Monday, November 19, 2012

Choosing a Secondary School in Singapore

Sometimes when some parents speak, they don't realise how embarrassing they sound.  It's natural for parents to want to say the best things of their own children but we really have to be realistic.  However great our kids may be in our own eyes (and I admit we parents do look at our kids through rose-tinted glasses), we have to refrain from saying what our listeners know to be blatantly untrue.  Many parents talk shamelessly about how their sons refuse to go to Raffles Institution (RI), the nation's unparallelled top school, but they should be sure that their kids qualify for RI in the first place.  It's like someone saying he rejected Oxford and Harvard and chose to do a degree in a private commercial school in Singapore which has a link to some outback Aussie university.

At least five different persons have brought to my attention an article in last Saturday's Straits Times.  Speaking of our own kids to friends is one thing but to make bold statements on the national newspaper without checking the facts first is really something one should avoid at all costs.   Here is an excerpt (the 3 segments should be read as one - I merely separated them because I screen-saved them separately):

As the people who pointed this article out to me knew perfectly well, Mr Madduri is badly mistaken.  His son did not choose Bukit Panjang over RI because with a score of only 258, he could not have qualified for RI in the first place.  The cut-off scores for RI in the past 10 years have never gone so low as 258.  Please don't get me wrong.  I'm not by any means saying 258 is a low score.  "Low" and "high" are relative but 258 is not a score RI would consider for admission.  He may have qualified for Hwa Chong in a bad year but even then it's rather iffy.   He certainly more than qualifies for ACS(I) which has a low cut-off score for students of other schools and an even much lower cut off score for students who are from its own feeder primary schools.

So, let's set the record straight.  Mr Madduri's son did not qualify for RI and so he could not have chosen not to go to the school.  You can't CHOOSE not to go to a school that you CAN'T get into in the first place.

Next, Mr Madduri said something that I find offensive but I can readily forgive him because I know he's speaking from utter ignorance about RI.  This is what ST says:  "He (Mr Madduri) would like to see a better mix of children entering top schools, not just those with top scores and from privileged backgrounds".  This is not the first time I have heard such a ridiculous remark.  It really gets my goat because it is so blatantly incorrect and untrue and it always comes from the lips of parents who want very badly for their kids to get into a good school but they sadly don't qualify.  I can only speak for RI and from what I know of RI, it has students who come from all walks of life.  I have given the facts to support this in another post of mine: CLICK HERE

I can't deny that RI is where children with top scores go to.  That's what the nation's top school is for.  That's how RI can be a school that sets world records in all the major disciplines of academia.  Unlike some schools (or at least one particular school I know but will not mention by name), RI does not take in children from a privileged background only.  In fact, RI is status blind and I know that for a fact.  It only takes in students with splendid scores, or to be precise, it only takes in the nation's best.  It need not apologize for this because it is fulfilling a duty to the nation - it has successfully placed Singapore on the world's map of academia. And it's not just in academia that RI excels way above the other schools, not just in Singapore but all over the world.  I have written at length on this with facts and figures in another post on this blog and if you are interested, please click here.

I now want to tell a little tale about my own personal experience.  Some of my readers will know that I have a lot of questions about my own religion but that's a separate issue altogether.  Notwithstanding the doubts I have about supernatural matters, when it comes to the church, I am an extremely devout and faithful communicant, having served it for as long as I can remember from being an acolyte to being a Sunday School teacher and I continue to serve the church today and will serve it for as long as I live.  My church runs many schools in Singapore and my children went to these schools for their primary school education.  It was all along assumed in my family that my kids would continue to study in the secondary schools run by my church.  I remember reading in my church magazine a long time ago an admonition from my bishop that we the faithful should ensure that our kids studied in a school run by the church.  I remember the first day of my son's Primary 1 and how comfortably he settled in because, as he told me, they sang the same hymns that he was familiar with from Church and from kindergarten which was also run by my church.

I had every reason to ensure that my son went to a secondary school managed by my church.  I knew nothing about other schools then.  And then came the PSLE which wasn't too much of a stress for my son because the cut-off score for the secondary school run by my church was extremely low.  There were two schools of my church to go to.  One had a very low cut-off score and the other was unbelievably much lower.  Most students go to the former and if they do really bad in the PSLE, they will go to the latter.  I was also advised by a fellow church-goer who had a boy older than my son that if my son should do badly and his score was below the cut-off score of that better school, all I had to do was to give a cheque of $20,000.00 for the school building fund and my son would be accepted into the school.  In fact, that was what she did for her son.  I did my fatherly duty and gave my son all the advice he needed for his PSLE but there was no stress at all because it was a given that my son would be continuing his education in the secondary school of my church.

Then came the PSLE results and it so happened that my son did well.  The parents of the other top students gathered together and I was surprised to discover that almost all their sons were going to RI.

Not having gone to school in Singapore, I found it very hard to decide which school was the right school to send my son to.  I had all along thought the school of my church was the only school he should go to.  It's been many years now and I'm older and wiser and I know what the system is.  The school of my church is the right school to go to if my son had done badly in his exams.  That is why in every year, the top rung of students with excellent scores from the primary school of my church would go to RI and the second rung of good students would opt for Hwa Chong.  The remainder stayed with the school of my church.  That's the rule of thumb with hardly any exceptions.

It was also much later that I discovered that the principal of the primary school of my church who had throughout my son's primary school education been telling parents not to send their kids to RI if they did very well had himself done what he had preached against.  He had got his son into RI through the Sports DSA.  For students who can't make the rigorous academic grades expected by RI but who excel in sports, they can apply to RI through the Sports DSA (Direct School Admission).  I also discovered that the then principal of the secondary school of my church that I had thought of sending my son to had himself a son who was studying in RI.  In other words, the principals of the schools of my church, while discouraging parents from sending their sons to RI, are doing precisely that with their own sons.  Obviously, we can only afford to have loyalty to the church (in so far as schools go) if our sons don't qualify for RI.

When my son was in Secondary 2 or 3, I attended a Christmas party of a fellow church-goer.  At the party, there were 3 or 4 boys from the secondary school of my church who were my son's friends.  After the party, on our way home, my son told me something that really shocked me.  The boys were talking about another boy in their school who didn't do well at all in the school exams but he was promoted to the top class.  One of the boys explained that it was because his father had given a large donation to the school.  My son was puzzled because this never happened in RI.  RI is a school that is very much organised like the Singapore Government which is based on pure meritocracy.  I have seen an important government Minister attending a talk for parents and because he was late, he had to find a seat somewhere behind in the hall.  In the schools of my church, important people would most certainly be given red-carpet treatment.  RI is just so clinically non-discriminatory.  They do discriminate but the basis of discrimination is always pure merit and that's what any school or for that matter, any institution should practise.   Whether the boys were correct about the school putting students in good classes because of their parents' donation is immaterial.  If the boys in a school can come to such a conjecture, it speaks volumes of what sort of morality the school teaches its boys.

I've heard a lot of negative things about RI from people in my church, all of which are simply not true.  Excessive competition among the boys is a common complaint by people whose sons couldn't make it to RI in the first place.  I can say for a fact there is absolutely no such thing in RI.  I once saw my son reading something in his email and when I asked him what he was doing, he said he was reading the study notes prepared by the top boy in his class.  I looked at the carefully prepared notes and I was impressed.  The generosity of the good students in RI, their willingness to share and the superb education that ensures that all boys are not just world-class academics but also gentlemen of honour all assured me that I did the right thing about my son's choice of school.  If you read in the papers about a fight among the schoolboys in a rugby match, you can be sure RI isn't one of the schools involved.  To be honest, my son learnt more about morality from RI than he did in any institution run by my church.

I don't want to offend people in my church or Christians generally.  I am not making any disparaging remarks about the church which I revere and submit to.  But some of the institutions run by my church are in a pretty bad state and they might want to take a leaf from RI's book.  If we Christians don't say a thing when schools run by our church are leading our children down the wrong path, are we not accountable to a higher authority for our culpable silence?

There's now a great deal of talk about revamping the PSLE.  I fear Singapore is heading in the wrong direction if it does that.  I've examined carefully what parents want and it's amazing.  What they really want is for their sons to be able to get into RI as if the air in RI will benefit their sons in some miraculous way.  RI can only be a good school to go to if it remains the school where only students with the very best PSLE scores are admitted.  RI is an empty shell without its top students.  It's not just RI.  Every top notch academic institution has to restrict its admission to only the best.  Imagine what a mediocre university Harvard would be if it opened its doors to students with mediocre results.  Do parents complain that it's an elitist university and the only right thing to do is for it to allow students with average grades to enrol?  Of course not.  If the finest universities want to remain the best, they have to exclude the less deserving students.

All the more so for secondary schools.  As I have explained in the other blog posts I have linked to, we can only have truly effective teaching if students are divided according to their academic abilities and powers of comprehension.  Mixing academically poor students with strong students is not going to help either group of students.  You will only confuse the poorer students and slow down the better students.  If your child has a PSLE score of 270, RI is of course a good school for him.  But if he has a PSLE score of 260, RI may not be the right school for him and he's probably better off in Hwa Chong.  That is not to say that Hwa Chong is a bad school.  As far as academic results go, it's the next best school.

As I have explained in my earlier blog post, Singapore actually stumbled upon a winning formula when it started the PSLE.  It's the PSLE that determines which secondary school a student goes to.  And it seems to be the right gauge of a student's academic ability, as the amazing success of RI has demonstrated. 

Ultimately, we parents want the best for our kids.  The best for our kids can only be the school our kids are most suited for.  Such a school may not necessarily be RI. 


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    1. Hi, I'm glad this post has been of help to you. I wish you the very best as you further your education.

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