The brutal truth about S'pore schools

There are good schools and bad schools, and there is my school.

I went to a neighbourhood school, but it wasn't just any neighbourhood school.

Oh no. It was the worst neighbourhood school in Britain.

To be given such an accolade takes years of dedicated exam-failing, a rigid schedule of truancy and locking the music teacher in the broom cupboard.

I know the last point to be true because I was locked in the broom cupboard with the music teacher.

Earlier during the lesson, I had heard rumours of the classroom bullies' plan of an insurrection.

They intended to keep the music teacher in the cupboard until he promised to bring out the drum kit.

After all, as every music teacher knows, if you're faced with a classroom of dysfunctional students, the best thing to do is bring out a drum kit and say: "There you go, kids, bang yourselves silly."

Being the most intelligent student in the class - no real achievement as one of my peers failed to secure a work experience position when he was 14 because he kept spelling his surname wrong on the application - I plotted my escape.

I considered telling the principal, but being dunked in a toilet bowl isn't much fun after the first five minutes. (My fellow students did the toilet dunking, not the principal. It was a bad school, but it wasn't evil.)

So, I improvised.

Moments before they shoved the teacher into the broom cupboard, I decided that I urgently needed a new exercise book from the broom cupboard.

My cunning plan paid off.

I spent several strange minutes in the darkness with my irate music teacher until the principal freed us by removing the dozen desks that had been wedged up against the door.

All the other kids had to copy Beethoven's biography by hand from an old textbook while I played with the drum kit.

And do you know, to this day, I still can't play the drums.

But that was a music lesson at my London comprehensive school.

When educational league tables were introduced in the UK, charting the best and worst, my London borough ranked bottom.

Within my borough, of all the regular comprehensive schools, mine finished last.

These league tables were first released the very year I attended university interviews.

During one interview, a professor heard which school I attended, expected to be mugged and handed over his wallet to save time.

School stereotypes stick like stale gum to a shoe.

So I took a keen interest in news earlier this month that Singapore's "academic powerhouses" are partnering neighbourhood institutions to prevent our top schools from becoming "closed circles".

As Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong pointed out in July, Singapore's public institutions must guard against elitism so that schools at both ends of the spectrum will collaborate on activities such as scouts units and overseas trips.

My first, childish reaction was to laugh.

I pictured private school prefects coming to my old school to organise a scout camp, only to be told: "Look, mate, this is how it's going to work. We'll sing your campfire songs. And then we're going to take those fancy trainers and you're going home in your socks."

That was the harsh reality of my neighbourhood school.

West Ham United once kindly sent a couple of reserve players to conduct a PE session and we initially refused to join in because the reserves had never played for the first team.

I can't begin to imagine what the reaction might have been if a posh lad from Prince William's world popped up and said: "Hello, poor people. Today, I'm going to teach you how to make traditional campfire fare.

"This is perfect for any of that leftover veal in the fridge. If you're out of veal, you can always use foie gras. Okay, gather round the fire, poor people, and try not to eat each other."

Of course, now I'm doing it, accentuating the social divide within the education system by mocking the "us-and-them" mentality.

In the last two years, I've given talks at over 20 schools in Singapore: primary, secondary, tertiary, neighbourhood, private and international (and I've been heckled at them all.)

But there isn't enough social mixing.

That's the brutal truth.

Singaporean schools suffer the stereotyping that plagued my academic career.

So the initiative is honourable, but the execution must not be patronising.

That means no looking down at anyone, no looking up at anyone and no locking the scout leaders in the broom cupboard.

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