‘Bridges and ladders’: The paradox of equity in excellence in Singapore schools

Dennis KWEK, Rifhan MILLER, Maria MANZON

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


While Singapore’s education system has achieved excellence especially in terms of international educational assessments, the issue of equity remains underexplored and contentious. This chapter examines the interplay of equity and excellence in Singapore’s secondary schools. It showcases best practices of differentiated schooling in pursuit of equity and the tensions that arise between inclusion and differentiation in the system. Drawing on Fraser’s (Scales of justice: reimagining political space in a globalising world. Polity Press, Cambridge, 2008) framework for understanding social justice, we distinguish three distinct types of injustices – socio-economic, political and cultural/symbolic – with corresponding forms of justice, redistributive, recognitive and representational, to resolve them. We then explore the Singapore education system that comprises a ‘bridges and ladders’ model of highly differentiated schooling. We examine three case studies of schools which exhibit, in microcosm, the tensions between equity and excellence in Singapore more broadly. They comprise a madrasah, a specialised school and an elite school. Through these case studies, we explore the pedagogical, sociocultural and systemic approaches that can affirm, transform or enhance equity and excellence in Singapore secondary schools. We argue that the ‘bridges and ladders’ model, through its increased educational choices and differentiated schooling experiences, paradoxically increases equity and excellence while simultaneously exacerbating injustices and inequity. We situate the implications of educational equity and excellence in the continued political discourses of ‘equity needs economic growth’, meritocracy and educational choice. Finally, we propose a rethinking of the Singapore model to enhance the pursuit of equity for all. Copyright © 2019 Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEquity in excellence: Experiences of East Asian high-performing education systems
EditorsSiao See TENG, Maria MANZON, Kenneth K. POON
Place of PublicationSingapore
ISBN (Electronic)9789811329753
ISBN (Print)9789811329739
Publication statusPublished - 2019


education system
secondary school
political justice
social justice
best practice
economic growth


Kwek, D., Miller, R., & Manzon, M. (2019). ‘Bridges and ladders’: The paradox of equity in excellence in Singapore schools. In S. S. Teng, M. Manzon, & K. K. Poon (Eds.), Equity in excellence: Experiences of East Asian high-performing education systems (pp. 87-108). Singapore: Springer.