June 25, 2017

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By Bertha Henson

WHY are people getting so upset with the news of school mergers, especially at the junior college (JC) level? It’s a no-brainer right? If junior colleges are emptying out, then might as well close them now or merge. It’s such a rational, efficient thing to do. Reading the reactions, the unhappiness boils down to these nine questions.

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1. How is it that our so-efficient G can misjudge birth rates?

Well, the G keeps saying that it is based on information available at that time – and probably thought that its pro-baby policies will work. The last two JCs built were Innova which was founded in 2005 and Eunoia which opened its doors this year. So maybe if you look at the birth rate of the cohort that would enter Innova in its first year, it still looks like it can be filled. Except that later on, Singapore couples didn’t cooperate. Tsk. Tsk.

2. But that doesn’t explain Eunoia, does it?

Ah. But that’s a special JC that caters to the cohort studying in Catholic High School, Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, and CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School. They will move to the JC as part of the Integrated Programme (IP).

Okay, Eunoia could have waited until next year and moved into one of the JCs’ vacated premises. Could have saved money. But it could be location as well. Eunoia is in Mount Sinai, and will move to its Bishan premises in 2019. Oh wait. Maybe it could still move into an empty campus before money is spent on yet another set of buildings…

3. So, the JCs that will be merged all don’t have IP feeder schools? What does this mean? I have to make sure my kid gets into a secondary school with IP so that they can progress right through to JC and university?

Oooh. Looks like that’s the best bet. Because JC is usually seen as the next step into university, unless your kid is a very bright polytechnic student. Through-train you know… even if this means less choice…

4. How did MOE pick the eight JCs anyway? Just because no IP?

Hmm. It says “geographical’’ distribution. So it’s about spreading them out equally. Like Meridian JC, which is in Pasir Ris, and Tampines JC. So they’re getting stuck together at the newer Meridian campus. Don’t forget that Temasek and Victoria JC are also in the east.

Then there’s Innova JC and Yishun JC merging to be on Yishun grounds. MOE said Yishun was picked because it’s more “accessible’’ than Innova, although Innova is newer. Maybe it also has to do with cut-off points. Innova is at the bottom of all 19 JCs, as reported by The Straits Times. MOE isn’t saying anything about it.

5. Wait a minute, why should cut-off points have anything to do with whether a JC disappears?

Hmmm. Guess MOE thinks there’s no point in having such poor performing JCs. Seven of the eight JCs that are merging are actually clustered at the bottom of the ladder, which means that their students aren’t, ah, as good as the rest. Elitist, but perfectly rational. Okay, there’s something to be said about preserving the school’s heritage and making alumni happy but you know what is said about “scarce’’ resources and so forth.

6. But if it is a matter of geography, Hwa Chong Institution and National JC are right across the road…

They’re IP and good performers and probably with strong alumnus that will kpkb . Just disregard what MOE said about geography, it doesn’t know how to spin doctor.

7. Why so sudden anyway? Some of the kids are already looking forward to entering JCs of their choice, especially those near their homes. Quite demoralising isn’t it?

The G will probably say that there’s never a good time to make such an announcement. If the mergers are delayed, then what are the chances that parents will allow their kids to apply for a JC that’s going to be closed? Rather than sound the death knell, just kill it off quickly.

8. That’s heartless when you think about the people who have been to the schools and have fond memories.

True. But hard truths.. hard truths.

9. Has it got to do with the G changing its mind about having more people going into university?

Well, it said it’s aiming for 40 per cent of the cohort by 2020, but it’s a declining cohort so the absolute numbers will probably remain about the same as now. Although it’s likely that when it came up with that figure, it didn’t think about the birth rate then. Or maybe it figured that the polytechnic route would also yield more university graduates. Then again, polytechnics are facing declining enrollments too. Are you thinking that this will have a knock-on effect on the capacity of our universities? That something will be done about polytechnics too?

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Wan Ting Koh

MORE pathways are opening up for students who want to get through the education system via talent rather than grades, but with kiasu and kiasi attitudes still largely driving the education system here, will mindsets change?

In the debate on his ministry’s budget today (Mar 7), Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng outlined several enhancements to existing schemes that show the G’s efforts to shift away from a grade-centric education system.

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First up is the Subject-Based Banding (SBB) initiative that was first implemented in 12 prototype secondary schools in 2014 for lower secondary students. SBB lets students from the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams take subjects that they are stronger in at a higher academic level. For example, a student who is in the Normal (Academic) stream, but scored an A for Mathematics in his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), can take Mathematics at the Express level under SBB.

By 2018, the G aims to roll out SBB to all schools which are offering Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) courses at the lower secondary level. The SBB has been in place for upper secondary school students since 2003.

Mr Ng said that this approach would help students “deepen their learning in areas of strengths”, build their confidence and “opens up new post-secondary possibilities for them”.

Through an enhancement in the DSA scheme, the G will also be increasing opportunities for primary school students to get into secondary schools through their strengths and achievements rather than academic aptitude.

From 2018, all secondary schools will be able to admit up to 20 per cent of their Secondary 1 intake through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme. First introduced in 2004, DSA is meant to recognise students’ achievements in non-academic areas, such as sports and the arts. It offers Primary 6 pupils places in secondary schools before they sit for PSLE.

Currently, only Independent schools have a 20 per cent allowance on students they accept through DSA. Autonomous schools have a 10 per cent cap while schools with distinctive programmes can admit up to 5 per cent of its students through DSA. The general academic tests that students have to sit for as part of the DSA selection criteria will also be scrapped by 2018. While these tests allow for a comparison of students’ abilities, they “inadvertently put undue focus on general academic abilities”, said Mr Ng.

In any case, students with strong general academic abilities would already be able to qualify for secondary schools with the PSLE results, he added.

On what secondary schools could use to assess entrants, Mr Ng said: “Schools can conduct their selection via a range of assessment tools including interviews, trials, auditions and subject tests. They will also consider the applicant’s overall portfolio and achievements.”

One other change applies to the tertiary front. Polytechnics will be increasing their intake allowance for students who go in through the Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) scheme, which, similar to DSA, admits students based on their interest and aptitude, rather than academic performance.

This scheme was introduced in 2016 for Academic Year 2017, and allowed polytechnics up to 12.5 per cent intake through EAE. However, from Academic Year 2018, the allowance would be increased to 15 per cent.

What’s new is also the expansion of the scheme to Institute of Technical Education (ITE) so that ITEs will be able to admit up to 15 per cent of their Academic Year intake through the ITE EAE.

While the G is taking tangible steps to expand the education system’s focus beyond academics, mindsets will take a longer time to catch up. This problem was flagged by Member of Parliament (MP) Denise Phua, who asked what could be done to change mindsets that are geared towards grades.

Mr Ng said that while academic excellence is “a key strength of our system, it should not be over-emphasised, at the expense of other meaningful activities”.

But whether the G’s push towards a more holistic education can genuinely change mindsets remains to be seen.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Clock showing 0830

WHEN a man is caught taking an upskirt video of a woman, he gets reported to the police. But what if the man is not a man, but a child? What if he’s your student?

After its report last Saturday (Oct 29) about 30 students at an all-boys secondary school who were disciplined for having upskirt images of six of its female teachers, three more schools have confirmed similar cases, said The New Paper (TNP) in its cover story today.

The schools were not named but one was a co-ed school, and the other two were all-boys schools. Principals from the three schools said the students involved have been disciplined but declined to give details.

TNP did, however, speak to a former teacher of one of the schools, who said three of her students had taken upskirt photos of her and shared the pictures with their classmates.

“I had my suspicions about these three boys as I noticed they would stand very close to me when they were consulting me about (schoolwork),” she said.

“Sometimes their elbows or arms would brush past the side of my breast… I felt something brushing against my backside while I was bending slightly.”

In a separate incident, another student sent her a sexually explicit message via Instagram with a cropped photo of her chest area.

This female teacher decided to report both incidents to the police, despite the school’s assurance that it would handle the matter internally.

Experts who spoke to TNP were divided on whether schools should hand over their own students to the authorities when such incidents are discovered.

Those who said yes argued that doing so sends a clear message that such actions would not be tolerated – no matter the age of the offender.

The people who disagreed said it was enough for this message to be conveyed by the school. A police report could leave a permanent blemish on the student’s record, said a teacher.

Speaking of blemishes on records, Mr Low Thia Khiang of the Workers’ Party has responded to KPMG’s latest report on the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), which has suggested that its lapses in financial governance could be grounds for criminal prosecution.

You can read our summary of the case here.

“The town council has studied the report. To me, the report is simply more detailed than the AGO’s report,” said Mr Low yesterday, adding that the accounting firm’s findings were “inconclusive” on the issue of criminal wrongdoing.

Observers interviewed by The Straits Times (ST) echoed much of what was reported by TODAY yesterday – that although it was unusual for KPMG to have flagged the possibility of criminal misconduct, this underscored the severity of the lapses and would likely lead to further investigation.

Meanwhile, investigations into yesterday’s Circle Line disruption has revealed it was due to a signal interference – the same problem that halted service for five days in September.

SMRT did not say how many commuters were affected but estimates put the number at hundreds of thousands. Service was delayed at six stations for more than an hour at one point, resulting in a spillover effect on the roads that added to the peak-hour traffic.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Jack Skellington alarm clock with hands pointing at 8:30

SWEEPING changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) were finally announced yesterday (July 13) but parents remain sceptical over its impact on their children’s stress levels, which prompted the review several years ago.

You can read a more detailed report on the changes here but the upshot is this: Starting in 2021, a new scoring system that measures a pupil’s raw scores, instead of relative performance.

Called Achievement Levels, these grade bands from A1 to A8, will be used by schools to determine who gets in.

A1 in a subject is the best, A8 is the worst. The highest score a pupil can get is four, which is the sum of AL’s in four subjects. The changes, the result of a review that was announced in 2013, are aimed to reduce competition among peers, but parents say they do not go far enough to lessen the G’s emphasis on academic results.

The Education Ministry however said that the new system was a “good balance” between relieving pressure for pupils to do well and allowing schools to sort the students academically.

Pupils feeling the pressure right now could let off some steam by playing Pokemon Go, the location-based mobile game that’s proven to be a huge hit since its release in some parts of the world last week.

No word yet on when it’s coming to Singapore, but the game developer, Niantic Labs, yesterday said it would be released in Asia over the next two days.

That however hasn’t stopped fans of the game, which is based on a Nintendo video game in the 1990s, from trying to download the game using unauthorised sources. Don’t know what the fuss is about? Here’s an explanation, in fewer than 400 words.

A few more headlines before we go: Even though we had more babies last year, the nation’s Jubilee year was less jolly for couples. There were fewer weddings and more divorces, according to data released by the Department of Statistics yesterday.

Marriages also did not last as long. The median duration was 10 years, compared to 10.4 years in 2014 and 10.6 years in 2010.

Also taking a break is Pow Sing Restaurant, the popular chicken rice eatery in Serangoon Gardens. It was ordered by the G to suspend operations after 29 cases of gastroenteritis were reportedly linked to the restaurant.

If you have time for one commentary, make it The Straits Times’ Christopher Tan’s piece today – Nothing routine about MRT cracks, regarding the ongoing controversy over the G’s purchase of China-made trains. The cracks are a big deal, he says, because they could weaken the entire train structure over time. One engineer described the impurities found in the aluminium alloy as a “catastrophic problem”.

 

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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Green clock showing 8.30

WITH the merger of 22 secondary schools into 11 – some of which have been around for more than half a century – there are fears over the loss of heritage. The alumni may not necessarily be convinced by the Ministry of Education’s move to “work with the schools to build strong identities and retain their heritage, by documenting the past in the merged school buildings”, and many are likely to lament the loss of the school names, history and culture, as well as buildings and premises come 2017 and 2018.

Some have also argued that mergers may not address the problem of declining cohort sizes, even if other proposals have not been mooted. It may be true, in the words of National University of Singapore Associate Professor Paulin Straughan, that “When students and staff identify with the history of their school, they feel a sense of pride and do better,” but what are the alternatives? ST noted that in the new Fajar Secondary and Ping Yi Secondary – two schools which experienced merger this year – there are 80 and 90 Secondary 1 students respectively, much fewer compared to the number of students in the other levels, or compared to the popular secondary schools.

Smaller class sizes could foster closer bonds between the students or allow for experimentation with small-group teaching pedagogies, yet without a “critical mass” the enrolment into and maintenance of co-curricular activities will be a challenge.

And along Rochor Road, where the demolition of Rochor Centre for the construction of the North-South Expressway is imminent, Zaobao reported that more Singaporeans – especially professional and amateur photographers – are frequenting the building to preserve pieces of history and heritage through their lenses. A residential and commercial estate once listed as a landmark for protection by the Urban Development Authority, Rochor Centre housed flats built by the Housing and Development Board, and in the first three floors there were shophouses and offices. The building is distinctive for its colourful facade, in shades of red, yellow, green, and blue.

In addition to schools and buildings, the saving of water has been emphasised by the government. Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, at the launch of the Singapore World Water Day celebrations, stressed the daily routines of saving water through simple habits or appliance switches, but also highlighted broader efforts such as a fifth NEWater plant by the end of this year and a third desalination plant at Tuas by the end of next year. The Land Transport Authority also announced its plan to put up posters at over 70 construction sites, encouraging construction companies to promote good habits of water use.

In the past week, Singaporeans were reminded that the Linggiu Reservoir across the Causeway in Johor – which supplies up to 60 per cent of Singapore’s water needs – is still not half full. March 22 has also been designated by the United Nations as the annual World Water Day, and on that night Singapore landmarks such as the Esplanade, Singapore Flyer, and the Sports Hub will be lit blue to mark the occasion.

Finally, the Ministry of Social and Family Development has shared that social media has empowered it to help more individuals. Besides the 300 public queries the ministry has received on its Facebook site in 2013 and 2014, it also receives an average of 11 alerts about the needy every month. Urging the public to do more, to provide further details about those in need and their situation, Minister Tan Chuan-Jin added in ST that “There were also instances where persons in need are already being assisted by our social workers but chose not to highlight the fact, thus leaving the impression that they are left to fend for themselves.”

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof

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by Wan Ting Koh

IN TWO years time, at least 11 secondary schools will cease to exist. They will join 11 other schools that are facing the same problem: low enrolment numbers.

The announcement was made by the Ministry of Education (MOE) this afternoon (March 4), just three months after it said seven of the schools to be merged next year would not be receiving any Secondary one students. Affected staff were informed of the merger yesterday while students were notified today.

“The fall in live birth rates in Singapore over the past two decades has led to a corresponding decline in overall demand for school places, and a significant excess of secondary school places at the national level,” said a ministry spokesman at a briefing held at the MOE Tower block at Buona Vista, which was attended by some 10 media personnel and an MOE panel. “To address the significant fall in cohort size in recent years, more secondary schools would need to merge over the next two years.”

MOE did not say how many students and teachers will be affected by the mergers. It only said that students will be transferred to schools located close by so as to minimise inconveniences to them. The receiving schools were also selected based on their capacity, enrollment size and facilities. Students who wish to transfer to different schools rather than the newly merged school can do so but have to do it via the normal inter-school transfer process, similar to transfers between non-merged schools.

Overall enrollment figures given by MOE show a declining trend in numbers. It did not give a breakdown on enrollment figures for each school, but showed in a chart that while there were some 50,000 enrollments ten years ago, this year, there were only around 38,000 enrollments this year.

Things get a bit trickier with the teachers. When asked if anyone would be retrenched because of the mergers, the spokesman said no but did not elaborate on how teaching and executive roles, including the principals, would be split between staff from two merging schools. He did say however that teachers can indicate their choice to stay in the newly merged school or “look for postings to go to other schools”.

These upcoming mergers follow the two pairs of schools which merged in 2011 and four pairs of schools which merged in January this year. Asked whether there are other mergers in the pipeline, spokesman said that they will monitor existing cohort numbers and take note of future housing developments in the area of the school before they make a decision.

Concerns raised by parents included whether their child’s subject combination would remain the same and whether they could continue with their current co-curricular activities

MOE did not give an update on whether those issues were addressed in the previous mergers but said that they would “engage the stakeholders” in the decision-making process for the upcoming mergers.

List of schools to be merged

In January 2017:

Secondary Schools to be mergedFinal location of merged schools
Balestier Hill Secondary
Beatty Secondary
Beatty Secondary
Henderson Secondary
Bukit Merah Secondary
Bukit Merah Secondary
MacPherson Secondary
Broadrick Secondary
Broadrick Secondary
North View Secondary
Northland Secondary
Northland Secondary
Pioneer Secondary
Boon Lay Secondary
Boon Lay Secondary
Siglap Secondary
Coral Secondary
Coral Secondary
Si Ling Secondary
Marsiling Secondary
Marsiling Secondary

 

In January 2018:

Secondary schools to be mergedFinal location of merged schools
Bedok North Secondary
Damai Secondary
Damai Secondary
Bishan Park Secondary
Peirce Secondary
Peirce Secondary
Chong Boon Secondary
Yio Chu Kang Secondary
Yio Chu Kang Secondary
Greenview Secondary
Loyang Secondary
Loyang Secondary

 

Featured illustration by Natassya Diana

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Students are holding brooms and the teacher teaching how to use the broom & the dustpan to the class.

By Felix Cheong

THE Education Ministry announced on Thursday that students from primary school to junior college level will have to spend some time every day cleaning common areas such as classrooms, corridors and canteens.

Here’s a glimpse at the future…

Entry by Backdoor

Why should your daughter be admitted to my school under the Direct Schools Admission?

Because she’s been trained to clean toilets.

Wow. Congratulations. She’s in.

Every School is a Good School?

I’m thinking of SweepClean Secondary School for my Ah Boy. They only make students sweep floor 20 minutes a day.

Cheh! CleanestSweep Secondary’s cutoff is 10 minutes.

Really ah? My Ah Boy cannot cope with stress one. Like that, I better make him apply for CleanestSweep.

Cannot Make It

Principal Teo, I appeal to you to let my son off area cleaning.

Why?

He has a mental disability.

I’m sorry to hear that. What mental disability?

He’s damn lazy.

Dedicated to Delegation

Principal Teo, why are you not helping to clean the school?

You can do it for me, Mr Heng.

That’s not leading by example, sir.

Ah. That’s called leading by delegation.

At the Scholarship Interview

How many hours of area cleaning have you done in your 12 years in school?

I’ve lost count, sir.

Have you cleaned toilets before?

Err, no, sir. Students are not required to clean toilets, sir.

Then how do you expect to be a civil servant and clean up ministers’ mess?

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana

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by Bertha Henson

SOME Secondary One students are starting school only this week, instead of last week when the school term formally began. We don’t know how many and the Education Ministry wouldn’t say – except that there were “a few students” affected. TMG knows of at least 10 students but their parents declined to be named for fear of shining the spotlight on their children who are now trying to get over the trauma of being “re-posted”.

You see, these were the students who had originally been posted to one school, appealed to get into another, got in, and then were told they had to leave. The Ministry of Education (MOE) told principals to rescind the offer as the students had not met the school’s cut-off point (COP).

So after a couple of days or so in what they thought would be their secondary school, in their new uniforms and lugging their school textbooks, they had to go back to their originally posted schools. It appears that this has always been the principle of equity applied to Secondary One postings. You get in only if you make the cut-off – unless there were “extenuating circumstances”. Or you would be depriving a more deserving student who had appealed for a place.

That’s one argument put forward by the ministry when we asked for a response on the matter.

It told TMG: “This is to ensure fairness to all applicants who participated in the S1 posting exercise and who had accepted that schools would no longer accept transfers of students who did not meet the school’s cut-off point.  However, exceptions could be made if there are extenuating circumstances, such as students with serious medical conditions who would benefit from being in a school nearer home.”

It is a good principle to adopt; In MOE’s own words: “Previously, the practices in schools were uneven on this, and not all schools require their students to meet the school’s COP before they were considered for school transfer.”

In November, the ministry wrote to all schools to say that this new guideline, or rather, rule, should be enforced. Some principals apparently didn’t get the memo – and found themselves having to face angry parents who were upset that the children would have to switch schools.

“We understand that it may be disruptive for the students to move from one school to another,” the ministry said. “We will give full support to the student and family to ease the transition to the school he or she was originally posted to. Reimbursement will be given to students who have bought the books and uniforms of the new school. The posted school will welcome and provide full support to the child to assist him/her to settle down in the school.”

One parent contacted was surprised to hear of the reimbursement but pointed out that the more important issue was that the children had become “collateral damage” in the mixed or missed communications between principals and MOE. And if the student numbers were “few”, then there was surely a way a school would be able to accommodate these students instead of kicking them out.

She has a point.

If every student is precious, then this is quite a ham-fisted way of dealing with what was essentially a MOE or principal snafu.

It also shed light on “uneven practices” in the past, which gave parents hope that they could appeal for places because, well, others had succeeded in the past. You wonder why principals deviated from the principle in the first place, and on what basis they decided to accept students who did not meet the cut-off point. Such discretion left to principals only give parents the opportunity to moan about an uneven playing field, and mutter about “connections” between parent and school.

Yup, the enforcement of the principle is to be welcomed in promoting transparency in the posting exercise. But in this case MOE may be perceived as lacking empathy in dealing with 12 to 13-year-olds.

The upshot of this may be that this is an affirmation that the best way for parents to ensure places for the children in secondary school is to start at Primary One. Get the child into the primary school which feeds into the secondary school of choice.

Or, simply go the Direct School Admissions or DSA way by gaining admission to a secondary school on the child’s non-academic talents and achievements in a sport or the arts. The parents’ thinking process must start earlier, from May to October before the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results are known. The student needs to only meet the minimum cut-off score for a particular programme or stream in the school, regardless of the eventual PSLE cut-off score of the school.

MOE told TMG that it has made exceptions for a few students who did not meet the school’s cut-off point when appealing for a transfer from the originally posted school. It allowed one student to move to a school nearer to her home because she had a birth defect affecting the spinal cord which required regular cleaning of the bladder every four hours with her mother’s help.

Another student who is wheelchair-bound was originally posted to a school which was not close to her home and which did not have wheelchair access. Her transfer to another school nearby which was nearer to her home and had the right facilities was allowed.

 

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Raffles Girls's School's students putting their arms around the shoulders of their schoolmates. Image sourced from Facebook user: Raffles Girls' School (since 1879)

by Brenda Tan

REMEMBER the case of the ex-Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) student who tried to sue the school for not protecting her from bullies? You might have missed the article in ST about the High Court striking out her claim last week.

Justice George Wei found that while schools have a legal duty to provide a safe environment for their students, it was “plain and obvious” that schools are not duty bound to intervene in the kind of bullying which the student specified: name-calling and being ostracised.

As a parent and a former teacher, I would have to agree with Judge Wei on his ruling.

Reading the teenager’s story in the earlier report left me bewildered – how would anyone even consider that Ms Cheryl Tan had a case against her school?

Unlike the Shuqun Secondary School bullying incident which happened a few months back, where two boys were captured on video being physically hit on the head several times by a bully, the verbal criticism suffered by Ms Tan from her peers, accusing her of being “selfish” and “greedy”, and seeking “glam and glory” in her Co-Curricular Activity when she was in Secondary 3, sounds mild in comparison. In fact, it doesn’t sound any worse than my Primary 3 daughter complaining to me that her friends are “bullies” because they don’t want to play with her during recess.

I am not trying to belittle the effects constant verbal criticism and ostracism can have on a child’s self-esteem by comparing what Ms Tan went through with the complaints my daughter makes about her schoolmates, but it is troubling to note that Ms Tan and her family felt that they could actually make RGS pay for Ms Tan’s S$220,000 overseas education, when they were the ones who opted to leave the school and head to England for Ms Tan to continue her studies.

Judge Wei did not dispute that the school had a duty of care for its students, but that “a law that requires schools to intervene in every episode of unhappiness between their students… would impose a heavy burden on the school and its teachers.”

It is worth noting that while the school can create the best positive environment of learning via a culture of respect, collaboration, and acceptance, there will always be occasions in school that create unhappiness for our kids, simply because a school is a place of learning.

At one level, our children attend school to learn a specific set of content/knowledge – literacy, numeracy, and basic facts about the world. However, there is an implicit understanding that schools also teach students how to relate to one another in a social setting, via a set of culturally acceptable behavioural guidelines and principles.

So schools try to reinforce these guidelines and principles by iterating their school values at assemblies, highlighting good behaviour as well as admonishing and counselling those who fall short of its standards.

It is too much to expect that schools will always be a ‘happy place’ for our children, simply because the interactions of our children in our high-pressured and competitive education system is bound to create vulnerability and unhappiness at some point in their learning journey.

I recall that when my eldest son was in Secondary 1, he and a few classmates were assigned a group project during the school vacation. The load fell on him as his classmates had intensive sports training classes. He ended up building a 3D model of a volcano himself and even doing the accompanying write-ups. He didn’t mind it; he had always loved the subject and had done well in it.

So it was a surprise when he scored dismally for subject. At the Meet the Staff session, we found out that the group project’s grades made up a large part of the subject’s progressive score – and he had done very badly in it.

It turned out that because of my son’s aptitude in the subject, his teacher had put two of the weaker classmates into his group in the hope that they might benefit from peer work with him. But because the marking rubrics of the group project included points given for confidential peer evaluations, his team-mates had made a pact to mark down my son’s scores and give each other much higher scores instead. So while the rest passed the group project with flying colours, my son failed to make the grade.

You might accuse me of batting for my son. But the fact is we had witnessed the amount of work he put in it. His teacher, knowing his past grades, recognised the discrepancy in the scores and intervened on my son’s behalf.  His grade was moderated. His team mates were counselled for their actions. But my son was unhappy over the issue for some time.

Should I have then sued the school for my son’s unhappiness and distress? After all, at some level, I could even say that my son was bullied by his team-mates.

But how would my son benefit if I sued the school for neglecting to detect the issue in the first place? We may perhaps feel that some level of ‘justice’ has to be meted out and have someone ‘pay’ for my son’s unhappiness and distress but is this true justice? Or is this merely revenge for my son being targeted by his peers?

Besides, what exactly would I be teaching my son about how to deal with conflicts, whether he’s the target or the bystander, if my mode of operation is to seek restitution by going straight to the courts (or the police, or the Ministry of Education, for that matter)?

Would he learn to forgive and move on without having to constantly seek some sort of legal redress? Or would it be better if he recognised that it was his own personal response that makes the difference between his being happy or unhappy at any situation?

Truthfully, it is during the unhappy times that our children encounter, when resilience is best taught. These lessons are memorable, not only because heightened emotions are involved, but also because these are practical lessons in actually overcoming the conflict. In learning to deal with such a situation – why we feel the way we do, seeking solutions where possible, and learning to let go where there are no clear solutions – these guiding principles are of far greater value for our children in the long-run to live well, than getting top grades at exams.

Such a philosophy raises adults who aren’t afraid of failures and trusting in others. Such an adult is definitely more likely to see the best in others, be it more forgiving of failures – both their own and others’, or be it someone who can be a positive force in his or her environment.

Besides, if schools are liable every time our kids are unhappy with their peers, we end up with poorer schools – not just because of schools’ financial loss, but because our children will never learn to be better people.

 

Featured image from Raffle Girls’ School Facebook page

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Open up to imagination by Flickr

POET Pooja Nansi delivered a speech on Nov 7, Saturday on the topic of imagination at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. Here is an excerpt of her speech:

Lately there have been a lot of conversations about our education system, what it offers our young people, what it is stealing from them, how it empowers and how it limits.

There have also been a lot of conversations about teachers; how they should behave, what they should do more and less off, conversations about the teaching of literature, the teaching of Singaporean writing in the classroom. A whole lot of dialogue and commentary by institutions, politicians, bureaucrats and policy makers.

But the people who are at the very center of all of this; the people who wake up at 5.30am to sing Majulah Singapura bleary-eyed every morning and walk into classrooms to interact with young people on a daily basis, the people who do the lonely work of sitting in front of a computer trying to make a difference using their words, the teachers and the writers – are hardly ever asked what their actual experience is, what they really think. Instead, we tend to have a whole lot of thinking and theorising done for us.

I used to teach English Literature at a Junior College, before taking a short sabbatical and I am now a Writer-in-Residence at NTU. As part of my residency, I teach one university seminar, an introduction to Creative Writing. A lot of the time, I get asked the question: “What are your students like?” To which, I find myself responding “very Singaporean.”

What I really mean by that is that they are lovely young people, very forgiving, very polite, deferential, extremely concerned about deadlines and grades.

And most of them, like the majority of the young people I have encountered in my decade of teaching, are incredibly hesitant about speaking up because they are so uncomfortable with being different, paralysed from the fear of reaching the wrong conclusion, or worse, petrified of making mistakes.

This is even more glaringly obvious when you deal with a subject like Literature. I wish I had 10 cents for the number of times some students have asked “So what’s the right interpretation?”

The most worrying aspect of this question is the assumption that there is one right answer, some overarching definitive truth, a single correct narrative, and that any deviation from it, is wrong. What’s worrying is the inability to understand that two completely different responses could both stand as a valid truth.

We seem as a society to have lost the ability to be comfortable with ambivalence of any kind. How strange this belief system that despite all our infinite differences as human beings, despite how diverse and complicated we are as a species, there could exist one singular version of events, one homogenous set of beliefs or one singular truth that could apply to us all.

So what is it about us as a country that has manufactured this way of thinking in our young people? This notion that there is always a singular right way? This fear that any unchartered alternative paths are wrong?

Why this overwhelming need to conform? Why such conservatism? How strange to think that people who don’t believe as we do, should adhere to our convictions anyway simply because it’s more convenient that way?

Why such terror towards anything unconventional or against expectation? Why such profound discomfort with difference and diversity?

I believe this boils down to what it is that most Singaporeans define as success. Let’s be painfully honest. We believe success is the car and the condo, how quickly we rise up the corporate ladder, the holidays we can afford to take.

And anyone who has spent some time in the working world here knows, there’s often a certain expectation of the way you have to talk, be, and behave in order to get there. We don’t really make a lot of room for unconventionality.

For me, unconventionality happened early in life. I am often the only Indian woman in the room, my hair sometimes speaks louder than I do. I wore too many colours for a civil servant. I occasionally let out a swear word, I rolled my eyes too much. I had a superior tell me once that my students and the teachers in my department must be confused because I didn’t fit into the profile of a “teacher” or a “head of department” or a “role model”.

This confused me because I had never approached my work with young people trying to fit into a profile. My only guiding philosophy had always been, and still is, to be honest with my students about life and the world as I know it, about who I am, and about what my own journey has been. To be clear that this is my journey and that they need to immerse themselves in their own. Because I am after all, human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an ideal or an example. I am imperfect and not trying to pretend I could ever be otherwise. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m always correct. I am just trying—trying to authenticate what I believe in, trying to do some work of worth in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.

Whenever I am asked “why writing” or “why Literature” or “why teaching”, I know it’s because those were the things that helped me find my true north and I hope to put them in the light for other young people finding their way in a society like ours which can sometimes be very unforgiving to anyone who even very slightly breaks the mould.

And in a world that is so quickly changing, it is so unbearably important for young people to be comfortable with who they are, to explore and to dare to be unconventional. It is so important to take risks and not sacrifice a burning, passionate life for a safe one, out of the fear of making a mistake.

I cannot point out a single instance or student whose journey has inspired me because there have been so many. But the few who stand out are the ones who were painfully different.

The boy who refused to speak a word in class but could make a thunderstorm appear in your mind’s eye with the way he played the piano; the young man who came from a background atypical of a Junior College student, with a history of drug addiction, a stint in Boys’ Home and who got into constant trouble for his piercings and tattoos, but who left all of that at the door and made it impossible for you to look away from him as he performed a Shakespearean monologue on stage; and the girl who could barely write a clear sentence in English but proclaimed she loved poems, and worked so hard she got a distinction for Literature at her ‘A’ Levels.

These are the students who make me feel that I play an important role as a teacher. Because everyone has something to offer, they just need one person to believe in them sometimes, a safe place where they can be themselves without worrying about not being good enough. They need someone to tell them that it is okay to be different. It is okay to want something for yourself that the world around you may not always seem to immediately appreciate.

To me, there can be nothing more practical than doing what you love and what you are good at. It is the most natural way to give back to the world. But it isn’t always easy.

Last year, I was approached by a leading women’s magazine in Singapore for a feature they were doing called “rule breakers”. They thought my foray into poetry, devoting my time to the act of writing and my belief that it was a tool for empowering people was really out of the box in a place like Singapore. I don’t know what that says about us.

This time last year, I was on the way to the National Museum for a rehearsal for a show I was presenting as part of the Singapore Writers Festival in 2014. I was running a little late, I was sleep deprived and I was looking forward to listening to my iPod and having a little respite during my cab ride. But it is of course, the law of Singaporean commute that when thou needs silence, thou shall encounter the chatty cab driver.

This particular cab uncle could not get past the fact that I wanted to go to the museum. The questions that followed went like this:

“Wah girl you going museum? You sure or not?”
“I very surprised someone call cab to go museum”
“You sure you local? Where got local people go museum?”

And then when he asked me what I did, and I told him I was a writer, he handled it with even less belief: “Maybe you Indian your culture very strong, last time you young your parents teach you play instrument?” “Where you catch the germ to do this kind of thing?”

It was clear at this point that he thought I was stark raving mad.

It is easy when you are a writer to spend your days in environments where things like writing and reading and stories are “Normal”. It’s easy to forget that while there is a momentous amount of good work that is going on to promote Literature and the Arts in Singapore, much of it still functions within the semblance of a bubble. Your everyday Singaporean, like my taxi driver, was unlikely to think it was of any real importance.

In this city, we’ve been told the story of the danger of survival so often that if something isn’t of practical utility or economic value, we often put it on a back bench. We forget about its importance. We think reading and writing and speaking well are soft skills. When it is pointed out that we are losing our edge, we “teach” creativity. But it cannot be “taught”.

Surely you cannot tell a child, “Here are some crayons, here’s a picture, I’ll show you which colours to use because those are the better, more striking ones, and oh make sure you don’t go outside of the lines, because we need to show this colouring to other people as proof of your creativity, okay?”

As the great artist Henry Matisse said “creativity takes courage” it has to have the room to grow, cultivate itself, breathe, think, experiment without the fear of judgement.

Is it any wonder then that I walk into classroom after classroom of students looking at me bewildered, anxious, asking repeatedly “so what’s the right answer?”

At this point I’d like to read a short quote from one of my favourite books.

Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters written by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Xaver Kappus a 19-year-old officer cadet in a military academy. Kappus corresponded with the popular poet and author from 1902 to 1908 seeking his advice as to the quality of his poetry, and in deciding between a literary career or a career as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army.

Rilke tells young Kappus: Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions
themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

In my classroom, I try to make space for the questions and for time to appreciate something for its worth without trying to capitalise on it. This means saying,“Let’s read a poem and focus on how being engrossed in it makes your breath stop for a while, or makes your heart gasp in surprise and let’s value that experience as a moment of beauty in your life whether or not it contributes to your ‘A’ Levels.”

What my students do not realise is, I am being sneaky. You can only be a good student of Literature if you are sensitive to language and you can only be sensitive to language if you learn to love it first. I find this applies to most other things in life as well.

I find that when you allow for questions and do not always press for answers, when you do not demand uniformity or conformity in responses, but rather make space for possibilities, it allows for a sense of humour and negates the idea of being wrong.

And this makes the only possibility of failure, the failure to engage or be a thinking,reflective individual. A far worse shame than failing a test or two in my opinion.

I am always heartbroken when I see kids who love writing, acting or drawing, and feel silly or guilty about expressing it because they fear it is not a useful skill. Or students who against their gut instinct pursue a Business degree because it is practical and doing a degree in Comparative Literature and Theatre is not.

In my opinion that is an epic failure in our system, and one for which we will pay dearly in the future if not rectified.

At the official opening of the 18th edition of the SWF last week, Grace Fu the minister of Culture, Community and Youth said: “There is a need for a Singapore literature that Singaporeans can interpret through the lens of their own experiences”, she added. “We should be able to read about places that we know and love. We should be able to recognise our traditions, habits, memories and figures of speech in the stories that become a part of us.”

The sentiment of this speech was beautiful, but what surprised me about this speech was the lack of mention that a massive amount of Singapore writing exists and remains unread, unheard of by the majority of Singaporeans. So there are many of us writing passionately about our traditions, habits and memories, but not many of us reading about them.

And while we may call to have our habits and figures of speech represented in Literature, three years ago when I wanted to teach Dave Chua’s beautiful novel Gone Case on the syllabus, the contention was still that there were Singlish phrases in it. What on earth could possibly represent our figures of speech more than Singlish?

Why is it that we cannot believe that we have all the resources we need to create the stories our children need? Why do we always doubt the value of our own voices and still instinctively turn outwards rather than within ourselves? And how amidst this, and for how long can our writers still keep trying to write passionately?

While the government is largely supportive of the Arts, which parent could honestly say that they would feel comfortable with their child trying to make a living as a writer in this country? In order for writers to flourish, we need to be seen as not just useful but vital.

And in order for writers to be seen not just as useful, but vital, we need to see that stories are as crucial to our survival as biomedical breakthroughs.

Ms Fu also said, “You see, we need our own Enid Blytons and Roald Dahls; so that our children grow up not just dreaming about jam and scones and tea and snowflakes and chimneys, but of Singapore hawker fare and of our HDB flats.”

I agree.

We are so impressionable and vulnerable as children to stories. They shape our world. And so, we need to understand the incredible power that stories have in shaping our young people, our mindsets and ultimately, our future.

One of my favourite social commentators, the American academic Roxanne Gay says this:

“I learned a long time ago that life introduces young people to situations they are in no way prepared for, even good girls, lucky girls who want for nothing. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods. You lose your name because another one is forced on you. You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”

Today’s theme is to Imagine Singapore.

An imagination is only as wide as the mind is free to roam. If we are always protecting our children, if we do not allow them to colour far outside the lines, read the stories that speak to them, whether these stories are about HDB blocks, or scones or penguins, create the stories that are urgent to them, if we cannot allow them to make mistakes and recover and not pay for them dearly, then we have no business promising them different endings.

If we cannot allow our children the space and safety to use their imagination, then we have absolutely no business asking the next generation to create a better possible world.

 

The Middle Ground thanks Ms Pooja Nansi for allowing us to reproduce her speech. 

Featured image Open up to imagination by Flickr user Ryan Hickox, CC BY-SA 2.0

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