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Best among the rest

My brother is already trying to figure out what he should do about the next 15 years of his son’s life. The boy is just three and trying to grip a colour pencil properly in his hand and already the worry is: Which primary school? And later, which secondary school?
Is this primary school a feeder for the secondary school? Should the family plan to move in a few years time to be located nearby? Should it be a neighbourhood school which will give him a shot at bettering his mother tongue? Or a top-flight school which will ensure good academic grades? And maybe later, a through train programme that will turn him into a geek or a mission school which will equip him with better social skills. And what is this NUS Maths and Science school all about?
I look at the boy gripping his colour pencil and think to myself that I’m terribly lucky not to be him. And yet, terribly lucky that he has parents who think long-term. But what about his childhood – which even PM has said we should make sure our children enjoy? (I get worried that he is better at navigating the iPad than holding his crayon. Or that he prefers to stick to the gadget than get on his bicycle. Maybe for the new generation, that’s considered “play’’.)
So the new MOE direction that every school is a good school is something I welcome. Hopefully, by the time he’s ready to go into Primary One, the family won’t be too stressed about WHICH school, that is, if we believe the assurance that really, every school is a good school.
There’s some scepticism of course. You don’t need banding or rankings for parents to “sniff’’ out a “good’’ primary school. They will still be popular. And the “good’’ secondary schools are really those which offer the through-train programmes. In fact, I suspect parents, regardless of their childrens’ ability, would rather opt for a through-train programme because it saves them the hassle of “thinking’’. So the kid gets shuttled right through into university. No need to even think whether poly or JC. Life is fixed. (Thank goodness?)
The problem is the definition of a good school. No doubt, grades will count in parents’ estimation, and then, what else? Teachers who care? School activities that build leadership and foster creativity? How to tell? It will through the parents’ grapevine. The thing is, parents do not just want their kids in a good school. They want them in the best school.
I think a better idea is to reach for a geographically dispersed number of good schools at both primary and secondary level. So within each “cluster’’, or even each HDB estate, there would be one or two good schools that are acknowledged as the “best’’. The hope of course is that this would be happen “organically’’ without the need for special resources because the teachers and principal are at one in raising standards. But maybe not. Give them a leg-up in some way and then move those great teachers to the next school after four or five years or so. I don’t think there’s a need to make such “manipulations’’ public, or you have parents lining up after the schools that are picked for the experiment. Sneaky ah? Maybe even being done right now….
I have a vested interest of course. My hope is that when my nephew reaches primary one, we can look at a map of Singapore and see a whole lot more “good’’ schools dispersed and nestled even in the heart of HDB estates. Also, that top prizes in both academic and non-academic subjects are won by schools which are not among the usual list of suspects. That is, the “best’’ is scattered among the rest.
Also, I suggest we do away with this term “neighbourhood’’ school. Sure there are good “neighbourhood’’ schools but this line drawn between neighbourhood and non-neighbourhood is getting too distinct. I was told of students in a top-flight school who talk about “our friends in the neighbourhood school’’. It’s as bad as kids in private property who point out those who “live in HDB’’. The mindset shift may not be too difficult. Look at the way a polytechnic education is now seen as on par with a junior college education in maybe the space of a decade.
It looks like I am advocating more egalitarianism in the school system. All I want is to be able to say to my nephew in future is that you can shoot for the “best’’ school, but if you can’t, you can be sure you are in a good school.

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