Siglap Sec: A school that feels like home

Six of the 11 English Literature students at Siglap Secondary, where the small enrolment has given the school a homely feel. They are (from left) Raphaelo Siddons, Lim Zhong Yan, Giovanni Chao, Regina Lai, Charmain Tan and Anthia Chen.

When Siglap Secondary student Benny Ong became a scout in Secondary 1, the uniformed group had about 20 members.

Next year, there will be only three, and the school will no longer offer scouting as a co-curricular activity (CCA). "It is a pity because I've learnt so much from it. It was where I discovered my passion for cooking," said Benny, 16, now in Secondary 4. His two elder brothers were scouts too.

The Pasir Ris school had earlier shut down its Red Cross group, also because of dwindling membership. One reason for the low numbers is the 58-year-old school has seen its enrolment shrink from a peak of 1,400 in 2003 to about 830 now.

It is one of about 40 schools with fewer than 1,000 students. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has promised help, especially by sending more teachers to continue running programmes and activities.

Siglap Secondary principal Low Joo Hong said the decision to end scouting was painful, given that its scouting tradition goes back to 1956, and devoted former students came back regularly to help run activities. But the CCA no longer had the critical mass to carry on.

What works better, he said, are CCAs that do not need a specific number of members to run, such as a photography club. The last three scouts will continue with activities, together with former students, until they leave school.

The school now takes in 200 Secondary 1 students each year, half the intake of a decade ago.

Retired principal Sapii Kasamin, 70, who headed the school from 1995 to 2003, recalled that when he took over, there were 870 students at the old Cheviot Hill campus, a two-storey building with 20 classrooms in Siglap.

He oversaw the move to Pasir Ris in 1998, and enrolment grew steadily in the new estate. "When I left there were 1,400 students. The number was so big that we did not have enough space and some smaller classes were conducted in the canteen," he said.

He did not think the current enrolment was a problem and said there were benefits to having a small school, such as having a better teacher-student ratio.

Mr Low said smaller class sizes allowed teachers to customise lessons for students and give them individual attention. This has produced better academic results over the last three years.

And with more staff sent by the ministry, the school has been able to offer a range of subjects for the O levels, even if there are fewer students for each. Most recently, it added English Literature at the upper secondary level.

Secondary 4 student Lim Zhong Yan, 16, who is taking English Literature, said he liked being in a class of just a dozen students for the subject. "At first I thought the class would be very quiet because there were so few students. But it's been quite the opposite. Everyone takes part actively in discussions and it has been very enjoyable."

He noted another plus point about the small enrolment: "Other schools say they have good teacher-student relationship but our school has a more homely feel, the principal and teachers know us."

Karen Chan, 15, in Secondary 3, said: "Even when our mathematics teacher was busy with the Secondary 4 students because of the O levels, I could easily ask other teachers for help because I know most of them."

Some alumni said the school would do well to focus on a niche to attract new students.

One of Siglap Secondary's most illustrious alumni is Ms Chee Swee Lee, who was Singapore's first Asian Games gold medallist in the 400m race in 1974. Now 58 and a real estate agent in Nevada, US, she remembered the school as a powerhouse of track and field in her time.

"Siglap Secondary was the place all champion athletes would go to," she told The Sunday Times.

After she won the national championships in primary school, many advised her to go to Siglap Secondary as it had good coaches. She was there from 1970 to 1973.

"I would not have continued running if I had gone to a different school," she said. "It was not top-notch in academics, but it was very successful in sports."

Mr Ram Dharmaraj, 67, a student from 1959 to 1962 and the School Advisory Committee chairman from 1998 until he stepped down this year, noted that the school's strength now is the niche area of performing and visual arts.

"It's a great school for performing arts. With all the talk on holistic education, we should reaffirm our efforts in this area," he said.

The school has done well in Singapore Youth Festival competitions and is building a new dance studio and digital art laboratory which will be ready next year.

Mr Low said: "We are confident that if students come to us with an interest in the arts, we will be able to nurture that talent."

There are other benefits for students in a smaller school, he said, such as having more leadership positions to go around. "You get to be a big fish in a small pond, and psychologically for some children, this works magic."

janeng@sph.com.sg

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