Good principals for neighbourhood schools: Sir, please define “good”

Good principals for neighbourhood schools: Sir, please define “good”

By Howard Lee

It is heartening to hear Education Minister Heng Swee Keat announce that good principals would be transferred to neighbourhood schools to make every school a good school. While a single principal alone does not make a school, it is a step in the right direction.

But what worries me most about Mr Heng’s announcement is that it lacks the necessary details to properly define what this “good” is supposed to be.

I came from a “neighbourhood” secondary school. If there was one person that I remembered, it was the principal. Stocky in build, Mr Chong was larger than the many students who tower over him. He was also running a school notorious in my time for gangsterism. He never repainted his car – “because tomorrow, there will be another scratch!”

Mr Chong was draconian, to say the least. In my first two years, hardly a month goes by without some student receiving public caning during assembly. But he was also nurturing. He identified my class as the change-makers, and set the pace for the best the school can offer – teachers, subject combination, opportunities at non-academic enrichment. It was strange to see his stern countenance break into a charming smile every time he sees one from his “favourite class” – he made no effort to hide his favouritism, a definite no-no today.

He also bucked the trend for what should have been a “holistic” education. Instead of stressing good grades for every subject, my school was realistic in knowing we might not even pass in some. So focus was given to the mathematics and science subjects, while the humanities suffered from lack of rigor – and strangely, I enjoyed them more than other subjects.

His methods paid off. Everyone in my class went to either a junior college or a polytechnic, and I attributed it to the turning point in the school, which is today known as one of the top “value-added” schools.

Junior college was another interesting experience, this time with a principal no less radical. Mr Chia took a look at my results, and saw that my ‘O’ Level passes better suited me for the Science stream, even though I barely qualified for the Arts stream. “You give it a try for three months, and let me know if you still want to go back to Arts,” he said. I was aghast – I was possibly the one responsible for dragging his Science intake to a dismal 18 points that year.

But Mr Chia seems not to care for academic performance. He believed in building a school culture that brings out the best in every student, even if that best is not necessarily to raise the national academic standing of the school. Every student that knocks at his door was one who needed a second chance, and he gave it willingly.

His won both rapport and respect from his students, and he never fails to chat with his “kee-noo-ists” (canoeing team) when he passed our way. And who could forget him telling students to stay off the grass patch – “Give the poor grass a chance to grow!” How apt.

Why do I share all this? Because in today’s context, Mr Chong and Mr Chia would likely break every ideal model of principal you can find. Yet, I would not hesitate to call them good principals. Their attention is on the well-being of every student. They gave their all even if they risk being unpopular – to students or to the Ministry of Education. And they believed that an education is not always about getting the best grades. It is about building stout and believing hearts.

Are theses the same qualities we want in our next generation of students? Mr Heng seems to agree, when he opined in his speech at the National Young Leaders’ Day this year: “My hope is that you see school as a place where you excel not just in the academics enabling you to compete with the rest of the world, but also where you learn to develop a heart that feels for others and burns with a fire to want to make a difference. That is how I see our schools develop our young people.”

Does this definition of a good student match what a good principal, in MOE’s terms, can deliver?

There was a time when even the education system was not spared the drive for performance in the public sector. School ranking was used as a benchmark for determining how well schools perform, and this by extension was also an indication of how well school staff performed. The School Cockpit model was created with much of this as its basis of evaluation.

Then came the layers, where additional qualities such as sports and culture were promoted as a means of creating “all-rounded” students, without any slack given to academic rigor. Schools were expected to perform in all aspects of delivering this “holistic” education. So we hear nasty stories about how students were allowed a place in schools for their sporting prowess, but were kicked out once they won the medals and before they could take the final exam.

We cannot blame MOE for this administrative decision. There must be some way to recognise principals and teachers who have done a good job, promote them and give them recognition, so that they will stay on and continue to serve. But the error was in using a bureaucratic, results-based formula to grade a system that should really be focused on many intangibles and variables.

Would a system that has for far too long graded schools, principals and teachers and identified the best among them based on academic results, now be able to identify the best based on anything else?

Even Mr Heng struggles with that. In the dream he outlines for an average student: “With each secondary school having a signature Learning for Life Programme and a signature Applied Learning Programme, to complement its strong core of Academic and Student Development Programmes – every secondary school can provide for our students an education that is broad and deep, and that prepares them for life. Every school will be distinctive.” (emphasis mine)

It does not seem likely that the excessive focus on academic success, as typified by tuition being the norm among students, and shockingly recommended by teachers, would be offered a reprieve.

As such, would this latest effort to make every school a good school be merely an effort to diversify demand for the best academically-performing schools? Only time will tell.

Perhaps there is still hope that, among the many principals who make the cut in Mr Heng’s best, there would be more than a few Mr Chongs or Mr Chias.  I wish not to lionise them, but there is a lot to learn from their playbooks.

Because this much is clear – we need a proper relook of our education system, so that it can really put the well-being and abilities of individual students first. It is a problem that resides at a much deeper policy level. If identifying the right principals can help revise this exhausting trend of results-centric achievement, then it is a step in the right direction.

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