But we want our schools to be closed, elite schools

By Anonymous Old Lady

I refer to Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat's speech at Hwa Chong, where he said top schools cannot turn into closed, elite schools.

As a retired teacher who has taught in at least four different schools, I can tell you that it is every school's aspiration to be a closed, elite school, just like Raffles Institution, Raffles' Girls Schools, Hwa Chong, CHIJ St. Nicholas', Methodist Girls' School, Singapore Chinese Girls' School, etc etc.

In the elite school where I once taught, the students are very self-motivated and disciplined. Disciplinary cases are rare and often minor, and teachers can focus on their work. Every year, our national exam results would be much higher than the national average. What's our secret? It is really easy: accept only good students. The better the quality of your intake, the better your chances of delivering results for the national exams. Students who are bright and self-motivated will find a way. Of course the teachers work hard too. But the key reason of success is still the raw quality of the cohort. Few leaders want to admit it because it makes them looks redundant and less important to their supervisors. But buy them enough alcoholic drinks, you will soon get the truth. Without a good quality intake, the school will nearly always produce mediocre results.

Do elite schools teach well? The truth is, beginning teachers at elite schools are no better than their peers who are posted to rotten, neighbourhood schools. But at the elite schools, the teachers are swarmed with school work, CCA and department duties. In notorious neighbourhood schools, on top of similar duties with teachers from elite schools, teachers have to firefight everyday with students who use vulgarities frequently, are disrespectful, and have to waste precious professional time dealing with disciplinary issues and teaching normal technical students. After a few years, the professional gap between the two groups of teachers widened. One group gets stretched academically and learns more content knowledge, the other group has to pick up motivational skills to teach basic skills to students with serious attitude problems.

In the problematic schools, where the school's cut-off points are low, teachers turnover and absenteeism rates are high. The teachers are depressed and demoralized from dealing daily with students who are dishonest, disrespectful and defiant. A number of the school leaders are also pretty incompetent, and prefer to take shortcuts by driving teachers with the whip - threats of giving 'D' or C- grade for work review. And when quality of results dip due to low morale of staff and consistently low quality of yearly intakes, the school leaders drive even harder with more threats and longer working hours.

After years of trying, most teachers and school leaders conclude that the only way for the school to really improve is not train their teachers further or overhaul their teaching methods. Rather, they would seek to improve the school's results year by year, and from there, gradually raise the cut-off point [through greater demand] and prevent the highly dysfunctional students, who are often the lowest quality students, from gaining entry to their schools.

I had an ex-colleague, a very talented English teacher, who left our school years ago to teach in a neighbourhood school. Nearly the entire department laughed at her behind her back. We all wonder how was she going to cope, teaching in a school where the police "visits" the school on a regular basis, students are vulgar and defiant, and fights are common. It's a totally different world from our school. You know why her previous school was better? It's simply because the school's banding is high enough that does not accept have to accept this sort of students anymore! It's that simple. It's the hard truth.

Look at all the elite schools today. They all do not have normal stream students. The entry bar for their school, based on their long history as an elite school, ensures that the riff-raff students will never be able to get in. That's the real best practice that any good school aspires to do. Raise the bar so high so that the riff-raff cannot get in.

Real Madrid and Manchester United did not become the best by taking in weak people and training them up. They take in only the really good, and with some proper coaching, make the really good players even better.

I am writing this to highlight to you how deeply entrenched elitism is in our schools. Go look at the number of parent volunteers at the popular primary schools. Nearly all of them are not serving for altruistic reasons. They are all there to ensure their kids have a better chance of entering an elite school where demand is high, which serves as a natural filter and keeps the riff-raff out. Most of their intake are students from better families who are intact, less dysfunctional and are more likely to afford tuition and other enrichment programs. So, the chance of the cohort excelling in their PSLE 6 years later is very high. It's the same for secondary schools and junior colleges. Raffles JC does better than Innova JC for the A-levels yearly not because RJC has better teaching methods. It's simply because RJC already has a good brand name that attracts RJC-quality students every year.

Hope this bitch-slaps you into reality. Every good school, and every school aspiring to be a good school, wants to be an elite school closed off to as many disadvantaged and dysfunctional students as possible.

This was reproduced with permission from editors of The Real Singapore.


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