an enrichment centre.
A Primary 5 pupil from a top girls' school says many of her schoolmates are building portfolios, with some paying hourly fees of up to $300 for classes. "Some have sports training outside on top of CCAs (co-curricular activities), and others get Grade 8 music certificates," she says. "It's harder to get into competitive CCAs in school."
Kelly Kishor, a private coach who started training a handful of Primary 6 children for DSA entry tests in 2008, said she sees 15 to 30 pupils each year now. But these sessions are not enough, she said, noting that schools look out for factors like character and leadership traits.
Serene Seah, 28, whose son in Primary 6 hopes to make use of the DSA through volleyball, said she did not consider IP schools as her son would not cope well there. "DSA helps students who are not so good at studying. At least they have something else they are good at," said the mother of two, who owns a printer supplier firm.
"If children can cope well with the stress level in IP schools, it's okay," she said. "But if the kid lags behind, it can do more harm than good."
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HOW DSA WORKS
The direct school admission (DSA) scheme began in 2004 with just seven secondary schools that took in some 860 students.
Last year, about 2,700 students entered 126 secondary schools this way, out of more than 15,000 applications. At the junior college level, 21 schools received more than 3,500 DSA applications and about 500 students were successful. The Ministry of Education (MOE) could not provide the latest breakdown of students admitted in the different categories.
Based on a parliamentary reply in 2013, about 15 per cent of DSA students in that year got into schools based on their strengths in the arts, and 35 per cent through sports.
MOE declined to give the percentage of students who enter schools under the academic category in direct admissions. Integrated Programme schools, which let students progress to junior college without taking the O levels, have more autonomy in admitting pupils based on their own criteria, and can take in all via DSA. But, in practice, they accept at most 50 per cent.
Specialised independent schools such as the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, School of Science and Technology, and School of the Arts take in almost all their students through DSA. The cap on the proportion of the student intake through DSA is 20 per cent for independent schools, 10 per cent for autonomous schools and 5 per cent for fully government-funded schools.
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.