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Commentary: P1 registration changes – what would it take for us to believe ‘every school is a good school’?

The unnecessary stress over Primary 1 registration can be mitigated  if we resolved to make “every school is a good school” a reality, says June Yong.

Commentary: P1 registration changes – what would it take for us to believe ‘every school is a good school’?

A teacher and her students in a primary school classroom. (Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY)

SINGAPORE: It is safe to say that when you ask parents what is a “good” school, most, if not all, will name a school with a brand name – somewhere not easy to get into, has a storied alumni and churns out great results.

But if you check out Education Minister Chan Chun Sing’s Facebook page, you’d find a Woodgrove Primary teacher dressed in a bear suit, dramatising scenes from the beloved children’s story, We're Going on a Bear Hunt.

According to his post, dressing up is common at the school as students are encouraged to bring their own props as part of the Applied Learning Programme.

Doesn’t that sound like a good school too?

COMPETITION FOR PHASE 2C

I thought about this when recent changes to the Primary 1 registration process became the subject of most Whatsapp chat groups over the weekend. Parents have pored over the announced move to discern the implications for next year’s enrolment exercise.

The hive mind has concluded that combining Phases 2A(1) and 2A(2) and shifting 20 places from the new Phase 2A to the proximity phase (Phase 2C) will naturally mean that parents with prior links to schools face the uncertainty of being squeezed.

Some say this will compel more from affected groups to move within 1 km of their school of choice, so their child has one more chance of applying for the school.  

Punggol Primary School. (Photo: Google Street View)

For prestigious schools in the Bukit Timah or Bishan districts, there is already a natural barrier to entry: A hefty property price tag to qualify for Phase 2C.  

For a 1,000 sq ft condominium in Bukit Timah, you’d be looking to fork out over S$2 million, compared to half the price for a place in Punggol.

The 1 to 2 km radius policy has already created a vicious cycle, where “high demand for places at prestigious schools drives up prices of nearby homes, with well-to-do families snapping up these flats,” according to a 2018 TODAY report.

Changes to the registration system, meant to allow more to study somewhere closer to home, is unfortunately likely to oil the wheels of this cycle even more.

OPPORTUNITIES TO THRIVE IN NON-BRANDED SCHOOLS

Parents say they have little choice but to participate in this rat race to give their brood the “best start” but we do have options if we cared to look.

I gave up my alumni seat at a good school because it was further away from our home. Instead, we enrolled our children into mission schools at Phase 2B on the basis of our church affiliations. On hindsight, it was the best decision we made.

My girl’s current school is hardly oversubscribed; at Phase 2C there are ample spaces to accept both citizens and permanent residents. Despite the school’s underwhelming popularity, my daughter thrived under the guidance of some very caring teachers.

Although she began her educational journey a shy and quiet girl in class, she was given opportunities to step up and serve, culminating in her selection into the prefect captain team this year.  

A friend also shared a similar story with her daughter’s school, which she chose for its proximity to home and religious values. That there was no history of balloting in this school was a plus for her.

She tells me her girls had a lot of nurturing and fun in the school: “The teachers really go out of their way to organise interesting and fun activities each year, including post-PSLE activities like movie outings and trampoline sessions. Because it has ample spaces at Phase 2C, my kids have had classmates from Myanmar, Korea, Australia, India, Philippines and Vietnam.”

These anecdotes are likely replicated across thousands of families who looked beyond the traditional marker of what a good school entailed.

We can probably find such uplifting examples from prestigious schools too. But if we don’t hear of such stories from lesser-known schools, we’d just assume it doesn’t exist.

Listen to three working adults reveal how their PSLE results have shaped their life journeys in a no-holds barred conversation on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:

THE BRANDED SCHOOL MYTH

A friend who has taught in both lesser known and well-known schools tell me the biggest myth parents have about getting their kids into a "good school" is that they would automatically excel.

But the reality is the children who enter prestigious schools typically receive more tuition and home support.

Let’s also not just judge a school solely by the grades that it produces.

After all, school isn’t just about doing well, but it’s also about being well, which is where positive relationships with teachers and peers come in.

We all know how critical teachers can be to our kids’ educational journeys and know one or two educators who have been pivotal – regardless of school status – so shouldn’t parents start looking at who their kids will be spending time with rather than where?

According to the American Psychological Association, a student who feels a strong personal connection to her teacher, talks with her teacher frequently, and receives more constructive guidance and praise rather than just criticism from her teacher … is likely to trust her teacher more, show more engagement in learning, behave better in class and achieve at higher levels academically.”

HELP “NEIGHBOURHOOD” SCHOOLS DELIVER REAL AND PERCEIVED VALUE

The questions remain: Do we just not buy into the mantra that “every school is a good school”, in their own ways? Is there a way to enable more schools to become “good schools”? And to help lesser-known schools get onto the radar screens of parents?

Perhaps by investing more in such schools, developing niche CCAs, beefing up its teaching and support staff, or even having smaller class sizes to make them more attractive, we can help parents look at them differently.

For example, Horizon Primary features an interesting Applied Learning Programme in Computational Thinking in Mathematics, which allows students to develop coding skills and deepen their understanding of mathematical concepts through block-based programming. 

Students there also get the opportunity to learn about Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in the school’s Learning for Life programme.

Going beyond allowing each school to have a unique selling proposition, we could also consider giving them a social media boost.

Instead of waiting to be featured on the Education Minister’s social media, schools should be resourced to build their own online presence.

A kid spends time on a computer (Photo: Reuters) File photo of a child using a laptop. (Photo: Reuters)

Take a leaf from Anderson Primary’s Facebook page, where the school’s Primary 4 Bully-Free Ambassadors were recently featured sharing their vision of a bully-free school.

Real-life stories like these that go beyond highlighting academic grades and co-curricular achievements help to make an impression on parents’ minds.

They also help remind us of the broader goals of education.

If we can help every school develop and profile the good work they are doing – going beyond grades to spotlight the quality of relationships within the school, and confidence and well-being of students – perhaps parents will be emboldened to navigate away from their narrow ideas of what makes a school good.

QUESTIONING NAMES AND LABELS

If you are a parent who will enrol your child into school at some point, remember that there is no real way of discovering a school’s unique strengths and weaknesses, and you’d have to rely on hearsay, which is often based on perception rather than facts.

Prestigious schools may have the “value-adds” of a large alumni network and secondary school affiliation, but all schools do have exemplary teachers and students – and positive stories that arise out of these relationships.

If more can be done on the ground level to help these schools build their reputation and reach the right constituents, there could be less jostling for spaces at every phase.

And instead of all the stress created in gunning for branded schools with limited places, we can finally shift our attention to the wonderful schools scattered around the island.

June Yong is a mother of three, a freelance writer and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl

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