Can students of premier schools sweat it out?
ON MONDAY, when The Straits Times revealed that the Education Ministry had reviewed the funding for independent schools, put curbs on their fund raising for campus upgrading and advised them to cut down on the use of air-conditioning, many parents who wrote in to me and The Straits Times supported the moves.
One parent, Mrs Annie Lim, said that, even as she admired Raffles Institution's (RI's) facilities and programmes, she was struck by the unfairness of it all. "It's not fair that just a select group of kids get these top-notch facilities when the others don't," she said.
I must confess to having had similar thoughts when I visit the likes of RI and Anglo-Chinese School. Why is it that these students get to study in air-con comfort and learn how to swim or play tennis in their school's own sports complex, while their peers in non-independent schools swelter in the heat and have to use the public swimming pools?
It just doesn't strike me as being fair.
What's the implicit message we are giving our young? That some children, especially the brightest or the children of the rich, deserve nicer schools than others?
Of course, the counter to this is to argue that these facilities were built with private alumni and donor funds, not state funds.
But there is also the issue of maintenance. Those in the know tell me it can cost tens of thousands of dollars a month to air-condition classrooms for a school. The cost is partially covered by the higher school fees that independent schools charge. I am told that schools may also dip into their reserves.
But part of the maintenance cost will end up coming from the operating budget given to schools, which is based on the government grant for each student. This is taxpayers' money.
Public money and alumni donations can, I feel, be used to narrow, not widen, the gulf between top schools and others.
For example, some parents have suggested that, instead of donating to their alma mater, generous individuals or organisations could be persuaded to donate to the setting up of a sports complex shared by a cluster of schools.
To be sure, not every child in an independent school will have easy access to a pool at home. But it is a fact that, in recent years, more students enrolling in the leading independent schools come from privileged homes.
By providing extra facilities, the schools extend their privileges further.
As sociologist Vincent Chua, who studies social networks, has pointed out, the narrowing diversity in the top schools has a multiplier effect.
Students born into families with wealth and social connections mingle with others like themselves, and are able to share resources and trade opportunities.
The exclusive networks they form yield benefits beyond graduation when they go on to university and, later on, in the job market.
If Singapore wants to be an inclusive society, we have to ask ourselves if there is a better way to spend alumni and donor funds.
Why not spend on programmes that boost the chances of children from disadvantaged homes getting into schools that will stretch their horizons, instead of spending it on things that boost opportunities - or just creature comforts - for children who already have a socio-economic head start?
Already, there is a widening social gulf between students in the top independent schools and those in the neighbourhood schools.
Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew revealed in 2011 that half or more of students from brand-name schools had fathers who were graduates, compared with one in 10 in neighbourhood schools.
The dilemma for top schools and their alumni and supporters is this: Should they use their considerable networks and resources to buy facilities and programmes to benefit their own elite circle and entrench lives of privilege for another generation? Or on programmes to increase diversity, and to help other able students access these halls of learning?
It all turns on what kind of students they want to nurture: smart youngsters who may see air-con classrooms and swimming pools as their entitled lot in life, or smart and rugged, well-rounded students able to sweat it out with the rest.