On the Record: Belinda Charles, dean of the Academy of Principals, lifelong educator

On the Record: Belinda Charles, dean of the Academy of Principals, lifelong educator

Belinda Charles made her name as principal of St Andrew's Junior College and St Andrew's Secondary School. Today she mentors educators and principals as Dean of the Academy of Principals. (Photo: Belinda Charles)

SINGAPORE: Belinda Charles has spent her life in education, first as a teacher and principal and today as a mentor to principals. As a lifelong educator, the dean of the Academy of Principals has long believed that schools need to inspire students to keep learning all their lives.

But do schools today successfully do this? Is the love for learning killed by standardised tests, streaming and academic competitiveness?

Charles went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about keeping to her beliefs in today’s education system, where despite efforts to de-emphasise grades, academic pressure and the drive to get into top schools still remain.

They spoke about what needs to change in Singapore’s education system to effect a mindset change about the objectives of education, and some of the things she herself could have done better as an educator. 

Belinda Charles: We often focus on academic results and if we can’t make headway with our students, we wonder how we can teach the content better and we find ways to do that.

But from the way my students were in Bukit Batok Secondary School where I first started, and then in St Andrew’s Secondary School, I realised that the most important thing that we might have neglected as educators was to give students a sense of belonging to the school.

This really started coming home to me in my last few years when I noticed who did better in school and who did not. Also, when I was at the secondary school, I noticed some of the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) students were not behaving well and not only that, they trashed their classrooms.

It made me think: why are they doing this? And as I looked into it, I realised that at that time the culture of the school was the problem. My teachers would often think: “We would do better if we didn’t have these kinds of students.”

They may not have said it outright, but I felt that it was very possible that they, without actually saying it, communicated it to the students. It wasn’t that the teachers were not helping. It was just that they seemed not to be able to make headway.

That was when we started a re-envisioning. We said to ourselves that no one is here by chance, no one is here by accident which also implies that everybody who is here, should be here.

So then what is our duty to them? By talking about that, acceptance increased.

Instead of saying, “Oh, look at some other schools that don’t have these streams. That’s why they’re doing better and we are not.” Forget all that. Just forget all that. Just think about who these kids are. They’re already ours. Let’s treat them as ours.

It turned the thing around. The teachers’ attitudes changed. The trashing of the classes stopped. Students felt that they belonged, and then they began to see results. It was not just that of course. We put in programmes that would help them, et cetera.

But I really felt that it was about a sense of belonging and this is the thing I think we have lost. Somehow this is what makes parents so anxious. Parents are always thinking: which is the best school my child must go to? And they encourage them not to just be content with the school. It’s always this thing about “a better, a better”.

And you know what seriously worries me? After a time you are going to say this about your country. If you’re not going to be loyal even to your first community, how are you going to learn to be loyal to the bigger community and say this is mine for better or for worse?

Bharati: But parents surely are not wrong in wanting their kids to go to schools with a better reputation. Many doubt if all schools are good in Singapore. There is also a prestige attached to some schools that follows people into their working lives and in some cases gives them opportunities that others may not enjoy.

Charles: I’d definitely disagree that not all schools are good because one of the things I’ve been doing since I’ve retired is being a lead consultant in the English Language Institute of Singapore and for that, we do something called the Whole School Approach to Effective Communication and this was not so much about everybody speaking English well, but it was about learning how language promotes your understanding of each subject.

As a consultant, I would have to visit the schools and these were ordinary schools with no brand names and the creative things that the teachers were doing really, really impressed me. The top schools didn't seem to do so well. 

They regularly understood this one wrongly because they prided themselves on speaking well. So for them, it was all about speaking well whereas we had gone a long way from that.

It was not about speaking well, it was about speaking so that you could understand your math, you could understand your sciences. It was not just about diagrams. And that was something that even some of our so-called better schools, I think, would have benefited even more from or maybe they took it for granted that they could do it because the students there came from families who were already speaking very fluently in English. In the other schools, it was not taken for granted. And it was really marvellous - the things these schools came up with.

When it comes to teacher dedication, there is absolutely no difference. In fact, I also hear other things from some of the schools where tuition seems a bit more prevalent. Very often the teachers themselves say: “You’d better go for tuition”. Whereas with neighbourhood schools you never get this because the parents can’t afford it. So I noticed in the neighbourhood schools, the teachers are very dedicated to make up for this.

"We also need to realise that once we stop worrying about which school the child ends up in and if each school is able to value-add, you don’t need to be so worried about that grade," says Belinda Charles. (Photo: Belinda Charles) 

FEAR AND INSECURITY FUELING STRESS

Bharati: Some might say certainly the schools can’t fully make up for the deficits and certain schemes seem to serve the haves more than the have-nots. We’ll talk more about that in a while, but since we are on the subject of tuition, while some studies show that all things being equal, tuition doesn’t really have an impact on results unless you really need extra help with a subject, those who come from more well-off families do tend to have an advantage in terms of access to enrichment outside school. Of course, people are within their rights to do whatever it takes to give their children the edge, but many say it’s impossible to do well without tuition. What do you have to say to that?

Charles: I think there’s a level of insecurity and fear. If some of the students in the class have tuition, then everyone else feels they should too, to have an edge. The problem is, when many students go then even the teacher gets affected. When she teaches students who already know the stuff, they are bored and she can’t manage them. Then she has to think of something else to do. Then those who don’t have tuition feel left out.

But some of my highest points come from the successes of my students from not well-endowed homes.

It was not about the tuition. It was about the support given to them by their Co-curricular Activities (CCAs) and the teachers believing in them. We need a culture of acceptance and encouragement in schools for all children. 

We need to communicate this better to parents and teachers.

Now there’s a rush to get into schools with the Integrated Programme (IP). You see, why the Ministry of Education (MOE) allowed some of them to do the IP was because we also do not want to neglect the students who are very intellectually endowed. It was to give them six years of development, not interrupted by too many exams so that they could really stretch themselves. I think there is something to be said for that because let’s not neglect that group of students.  

But I think there are others who need a lot more help and those actually need the exams to bring them up to the level because while some are just either just very bright or they are very disciplined, there is a large number who if they have exams, they would study hard, but if there wasn’t an exam, then they may not.

It’s about fit.

Bharati: But of course, there’s a lot of judgment as well: If you’re in the IP or a brand name school, you’re better than everyone else. Otherwise, you’re average or even inadequate.

Charles: We need to start thinking about things differently. Parents also need to understand that it shouldn’t be a case of: “I must get my child into those so-called brand name schools because they have the IP programme.” Their child may not flourish in that programme. It’s about fit. It’s not about good or bad. If the child gets in but can’t cope, what do they do? They send them for tuition. We need to see that there are many routes to university today. I know of many O-level students who would then go on to Poly and then to university and it’s fine. It’s just a different route. It’s not good or bad.

We’ve always had a Raffles school and in the past, there was always this unabashed understanding that the best go to Raffles. And so if you went to Raffles, people would say “wow” but in the past, it wouldn’t be many people because there was only one Raffles and there were the rest. But today there is Raffles plus a few other such schools. And then people will say: “Huh? You can’t even get into all the others?”

I hear of parents who are embarrassed and they come back and either nag at their children or scold their children and say: “You see, even so-and-so whom I thought couldn’t, can get in. Why can’t you?”

That gives the child this horrible sense of inadequacy. These are some of the things that our schools, our more ordinary schools try and repair.

As an individual, you can decide what’s important. So you could say you want your kids to go to a school because you feel that it teaches the right values. It could be different for other people. That’s what I suppose as individuals we can start doing, to say really, ultimately, my child will clear all these things and find his way. He will be sufficiently well-resourced. I believe all schools here are. It’s what you make of it.

"We need a culture of acceptance and encouragement in schools for all children," says Belinda Charles. (Photo: Belinda Charles)

RETHINK THE “SCHOLARS’ SYSTEM”

Bharati: There have been government initiatives to recognise and reward people based on their skills and capabilities rather than their paper qualifications. What’s the next step in truly changing mindsets about education and a person’s worth and undoing some of the damage done in the earlier years?

Charles: We need to rethink our government scholarship system - the PSC (Public Service Commission) scholars and so on. We started it with the understanding that we needed thinkers and we really need to make sure that they are given that time, that space to be developed, so that eventually, they will lead the nation.

Nothing wrong with that. But after a time, I think parents also could see that if you were a scholar, you had a lot more advantages. The original intent was not so much for the advantages. It was more to give them that space and time to think. But now it’s become about the advantages that scholars get such as priority employment in the civil service.  Promotions may come more easily too. Their future is secured.

I think parents started to feel that their kids need to be scholars or at least go to schools where a lot of these scholars come from so that their futures would be secured. Then, their job as a parent is done. Not that we don’t need scholars, but somehow we’ve got to re-calibrate some of the things.

Bharati: The civil service is re-looking that and has said that efforts are being made to reward based on skills and capabilities. But when you say, “re-calibrate”, tell us in what way?

Charles: I’m not really sure. It’s about the reward system once you are a scholar.

There is still this unspoken expectation that because he’s a scholar, he will be given opportunities more so than others. You don’t give people equal opportunities. This increases academic pressure.

Bharati: Some might say a scholar deserves more simply because he did better in school and is bonded to the organisation. 

Charles: But do they always deserve the opportunities? In schools, when scholars are sent to us as teachers, some will do as expected and they will do well and they are really a bonus, a merit to us. But with some, we noticed, they couldn’t even teach. They definitely have the intelligence, but they couldn’t teach. And then this is when we, in schools, have had to say: “No, find something else to do.”

We should look at value-added schools. It’s very difficult to add value to people who are already so bright. But when an ordinary child becomes better, that’s value-add. A school that can add value is a good school.

Bharati: But the labeling will still be a problem, will it not? Why not just have all schools take in students of various abilities? The Finnish education system has been lauded for its ability to provide a decent education without too many standardised tests, too much competition or streaming. Why can’t this work for us?

Charles: I personally feel that it’s about the fact that we’ve already got into this system of streaming. So if we keep chopping and changing like in some other countries, we are not going to get very far. So we need to take what is good and remove what is not so good. I would say streaming had been very effective when it first started in the 70s.

Bharati: In what way?

Charles: It cut down the attrition rate of students - people leaving school without a full secondary education because streaming allowed us to sort the students according to their pace of learning and the teachers could then match it. We changed the curriculum for those who were not managing. People stayed in school as a result. At least it kept them off the streets. I think the original intent has been forgotten.

CHANGE THE LANGUAGE OF ASSESSMENT

Bharati: I understand that there might be positives to streaming but there are also many negatives - the labeling, for instance.

Charles: I think that subject-based banding might be something that will eventually take over. That helps each child maximise their potential in each subject individually, hopefully without the labels. The idea is to go back to helping children more in areas they are weak and helping them push further in areas they do well.

If they take different subjects at different levels of difficulty, the lines will be blurred and the labeling might go. It’s time to restore students’ sense of self-worth starting from a sense of belonging to the school. Because with that comes also a big push for CCAs and you find that they can be easily leaders in sports, in uniform groups and that might give them that confidence to be a bit more focused on their studies as well.

Belinda Charles with her colleagues, welcoming students on the first day of school in 2009 at St Andrew's Village comprising the primary school, secondary school and JC. (Photo: Belinda Charles)

Bharati: A lot of people also take issue with the PSLE. Do 12-year-olds really need to be put through something like that? Sure, the grading system has changed but some parents and students feel the pressure remains because it’s tied to which secondary school you end up in.

Charles: I think it depends on what the original intention of PSLE was which I’m not privy to because that was a policy decision. I’m sure it wasn’t meant to brand the rest. But it was meant to see how far some students can go. But there is always this delicate balance and if we could understand it as assessing readiness rather than seeing it as “this makes me dumb” and “this makes me bright”, then the stigma will go away. We could describe it as readiness for the next level of school and understand that eventually, the child will find his way. 

It’s because unfortunately after that exam, you get posted somewhere. So it’s linked, right? Where you are posted to then describes what you are.

Bharati: Are tests even the best way of gauging readiness? Readiness to go to the next level of school maybe, but there are many types of readiness and we’ll talk about readiness for the working world and life in just a while, but some experts say where a child is at and his readiness to go to the next level can be gauged through everyday assignments. There’s no need for high-stakes exams. What do you think?

Charles: Yes.

We need to talk about the language of assessment in schools. It shouldn’t be about judgement of a person’s calibre. 

We are doing this thing called formative assessment, but it’s been tough. Formative assessment means it’s not about just assessing where you are at. It’s about going deeper, meaning if you haven’t understood this part, let’s try and work on it. No labels. So it’s not a matter of right and wrong. Maybe this can be strengthened and taken forward to see if there’s a need for the PSLE for this purpose.

Bharati: How much of this did you do when you were teaching and heading up schools?

Charles: I think this was something I did not do enough - communicating with them in a different language of assessment. I definitely did not do enough and I only realised it when I’d retired and had the time to think, which is a horrible admission to make. It’s a regret. I didn’t engage parents enough. I always saw them as a “they versus me”. Didn’t take them on board enough.

Bharati: In what way would you have liked to take them on board?

Charles: I’m not talking about those who stepped forward and made the complaints. I’m talking about those who didn’t step forward and so I never engaged them. And I felt that that was really something I could have done a lot better and engage them so that they were with my teachers in preparing their children and counseling their children.

In a parent-teacher meeting, usually the parent comes in and he sees the results and it's like, “Oh, okay. So what am I supposed to do about that?” So they’re not being helped. We should engage them right from the beginning. To see themselves as partners and then the next important question the teacher would have to ask would be: “How can I help you and your child with this part?”

Bharati: We talked earlier about possibly not having standardised tests and any type of streaming. Some experts have suggested putting students of mixed abilities together in the classroom and encouraging collaborative learning instead. You said that we can’t chop and change. But why not, if it’s a better system?

Charles: I think that’s a great idea, but in a class of 40 it might not turn out so ideal. Simply because it’s messy.   

Bharati: If it’s collaborative learning and teaching, the stronger students in the class can help the process along.

Charles: Yes, I’ve noticed some schools have done this very successfully; they started something called a circle. Automatically the teacher will say, “okay, circle time,” and everybody knows to go back into their circle and they do that. So what I’m trying to say is, you need these structures, you can’t just tell the teacher, now you do this. The school leader has to put in those structures. Maybe then we can start moving towards mixed-ability classrooms.

The reality though is if you bring something new into the schools again on top of all the other new things, it gets very overwhelming for the teachers. The teachers are just tired out, so what we need to do actually is to put things in so that one builds on the other.

Bharati: Perhaps class sizes really need to be reduced.

Charles: I think we‘ve got to work with the reality and I still remember discussions about reducing class sizes. It would seem simple. All you need to do is get more teachers. The student population is smaller now, but after a time if you’re going to have that many small-sized classrooms, you’re going to have no graduates left for other fields and you can’t impoverish the country that way.

There is also the other problem which is that we are succeeding with these large classes.

Bharati: Are we really succeeding? This takes me back to something we talked about earlier – the question of a child’s readiness and readiness for what. Both teachers and students complain about the pressures and while we have an education system that produces high averages, do we produce students who can think independently and who love learning? Employers complain that those who graduate here generally aren’t very confident or creative. So are they really ready? Are we really succeeding?

Charles: True. Those are valid questions, but there is research coming out that it’s not the size of the class. You can make the class small and if the teacher is inept, it still doesn’t work.

Bharati: Sure, but you indicated that mixed ability classrooms would be hard to manage if the numbers are large. By virtue of that, if we were to seriously consider a paradigm shift in terms of how students are assigned to classes and streams, in addition to ensuring a holistic education, shouldn’t smaller class sizes be considered?

Charles: Right now, in classrooms with greater needs, we do see a ratio of 1:20. Perhaps that is something we can move towards.

Bharati: The other major stakeholders are of course the teachers whose workloads have been an issue. 

Charles: Yes, we wish our teachers had less of a workload because we are also recognising that they have their share of elderly parents and parents with dementia, as well as of course their own children. The word has also gone out to school leaders not to just take on everything just because it looks good. And some principals are pretty good at ring-fencing their teachers. A lot of it has to do with school leaders. They have to learn to say “no” sometimes.

Belinda Charles with colleagues at the Youth Olympic Games at St Andrew's Village in 2010. (Photo: Belinda Charles)

SCHOOL RANKINGS PREVENTED CREATIVITY AND INDEPENDENCE

Bharati: What can they say “no” to?

Charles: It all depends. I think a lot of it depends on the principal’s personal philosophy. Some go really big on having an overseas interaction with other schools because they build up their students that way. It’s not that any of these things are unnecessary. It’s about where the season of the school is at. But you have to pick the right projects and consider the realities on the ground before saying "yes" to every project just to make the school look good. You need to do what you’re doing well, not just high-profile projects that might compromise the foundational things such as creativity within the classroom and independent thinking.

Bharati: I mentioned earlier that business people have said that local students they hire tend to lack creativity as well.

Charles: I agree. I’ve noticed this as well. Now that we don’t have school rankings, things should get better.

Everybody was very, very anxious about the ranking so much so that teachers took on the responsibility of learning for the student.

Bharati: And that prevented children from learning creatively?

Charles: Yes, if you teach the student how to do it, that is a more fail-safe way of ensuring they get the grades, then your school ranking will not fall. Teachers took more and more of the burden of the learning on themselves. So for example, they are the ones that chase after the homework. They might ask the student to stay back in school and do it under their eye.

After a time, what does the student think? “No need to do homework at home because my teacher is willing to stay back with me.” The parents are so grateful, but it’s taken away all that independence from the student.

Bharati: Have things gotten better since the rankings were done away with?

Charles: That’s very, very difficult to reverse because after a time, they didn’t realise they were doing it for the ranking. It became the norm. Then it became the parents’ expectations.

Bharati: How do you think this mindset can be eradicated?

Charles: It’s really tough because that is the thing that is stopping the creativity, because if you don’t have to think, then when do you get the practice in thinking?

I suppose it’s only when teachers have the time to think and make a decision to do it differently. Give the students a chance.  Teachers say, not wrongly, that they don’t have the time because there is all this curriculum to do. I know MOE says they have lightened the curriculum. But sometimes my teachers say that they have lightened the curriculum but if you lighten it by not teaching one part, then they don’t really understand the next one so well. So we still have to spend time relooking at this.

So we are trying it out. For example, in the actual PSLE, they have open-ended questions. And in fact, teachers are noting that a lot of students don’t do well in that one because that one needs thinking. So it’s going to force them to have to think.

In Singapore, assessment is the tail that wags the dog and so we live with it and we use the method of assessment to change the teaching. They are slowly changing.  

Maybe it’s also about re-educating both our parents and our teachers - getting students to go out of the classroom to feel things. In fact, this was a favorite complaint of the architect Dr Tay Kheng Soon.

He spoke at one of our conferences and chided us. He said: “What are you teaching your students? I have undergraduates coming to me and I ask them, ‘What’s the weight of a brick?’ And they look for a weighing machine. How come they don’t know the weight just by the feel? I’m not asking for the exact weight. Why aren’t they willing to estimate?”

Bharati: Could be a fear of getting it wrong, an obsession with getting the right answer.

Charles: Yes, and also because we are no longer in touch with the tactile.

STUDENTS NEED A SAFE ENVIRONMENT

Belinda Charles celebrating with her student from the winning rugby team at St Andrew's Secondary School. (Photo: Belinda Charles)

Bharati: So clearly, teaching methods need to change. Based on the situation today and the fact that old habits seem entrenched in the system, how do you think this can happen sooner rather than later?

Charles: I think it comes back to what I was talking about earlier – a sense of belonging, not just in school, but at home too.  These places need to be a safe environment where you see the students as your own and you do the things that will help develop them holistically, not just in terms of grades.

The home must be really a safe environment, instead of parents outsourcing a lot of it to different kinds of caregivers. The domestic helper is a kind of caregiver. Tuition is a kind of caregiver. Sometimes it’s outsourcing it to the extent that they never talk about these experiences with their child. When there isn’t that talking that makes the child feel they’re part of this family, they are never going to get that security and without that, it is very difficult to get creative because there is this sense of fear.

You can’t just ask whether they’ve done their homework or what their grades are. This pressure for grades is damaging.

Recognise, like I said earlier, that there are many routes to success. You only think creatively when you think you don’t have anything to lose. I think many experiments have shown that. That once you put in stress or fear, somehow people just don’t think creatively anymore.

Bharati: Structurally though, what do you think needs to change in order to make it easier for everyone, the teachers, the parents and students to breathe?

Charles:  I think it is actually about involving many more people in the educational process. I saw this really interesting idea again from Tay Kheng Soon where he said schools should be situated right in the heart of neighbourhoods, surrounded by neighbourhood businesses and civic centres.  In fact, schools should be in the middle of it all. The mom-and-pop shops should be downstairs and the school upstairs so that there are always these staircases running up and down. Students can go down for the real experience where the shopkeepers can also keep an eye on them. There needs to be a sense of community. Students can learn from businesses about real-world experiences.

If students feel they belong to the community, they’re also more likely to think of creative solutions for the problems within the community. It’s about involving more people, starting with parents and involving the community. 

At this point, the neighbourhood schools are best poised for it because they are near the community. Some of the other schools are somewhere far away and don’t seem to belong to their community.

Bharati: This might help the neighbourhood schools but if the other schools were left out, it would just reinforce the stratification of society, wouldn’t it?

Charles: I think the schools themselves recognise it. So I know they do have very intentional efforts to make their students go out to the community. It’s just that it’s not going to be as easy as for the neighbourhood schools.

Bharati: This raises an issue we touched on earlier – people from better socio-economic backgrounds have advantages, end up in certain schools, resulting in stratification. Some measures have been taken to open up so-called elite schools, but is that enough?

Charles: You have a lot more work to create that desire to do it.

THE HAVES AND THE HAVE-NOTS

Bharati: If we went with a system where every school is a good school, and we have people of diverse strengths and socio-economic backgrounds in each school, won’t we be better off?

Charles: I personally feel there isn’t an easy answer because we have an existing system. I think as a priority we’ve got to strengthen our neighbourhood schools - strengthen them with the sense of something they have rather than making them feel like they are the have-nots.

Bharati: Speaking of that, some have remarked that the system favours the haves more than the have-nots. Even schemes like the Direct Schools Admission (DSA) favour the haves because they’re the ones who can afford music lessons, sports tuition, etc, in order to increase their chances of getting into schools they want.

They can afford Gifted Education Programme (GEP) prep lessons. While you say all schools are well-resourced, there are some things a school can’t offer those who can’t afford such opportunities on their own. Do we really need such schemes if they’re going to mostly favour a particular group?

Charles: These are the unintended consequences.

But if we were less obsessed with getting into those particular top schools, there won’t be unhappiness. Not all schools in the DSA are brand name schools but people are obsessed with those only.

Again, we need to rethink the way we think about these things. It’s about fit.

Bharati: In terms of a child’s development though, while the playing field between the haves and have-nots it seems can’t be completely leveled, how can the disparities be minimised? Is there some way the school system could make up for the deficits aside from offering financial assistance to the students who come from poor families? Some have suggested that all schools be able to offer art and sports enrichment, etc.

Charles: That’s a question of resources. I believe you can get a good education in all schools here, but these extras – vendors could come in to provide them. Maybe we need to go back to the concept of community – people need to be encouraged to chip in as well.

Bharati: Going forward, what do you think the education system needs in order to stay relevant, not just academically, but also in terms of developing students holistically, in a way that promotes a love for learning and not just an obsession with grades?

Charles: I think we need to work harder at changing the language of education and what I mentioned earlier – the language of assessment. Schools need to speak more with the parents and we need to talk about more than grades during these conversations. Let’s talk about values, about being fair, being honest, being nice to people. The academic lessons will come and go. There needs to be a closer partnership to help the child instead of judging the child. We also need to realise that once we stop worrying about which school the child ends up in and if each school is able to value-add, if you make your choices a lot more flexible, you don’t need to be so worried about that grade. That’s when learning can take place and there can be a love for learning.

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