Pioneer educators lauded for their legacies

Pioneer educators lauded for their legacies

In Singapore's post-war and post-independence days, education was a tough business.

Teachers were posted to outlying islands, even as far as remote Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, then administered by Singapore. Principals abolished class rankings to get rid of unnecessary competition, despite strident opposition from teachers and parents.

Last Thursday night, some 700 of these pioneer principals, teachers, Education Ministry officials and staff attended a tribute dinner organised by the Ministry of Education at the Fairmont Hotel.

They were lauded for their legacies and for inspiring new generations of teachers.

"We stand on the shoulders of giants and through our collective hands we hold the future of the nation, and build on the firm foundations you have laid," said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in his speech at the dinner.

Three of the retired principals and superintendents who attended the dinner told The Sunday Times their stories.

Rookie teacher on a remote island

In the 1950s, some teachers were posted to schools in Pulau Tekong, a trip that required a bumboat ride from the mainland followed by a bumpy car ride or a sweltering 2km trek.

Others, like Mr A.N. Balagopal, were sent even farther. In 1954, Mr Bala, as he is popularly called, had to travel to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean as a 24-year-old rookie teacher.

He had volunteered for the post, hoping to do a master's degree in Australia after that.

The remote 135 sq km island was administered by Singapore at the time. Some 2,000 people lived on it, mostly ethnic Chinese workers and ethnic Malays from the Cocos Islands. "You had to cross the Sunda Strait into the Indian Ocean and it was very choppy," Mr Bala, now 84, said. "It took over three or four days."

Once there, there was no phoning home. Telegrams could be sent in an emergency and letters were posted home on a ship that arrived with supplies once a month.

The waters were shark-infested and, in the rainy season, the seas could be rough.

"One day, I was in a sampan catching fish when I saw a triangular fin sticking up - it was a 6m shark! We threw away all the fish and cabut (Malay for ran away)," said Mr Bala.

There were just six teachers at the primary school there. There was no secondary school.

When he came back to Singapore in 1956, Mr Bala taught at several schools, including Bartley Secondary School and Victoria School, and was principal of Commonwealth Secondary School.

"I was very sad when Christmas Island was given up to Australia in 1957," he said.

"Today, how many children know that Christmas Island was once part of Singapore?"

Leading the way in ending class rankings

Two years ago, the Ministry of Education decided to stop releasing the names of Primary School Leaving Examination top scorers to reduce stress and competition among pupils and their parents.

The move had a little-known precedent. Nearly 40 years ago, then Haig Girls' School principal Nanda Bandara simply did away with class rankings so that pupils and parents would not compare their results with classmates'. "It was very unhealthy," Ms Bandara, now 76, recalled.

"Many of them came to fight for a mark or half a mark." One mother, she remembered, scolded her daughter for losing 1½ marks because of careless mistakes.

"She took her umbrella and beat the child...That proved to me that it was not healthy. Even as a science teacher, I advocated, don't worry about the marks.

Don't compare your results with somebody else's; just do better than you did yesterday."

But removing class rankings was unpopular with both teachers and parents, till they began to see its benefits.

For instance, children strong in one subject began helping their weaker classmates. Haig Girls' was, as far as Ms Bandara knows, the first school to abolish class rankings.

The practice slowly spread, and today, few if any schools give class positions.

Ms Bandara, who retired as principal of Raffles Girls' Primary School in 1999, then helped set up the Singapore International School in Jakarta, and officially retired in 2007.

Of removing PSLE top scores, Ms Bandara said: "I think it's an excellent idea. You don't need to compare with what other people do."

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