When Mr Noor Isham Sanif became principal of Madrasah Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiah in 2009, it was already the top-performing Islamic school.
Still, the 48-year-old former vice-principal of Princess Elizabeth Primary School started applying strategies he had learnt from mainstream schools at the madrasah. Six years on, his efforts have paid off.
The Primary 1 cohort when Mr Noor joined the school received its Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results two weeks ago, producing the best showing by a madrasah.
Among them is Aisyah Nurul Izza, 12, who scored a record-breaking 269 - the highest aggregate score by a madrasah pupil. Overall, 98.4 per cent of 311 madrasah pupils who sat the PSLE qualified for secondary schools, up from 89.3 per cent last year.
The leading nine pupils from Al-Irsyad were also top across the four madrasahs that offer the primary school syllabus. The other three are Al-Maarif, Wak Tanjong and Alsagoff.
A heartened Mr Noor said: "It is a lot of hard work. We cannot stop trying and, as the principal, I have to walk the talk."
And so he did. A maths teacher by training, he stayed back a few days a week to coach weaker pupils in the subject.
"When the principal talks to pupils face to face, they will feel they are important too," he said.
The pupils who often said they were unable to complete the maths paper in time got stopwatches to time themselves. "Actually, all of them can do the sums within one minute, but they are not pushing themselves," he said.
Mr Noor made the teachers specialise in certain areas. "In the past, (those) teaching Primary 4 may also teach Secondary 4, but we saw that that doesn't work," said Mr Noor.
Al-Irsyad was not the only Islamic school that did well.
Madrasah Wak Tanjong had been barred from taking in Primary 1 pupils from 2012 to this year after it did badly at the PSLE.
In 2008 and 2010, it failed to meet a Ministry of Education requirement that madrasah pupils must not score lower than the average PSLE aggregate score of Malay pupils at the six lowest-performing national schools.
This year, Wak Tanjong scored an average PSLE aggregate of 197 - the highest across the four madrasahs, and well above this year's benchmark of 171. It will be allowed to enrol Primary 1 pupils again next year.
"Our strategy was to solve the problem that brought down our school's aggregate score. We had to help the weaker pupils," said its principal, Ustaz Mohammad Abdul Halim Mohammad Noor.
To raise standards, the school cut back on religious classes and hired external vendors to conduct enrichment courses. Weaker pupils were mentored by old boys and girls. "Our former students, some of them are in university now, but they came back each week to coach the weaker pupils," said the 53-year-old principal.
But madrasahs face other challenges, said Mr Noor. "The ustaz of the future must be good in maths, science and critical thinking, and (also) be very human," he said, referring to religious leaders. "We don't want to just meet the benchmark - we have to keep doing better each year."
This article was first published on Dec 9, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.