SINGAPORE: With eight siblings at home and his mother the sole breadwinner, money is always tight for 17-year-old Nur Alamin Yusri and his family. To supplement the family income, he decided to work part-time two years ago.
He was then a Secondary 2 student at Bukit Merah Secondary.
“I felt we were a burden to my mother, which is why I decided to reduce the burden on my family,” said Alamin, who took on odd jobs such as working as a banquet server for weddings, or at fast-food restaurants.
But the late nights soon took a toll on him, and his school attendance began to slip. Often, he admitted, he would prefer to stay at home where he would play games, and he showed up at school about twice a week on average.
“It was difficult to wake up, especially after I got into the habit of sleeping late, and I also had to take care of my siblings,” he said. “I also felt that school was boring, and I got stressed when the teacher went too fast for me to follow.”
But fast forward two years, and Alamin’s now in Secondary 4, with an almost-perfect attendance record for the year and hopes of going into a business services or fitness-related course at the Institute of Technical Education when he graduates.
And he recalls with a grin that it was a “learning journey” on a bus that brought him to where he is now.
A LEARNING JOURNEY ... BACK TO SCHOOL
It all started with a knock on his door one morning. It was his school’s student welfare officer, Muhammad Erwin Othman, who had showed up to bring him to school.
“I thought maybe we’d be taking a taxi to school, but I came down and I saw a bus,” said Alamin. “There were other students in it too. And I thought, what is this? A learning journey?”
The bus forms the centre of Bukit Merah Secondary’s efforts to tackle long-term absenteeism, as Mr Erwin explained. The initiative, which is called the BUS - or Bring U to School - programme, was launched two years ago and saw the school use an actual school bus to go around the surrounding areas and pick up students who failed to show up at school.
“Honestly, we were running out of ideas, and we thought, maybe it was a transport issue,” said Mr Erwin. “Then one of the year heads just said, ‘Let’s get a bus and drag them all to school'.
“That’s how it all started.”
The bus typically leaves the school at around 8am, after the attendance for the day has been finalised. About five staff members - including Mr Erwin, some teachers and even school leaders at times - are usually on board.
They use the time on board to build relationships with the students and motivate them, before returning to school. Students are then given a quick brunch before they go back to class.
“Sometimes, the doors are opened by parents, sometimes by the students, and sometimes they purposely don’t want to open the door,” said Mr Erwin. “So we try and coax them to come out, and if the parents are there, we’ll tell them that we’re here to help, no judgement involved.”
The school also involved its leaders such as the vice principals and year heads to mentor the students who may need help catching up with their peers in their academics.
“The students were more focused and less playful, and I think they saw that the school leaders actually care about them,” he said.
Today, the school has seen a marked drop in the number of students with irregular attendance. From 17 students earmarked for the bus programme in 2017, the numbers dropped to 12 in 2018, and this year, there are only about 6 or 7 students on the list so far. Due to the lower numbers in 2019, Mr Erwin said the school has switched to using taxis instead - but the acronym remains.
“Our priority is to help the students, and if they’re not in school, how to get help? So we just give them that structure, that habit of actually coming first, then we build up on that,” he said.
PARENTS, FAMILY ENVIRONMENT A COMMON THREAD RUNNING THROUGH THESE CASES
Like Bukit Merah Secondary, other schools already have existing programmes and support structures in place to help deal with the issue of long-term absenteeism. For example, St Andrew’s Secondary runs an after-school engagement programme with a similar concept to that of a drop-in centre, where students can use facilities like pool tables, foosball tables and game consoles. The programme also provides academic support and organises activities such as barbecues to engage the students.
At a broader level, student welfare officers such as Mr Erwin have been deployed by the Ministry of Education to support schools in their efforts. Mr Erwin’s duties, for example, include looking out for and befriending students who have issues coming to school or are chronically absent, working with their families or other community partners and overall, finding ways to assist them in coming to school.
Long-term absenteeism is a problem that has been in the spotlight recently. In October last year, the Ministry of Education convened an inter-agency task force that aims to strengthen support for under-performing students from disadvantaged families, in particular by tackling long-term absenteeism and drop-out rates in schools.
Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah chairs the task force, which is known as UPLIFT. She explained that the task force is part of the Government's ongoing work to reduce inequality and boost social mobility.
It will release its recommendations in the upcoming Committee of Supply Debate.
As Ms Indranee noted when she first announced the task force, the reasons behind long-term absenteeism are complex. But student welfare officers who spoke to Channel NewsAsia point out a common thread among the cases they have seen: Parents who may need help themselves.
READ: More coordination among agencies, schools needed to help disadvantaged children, says social services sector
Mr Austin Oon, a student welfare officer at St Andrew’s Secondary, pointed out that a “significant portion” of the boys who are referred to him have divorced parents or parents with poor spousal relationships.
“When you talk to the parents, you can see it’s not a happy family,” he said. “I understand that most families won’t be perfect, but you can see there are issues at home.”
“Parents are usually the strongest allies ... but the parents themselves can be in difficult situations and may need the help themselves,” he added.
Mdm Tiffany Yan, a student welfare officer at New Town Primary, pointed out that she has come across parents who are “too involved in their own lives” or do not have the time or energy to take care of the children”.
And at the primary level, she said, the role of the parents is especially important.
“The children are very dependent on their parents, especially the younger children in lower primary,” she said. “At the upper primary level, we can still work with the child and it’s easier to motivate them when they are old enough to come to school on their own.”
“Some children have told us that they actually want to come to school, but there was no one who could send them to school,” she added.
“And once they are allowed to do what they want and play till late at night, it gets harder and harder for them to catch up in school.”
Another major challenge raised by Bukit Merah Secondary’s Mr Erwin is that families who may need financial assistance are often unwilling to acknowledge that fact.
“I think some families may look okay on paper, but there are underlying problems that the family won’t share because face is important to them,” he said. “So sometimes they may qualify for help, but will choose not to go for it.”
“So we have to balance all their needs and their fears,” he added, citing an example where he and his team accompanied a student’s mother to get her CPF statements in order for her to get help.
“But once we did it, she refused to sign it, because she was scared it would affect how people would view her or her children,” he said. “It took awhile for us to persuade her … but once she signed it, the child got tuition, the family got help, they are doing very well and there are no issues with attendance.”
PARENTS NEED AFFIRMATION TOO
The importance of reaching out and building relationships with parents is one reason why, according to Mr Oon, his school works at building relationships with parents right at the start, before issues begin to crop up. For example, the school works with the parent support group to organise a coffee club which holds activities such as parenting seminars and sharing sessions for parents to support each other.
“Knowing parents early is easier for us to make the first step,” he said. “Subsequently, if there’s a need to engage them at a deeper level or to report bad news, it’s easier if you already know them.”
He also stressed the importance of affirming and validating family members when things go right.
“Can you imagine every time the school calls, it’s going to be bad news? Sooner or later you’re going to block that number,” he said.
“But sometimes, it would really help when, after talking it through with the parents, you call and tell them that their boy is coming to school, there have been no complaints and he’s paying attention in class … this will validate the parents because they need support too.”
It is for this reason, therefore, that Mdm Yan hopes that the task force will reach out to parents and give them support in their parenting skills.
“There are actually a lot of programmes and resources available for parents in the community, but I think sometimes the parents may not be aware of them, or may not be motivated,” she said.
“I’ve always hoped there will be some sort of compulsory workshop for parents, so they know what is important for their children.”
In the area of financial assistance, meanwhile, Mr Erwin hopes that more flexibility can be given to families who may not have all the necessary paperwork.
“A lost IC can cost S$300. I don’t think all of them are able to afford that fee,” he said. “I also have some families who have lost their children’s birth certificate, so they can’t even get help from the schools.”
Looking ahead, he also hopes that more can be done to reach out to disadvantaged families to reassure them that help is available - without any judgement.
“It is a fact that we are here to help, not to judge,” he said. “And their children will not be taken away from them.”