Late, but keen to learn

SINGAPORE - When classes started at New Town Primary School earlier this month, one Primary 1 pupil was especially glad to be there.

Amir is eight and had missed out on Primary 1 the year before because he had not been registered.

If not for the intervention of the Singapore Children's Society and the Ministry of Education (MOE), he might have missed going this year as well.

"I felt bored not going to school," said Amir.

He added that he had envied other children in school because they were surrounded by friends.

Amir's case is rare, but not unique. Every year, the MOE sees five or six cases of children who were not registered for primary school.

When TNP met Amir and his mother, who wanted to be known only as Madam Sofia, at a playground in the Commonwealth area recently, he was running around with his seven-year-old sister, also in Primary 1 this year, and six-year-old brother.

His sister entered kindergarten at the same time as him, as such they are currently in the same year.

"That was what he was doing when he didn't attend school - stay at home and play with his siblings," said Madam Sofia, 29.

The part-time dishwasher also has a four-year-old son. A three-year-old daughter has been adopted by relatives.

Madam Sofia said she didn't register Amir for school because she was worried about the fees.

She was also concerned that they do not have a home of their own and moved often. If they did so again, she feared they would end up living too far from the school.

The family has bunked in the homes of friends, but they have been quite stable for the last three years, sharing a two-room flat with a friend.

Madam Sofia, who makes $400 working on weekends, said: "Sometimes the kids would ask, 'Whose home is this?'

"I would tell them, 'Mama cannot say anything.' I just wanted to make sure they have a roof over their heads."

Amir would sometimes tell her about wanting to go to school, said Madam Sofia, who has an O-level certification. Her husband studied until Primary 2 and earns about $1,000 a month as a full-time dishwasher.

"But I didn't know what to say, so I kept quiet. I felt guilty. But I don't want to tell the kids my (financial) problems. They are too young."

Before this year, Amir's only schooling was half a year of K2 in 2011.

Madam Sofia said her husband's friend had stayed over one night and asked: "How come you never put your son in school? You better put him in".

He told her to approach the nearby PAP Community Foundation kindergarten. She did, and Amir and his sister were enrolled.

But when Amir's classmates went on to Primary 1, he was left behind.

Madam Sofia remembers placing him on a waiting list at New Town Primary School, but left it at that when he didn't get a spot.

WILLING BUT UNINFORMED

The MOE referred his case to the Singapore Children's Society last year and a social worker, Ms Lee Poh Ling, went to their old address and left a letter. Madam Sofia later called her.

Ms Lee recalled: "She was very willing to place her child in primary school, but just did not know how to go about doing it at the time."

Amir repeated half a year of K2 last year to prepare himself for Primary 1 this year.

He and his younger sister are on MOE's Financial Assistance Scheme, which pays for their books, uniforms and some canteen meals.

On top of that, Madam Sofia sends them to school with bread and some pocket money sometimes.

"(Amir) is very understanding. His sister can use up $3 in one day, but he will use it over two to three days," she said.

Amir, who wants to be a policeman when he grows up, said he likes school and has many friends.

One certainty is that he will not be playing truant.

"If I don't go to school, I will be scolded by teacher," he said.


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