Few months ago, we were in the process of looking for a Secondary school for our elder boy. He has done considerably well for his PSLE. Though we can’t claim much credit for his results, we did put in effort in finding a good school for him.
Despite MOE’s goal to make every school in Singapore a good school, our own experience showed that the reality is not quite as such. Each year, the heightened anxiety during school registration might be a good indicator to support our sentiment.
We didn’t know any better 7 years ago and we just went for a school that is nearest to our home. It was quite a popular school in our neighbourhood probably due to the awards the school had clinched and the past years’ PSLE results of students. It was then that I realised that different parents may have very different judging criteria for a good school.
I was the parent who questioned when my boy brought home too much homework or when they were not allowed to run in the field during recess time or when they can’t buy a bottle of mineral water from the drink stall because the school doesn’t sell them. That was despite the school being in the Healthy Meals Program. Apparently, sweet drinks made it into the school’s list of healthy drinks but not mineral water.
Our experience with our boys’ school has given us a clearer idea what to look out for when choosing a school. But the truth is, to really know the inside working of the school, we have to go beyond reading the schools’ vibrant web pages and glossy pages of the schools’ journal.
While MOE’s website has given a good list on what makes a good school, the question lies with how well can schools achieve those goals.
We went through the grey handbook that was given to every Singaporean kids registering for Secondary 1. It gives the list of schools in every part of Singapore and all the CCAs and special programs offered by different schools. The book gives a good summary of what each school offers but little about what we really need to know about the schools.
We decided to visit some of the schools and eventually it was these visits that helped us decide on our 6 choices of schools to put in his posting form.
Here are the 4 things we look out for in a school that goes beyond A* and PSLE cutoff point.
Trust and Respect
During our visits, some schools welcomed us onto their premises when we told them we were considering putting our kids in the school and wanted to take a look around, others were suspicious and unwelcome. We understand the need for security in the school, but what threat can a mother with two young kids in tow pose to a school during the December holidays?
We believe that a school with a culture of trust and respect can be observed through the non teaching staff in the school, from administrative staff to security guards and general cleaners. When students grow and learn in an environment where every individual is trusted and respected, the same attitude will be cascaded down to the students. If the general belief is that students are pesky troublemakers, they WILL be pesky troublemakers.
A Caring School
Are school decisions made through careful consideration on what is the best for the students, guided by a consistent value system and principles? Or does the school implement (MOE) policies but fail to achieve the intent of the policy? Does the school hold itself to its own values? Does the school pay lip service to what it says it will do?
For example, I think it is futile to teach students the school’s values by doing worksheets. Can we teach leadership skills and values by having the students do more worksheets? Don’t be surprised that some schools actually do that. As parents, we teach good values by modeling them and setting good examples. We make tough decisions based on our values in our everyday lives and during our daily interactions with the children.
I believe that a school that cares enough will also put some thought into the kind of food they serve in the canteen. When students are expected to spend long hours in schools, I would think that schools have the responsibility to give students the option of buying healthy food during recess and lunch.
The selection of food in my kids’ Primary School is dismaying. Our request for a microwave to be placed in the canteen so that children can bring their own food to heat up during recess was turned down. Speaking to the school and Health Promotion Board people who came by to audit the school canteen proved to be futile in improving the quality of food sold in the canteen. I learned about the problems faced by the school and stall holders. I concluded that the school either lacks interest or believes in different things.
My advice is, check out the food in the canteen when visiting the schools. The rule of thumb, if you think you wouldn’t eat there, why should we expect the students to do so.
One of the things that we want is for schools to empower their students. Empowerment makes the students take charge and take ownership of the things that they do. However it can be risky because things can go awry and the school ultimately needs to take responsibility. It can also be scary for the student because it forces them to try something new, go outside their comfort zones, and they can fail. Failure, can be scary, but a necessary ingredient to success. After all, we only learn how to walk by falling countless times.
During one of the visits to my son’s current school, I was taken aback by a student’s speech. He had said something which I thought wasn’t really appropriate. The principal later clarified that he did not vet through his speech and had only given the student a few pointers on what to talk about.
The principal gained my admiration because of how he chose to give his students free rein to do his speech. I see a principal who values the learning experience of his students over the image of his school. How many principals will risk having his students give a lousy speech that will make his school look bad?
This is probably hard to tell from a walk-in-visit but a school that often let its students be in charge of school’s event such as open house and orientation might be a tell tale sign that the school is unafraid to let the students make mistake and learn from their mistakes. Both failure and success build learning confidence. When students feel confident about decision-making and feel recognized as capable by the school, they gain the confidence and skill to “take” control of their own learning.
There are many insights that can be gleaned by simply talking to or observing the current students. Are the students generally negative or positive about their school? Are the students proud of their school and its values? Do they come forth to defend the image of the school? Do they behave themselves in public? Students who behave themselves even when their teachers are not around show a high level of maturity and self discipline. Sure, there will be outliers but the trend will always tend towards the mean.
And I think our intuition about my son’s Secondary school had been right. Just 3 months into his new school and my son has everything good to say about his school. It is a big contrast from his 6 years of experience in his Primary school. What his Primary school couldn’t achieved in 6 years was accomplished in 3 months in his new school.
His current school invested significant resources to organize orientation and school camp within the first month of school year. I think the investment had paid off. It fostered camaraderie amongst the students, created a common sense of identity and ownership. Though still new to the school, my son feels that he belongs to the school and is also responsible to uphold the school’s values. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your children is in good hands and that you have a found a partner to journey through this turbulent teenage years.
Our experience with our son’s new secondary school has given us hope that making every school a good school is achievable. However it is only possible under a capable principal and a team of dedicated teachers. Like any organisation, it takes good leadership with effective execution skills and sound strategy to bring vision to fruition.