Mon, Sep 14, 2009
The Straits Times
School spirit keeps Victoria diehards going

By Mavis Toh

How far will you go to preserve the 'family spirit' of your alma mater?

One group, old boys of Victoria School (VS), went to the extent of writing to ministers, setting up online petitions and Facebook groups, and calling a press conference.

Four years ago, they objected to a proposal to turn the school co-ed.

Recently, they were upset again after affiliated school Victoria Junior College (VJC) wanted to enrol Secondary 1 students.

At the crux of the present brouhaha is this: VJC wants to attract top primary school pupils by accepting them - both boys and girls - at Sec 1 and taking them through a six-year programme to the A levels.

VJC submitted its proposal to the Ministry of Education (MOE) last month. It currently enrols students from Sec 3 for a four-year integrated programme (IP).

The old boys oppose the initiative for several reasons. If VJC gets its way, they fear it will vie with VS for the same post-primary cohort and hence 'split up the family'.

Also, the Old Victorians' Association (OVA) told The Sunday Times it is all for a VS-VJC merger as long as the school's heritage is preserved and VS remains a single-sex school.

OVA president Vernon Teo, 41, said the group is especially 'disappointed, saddened and puzzled' as to why it was not properly informed and consulted before VJC's submission.

VS started as an English class in Kampong Glam Malay School in 1876. Over the years, it moved to Victoria Street, Tyrwhitt Road and the present Siglap Link.

It attracted students from all walks of life and produced three presidents: Mr Yusof Ishak, Mr C.V. Devan Nair and Mr S R Nathan.

Today, the 133-year-old school is the only all-boys government school left and is a top boys' school.

VJC, an idea first mooted by Victorians, was set up in 1984 after the late MP Dr Ong Chit Chung, an alumnus, submitted a proposal to the MOE. It has always ranked as one of the top JCs.

In 2005, after a proposal was floated for VS to become co-ed, then OVA president Teo Ser Luck organised a forum for the involved committees, alumni, teachers and principals.

Mr Teo, 41, now Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Community Development, Youth and Sports, and Transport), attributes his leadership qualities to his time at the school, and said Victorians are a 'bonded and vocal bunch' who readily contribute time and money generously to the school.

'The school spirit has always been very strong. We would cheer our schoolmates in everything, from those involved in the band to drama to sports,' recalled Mr Teo, who graduated in 1984.

Mr Vernon Teo, the managing director of an events management and production company, who took over as OVA chief in 2007, said he continues the fight to keep the school's heritage.

Besides holding two more dialogues, he wrote to Education Minister Ng Eng Hen last month to explain why the association is against the expansion of the JC's IP.

He has also called a press conference and, last week, penned an open letter to the Victoria Executive and Advisory Committee (VEC/VAC). The Sunday Times understands that this 18-member body, which includes old boys, can offer its views on the policy decisions of VS and VJC.

Mr Vernon Teo said previous meetings had led to an agreement that OVA be consulted on major decisions by VS and/or VJC, especially regarding the implementation of any IP.

He added that the OVA had not been consulted on VJC's recent proposal, even if the move was apparently backed and supported by the VEC/VAC. He wants to know if there was a voting process and, if so, what the outcome was.

'My question is, before the proposal was made, had they consulted enough parents, students, stakeholders and old boys,' he said.

He graduated 25 years ago and spoke fondly of the times he sneaked into the school's Jalan Besar campus after dark with fellow boys for 'ghost walks'.

'It was there we built our character and grew from mischievous boys into young men,' he said.

Another Victorian, Mr Teo Yang Song, 55, agreed that VJC's proposal would split the family. But if the proposal passes, he wants VJC to stop using VS' badge and song.

The senior executive building officer has been voluntarily coaching the VS soccer team for the past 12 years. He met his wife there, when they were in the school's co-educational pre-university classes, and his eldest son, 28, is an old boy too.

Meanwhile, a Facebook group set up to protest against expanding the IP now has about 2,200 members. Also, all 60 comments posted on a website OVA launched to gather views on VJC's proposal were against the idea.

But one old boy, engineer William Tan, 57, does not care. He said: 'The education landscape has changed, the principals should do what's best for the students. Retaining heritage is not everything.'

When contacted, VJC principal Chan Poh Meng said that since 2005, VJC and VS have actively engaged OVA members, former students as well as the VEC/VAC to discuss extending VJC's IP to Sec 1 students, including a possible merger with VS. Several meetings were held, he added, before the proposal was submitted to the MOE.

Meanwhile, the OVA has three suggestions: a merger with centralised management; a collaboration with an all-girls school to provide students for the IP; or setting up an all-girls school within the Victorian family.

Said Mr Vernon Teo: 'We just want to look after the interests of the family.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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