Friday, August 23, 2013

On making “Every School a Good School”

Each year in Singapore, hordes of anxious parents apply to a handful of established “brand name” primary schools to register their children as students.  It is a stressful time for these parents, as there is fierce competition to enter into the few brand name schools available in Singapore.

Many parents believe that brand name schools provide their children with better education, better academic grades and better opportunities in life, compared to the unbranded neighbourhood schools.  Few parents want their children to start their education at “unbranded” neighbourhood schools, which are often perceived as inferior, and as a result, the primary school registration exercise often leaves many of the neighbourhood schools nearly vacant, while the brand name schools are oversubscribed.  At the recent exercise in 2013, Hong Kah Primary School had only 23 pupil registered, Qiaonan Primary School had 30 pupils, and Bedok West Primary School had 35 pupils.

The parents’ belief that brand name schools are superior is pervasive, even though the primary schools in Singapore do not hold entrance exams for registration, and the new students are not tested for and sorted according to the academic ability.  There is no evidence to show that the new students in a brand name school are superior to those in an unbranded neighbourhood school, merely by virtue of their being registered in the brand name primary school.  All things being equal, it is arguable that the academic potential of the new students in each primary school is comparable.

This problem of selective primary school registration is so acute that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took pains at the recent National Day Rally to assert that “every school is a good school”.  It is doubtful however, that the Prime Minister’s assertion, and his government’s proposed minor tweaks to the primary school system, would do anything to change most parents’ mindset that only the brand name schools are good.

So here’s a radical proposal on how we can make every school a “good school”:  how about encouraging the brand name schools to acquire the neighbourhood schools?  For example, the Anglo-Chinese School (“ACS”) – which is considered a “brand name” school – can acquire Hong Kah Primary, and rename it as “ACS (Hong Kah campus)”.  The Nanyang Primary School – another popular brand name school – can acquire Qiaonan Primary, and rename it as “Nanyang Primary (Qiaonan campus)”.  These brand name schools may then introduce their branding, education methodologies and even teachers to these branch campuses, and conceivably raise the prestige and education standard of these neighbourhood schools.  This would also allow the brand name schools to reach out to a far greater number of students than before.

The concept of multi-campus schools is not altogether unknown – a few schools, such as ACS and CHIJ, already have successful multiple campuses.  But why limit branch campuses to only these few?  Let’s allow and encourage all the brand name schools to acquire the neighbourhood schools.  Neighbourhood schools may be eventually phased out, and rebranded and madeover as brand name schools.  Kiasu parents may then be assured that their children have at least attended a “brand name” primary school.  All the present stress and frenzy of registering for limited places in brand name schools (including parents’ attempts to manipulate the school registration system for preferential treatment, such as by volunteering at schools, or moving closer to the schools etc.) – all that can be eliminated at a single stroke simply by changing the name of a school, since every school would then be a “good school”.

What do you think?  Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?