This post is inspired by the large number of articles in response to the release of the O level results. Well meaning educators start to assist readers in choosing between a Polytechnic and a JC. One of the ideas which has been around since I was 16 years old is the idea that if a person is academically inclined, he should go JC and if he is practically oriented, he should go to a Polytechnic. Throughout the 90s, the same argument was used to help A level students choose between NUS and NTU.
Before I begin, I'd like to say that even if you are an elite super-scholar married to a medical professor, policies concerning Polytechnics are important to you. Reversion to the mean in IQ means that while IQ is heritable, children of elites will be on average only slightly smarter than the median population. The median Singapore is unlikely to have a degree given that about only 25% of the population are entitled to get degrees. This means that even elites benefit from government policies which reinforce Polytechnic education and apprenticeship programs.
Back to the usual advice to O level kids, I don't think this advice is helpful at all.
70% of JC students get to go to a local University and get a ticket to the middle class. A local university graduate starts at $3300 - $3600 a month. In contrast, 20% of Poly students get into a local University but they get to develop useful industrial skills which net them $2100 starting pay if they start work after getting a diploma. The argument about academic or pragmatic inclination melts in the face of national income data. Everything boils down to whether you are confident as to whether your child can be top 70% in a JC or top 20% in a Poly. If not, a Poly should be chosen regardless of your child's inclination because it guarantees a set of industrial skills.
I will propose a different question :
Instead ask yourself, can your child suffer ?
Unlike Polytechnic educators, JC educators have KPIs tied to A level results. JCs whie being cheerful on the outside can be quite cruel to their weaker students. Weak students are "counselled" to drop subjects so that the numbers of the JC looks good. Strong students who take H3 or S paper get to enjoy a more collegiate relationship with their lecturers. Worse, the workload of a JC student is 40 hours a week compared to 25 hours a week for polytechnic students. JC students need to hit the ground running. I suspect a lot of humanity is lost in those 2 years and I suspect makes JC students more Machiavellian and narcissistic.
This question reflects a broader truth about Singapore as hinted by the Buddha eons ago.
Life is suffering.
Suffering is spread over the lifetime of an individual but suffering can brought forward similar to a discounting mechanism.
The choice of the JC brings suffering forward but slightly discounted. If you fall into the 70% you stand to get a quick ticket to the middle class and enjoy a salary 50% above diploma holders.
The choice of a Poly is not an inferior choice. You can get into the top 20%, you maintain your momentum. But if you fail to get into a local University, your route would be more circuitous. You can still make a lot of money becoming a top salesman or an entrepreneur but each option has its own hardship and requisite amount of suffering.
Where government policy comes into the picture, tweaks need to be made to Polytechnic programs to balance the option against JC's ease into the middle class. This means creating apprenticeship programs which also allow skilled workers to have a good life. This is in effect, increasing the discount rate of suffering when students pick the Poly route.
So in balance, if you have just received your O level results and contemplating JC or Polytechnic, the proper question to ask yourself is :
Can you suffer ?