Reach Out

Does our education system help the poor?

Jul 2015    

Phoebe has big dreams.


Since she saw a lawyer at work when she was 18 years old, she knew she wanted to be one. But she has huge obstacles in her way: Phoebe comes from a low-income family.


Experts say Phoebe’s chances of realising her dreams of entering law school are very slim – less than half the average Singaporean student’s chances, in fact.


Parents’ educational level a determining factor for kids?
The educational level of fathers seems to be an important factor in determining whether their children graduate with a degree. A study by an NUS sociologist, Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, revealed that fathers with primary school or lower education are five times less likely than university-educated fathers to see their children enter university.


Another factor that affects the academic success of a child is the family income.


The route to university is challenging. On average, only one in four students makes it. But it is even more challenging for students from low-income families, making their dropout rate higher. Just 13 per cent of students from one- to three-room flats made it to university.

The difference between the paths of students from lower- and higher-income families lies in the amount of resources that their parents have to invest in their education.


Parents would invest in their children’s academic success through means such as gaining entry into better – and in many cases, more expensive – schools, extra tuition, branded enrichment classes and social network groups that enhance status, says Associate Professor Irene Ng, from NUS’ Department of Social Work. These depend strongly on the family’s income.


It is still possible for low-income families to get ahead, says Prof Tan. But “possibility is not the same as probability”, he said. Students from low-income families are likely to fall behind because of the lack of family resources to invest in them.


However, Prof Tan noted that there are ways to help students from low-income families, such as financial support, and equipping them with soft skills like networking, cultural sensitivity, emotional intelligence and providing them with mentors. These help to level the playing field for them, to give them a greater chance of achieving academic success.


Financial support
Recognising the need for financial support for students from low-income families, Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) launched its Bursary Programme in 1986 to support students from Primary to Junior College and Polytechnic levels. For the school year 2015, MWS gave out bursaries totalling $300,700 to 860 students.


Levelling the playing field
MWS also provides enrichment programmes to help level the playing field for students from low-income families.


The MWS Tutoring Programme helps disadvantaged students to keep up in class, by providing them with individualised tuition once to twice a week.


The MWS Children in Performing Arts Programme also complements students’ academic learning with dance, drama and theatre classes to help them pick up important soft skills such as teamwork and self-discipline.

GIVE  towards helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds improve their circumstances through education, by donating at

Picture by by Prasit Rodphan/

Chuang Bing Han is Web Editor (Communications and Fundraising) at Methodist Welfare Services.


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