What a difference a principal can make

What a difference a principal can make

SINGAPORE - My seven-year-old son has been learning to swim during physical education (PE) lessons.

He is in the afternoon session, so PE lessons are between 1pm and 3pm when the heat is scorching. But the lessons have continued, rain or shine, because the pool is sheltered.

When I tell friends, they ask if he is in Anglo-Chinese School. He's actually in a neighbourhood school which has no pool. But the children are taken to the Singapore Sports School, a 15-minute bus ride away, to use its Olympic-size pool once a week.

Other heartland schools have also introduced a variety of activities, many mooted by innovative principals.

In the recent round of appointments of principals, much was made of the Education Ministry moving senior principals to heartland schools. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat called it a tangible way to make every school a good school.

An experienced principal can have a significant effect. But a principal with a heart and a determination to make an impact on children's lives makes all the difference.

In the years I've covered education as a reporter, many principals have left a deep impression on me because of what they have done for their pupils.

One of them is Mrs Aw Ai Ling, who is leaving Gan Eng Seng Primary at the end of this year. A first-time principal, she made all her pupils learn music theory and took her school band to perform in Hong Kong Disneyland, because many would otherwise not have such opportunities.

She is frank about the challenges of heading a school where three in five children live in one- to three-room flats. Having to deal with absent parents or truancy could be time-consuming enough, but she insists on exposing her pupils to music, the arts and the possibility of breaking out into the wider world.

Likewise, Madam Sambwani Vimi Dail from Corporation Primary introduced an enriched music, art and sports curriculum so that learning to play the ukulele, batik painting or rugby, for example, is available to all pupils, many of whom are from poor or disadvantaged families.

Former principals James Ong and Chua Yen Ching dared to be different, believing they were doing right by their students.

Mr Ong went against the tide and made all students at Pasir Ris Crest Secondary take literature as a full O-level subject in 2007 because he believed that it teaches values. Mrs Chua did the unthinkable at Shuqun Secondary, opening a "gaming arcade" so her students would have a safe place to play.

Mr Wong Lok Oon surprised shopkeepers in Bukit Batok near his previous school, Dunearn Secondary, when he dropped by to hand out his name card and ask them to call him if they spotted his students smoking or misbehaving.

He reached out to grassroots leaders, business owners and the police to enlist their help too. He wanted more pairs of eyes to help watch over his students and guide them.

When he was posted to Si Ling Secondary in 2010, he said it was an honour and a privilege. "Many of the kids don't have a strong family background. Coming here provided that opportunity for me to love them, engage them and keep them gainfully occupied," he said.

Putting children first was also the reason North Vista Primary's Mr Phua Kia Wang decided to start school later, at 8am. Now it's common to see pupils and their parents having breakfast together in the canteen before school starts.

His school was one of the first to use technology in PE, by using Wii games for sports. He believes that children have to be happy in order to learn well.

Mrs Lysia Kee turned Bukit Batok Secondary around in nine years there. The school was not a first-choice school 10 years ago, and its results did little to attract new students. This year, it produced its best showing ever with 35.8 per cent of students scoring five distinctions or more in the 2012 O-level examinations. There were also 98.5 per cent with five O-level passes - higher than the national average of 90.4 per cent.

Mrs Kee has even had to turn away 400 appeals for a place in her school.

How did she do it?

One of her first tasks was to pull up academic standards, introducing individual learning packages for every student and fixing contact time for teachers to run enrichment or remedial lessons, among other things.

She made every student go through a speech and drama course to build their confidence. To improve the image of the school, she empowered every teacher to discipline students, promising to handle parents' complaints herself.

"When you clean up your act, the word will spread," she said.

Co-curricular activity (CCA) groups have thrived too - five performing arts groups and all seven uniformed groups achieved the highest honour of gold and distinction this year. The school also bagged the Best Practice Award for staff well-being.

Over at Christ Church Secondary, principal Yeo Chin Nam used CCA to motivate her students.

She saw that many students who skipped CCAs also did poorly in their studies. So she made CCA part of curriculum time, to engage students and leave them with less opportunity to get into trouble. CCA attendance, and discipline, improved in tandem.

On one occasion, the parents of a student came to her for help, asking her to dissuade their son from taking part in a singing competition as they feared it would interfere with his studies.

But Mrs Yeo saw his passion for singing, and rallied her staff and students to support him. The boy, who previously lacked interest in his studies, became motivated to do well after the competition.

But with the regular rotation of principals, does a principal's good work endure after he or she leaves?

Mrs Belinda Charles, dean of the Academy of Principals who has previously led three schools, said the good work remains if the principal has got the rest of the team to own the work and innovate further.

These principals may lead schools in different neighbourhoods, with students from different backgrounds, but many of them share common traits as they work their magic to transform schools.

They embrace each posting, even to a school with a poor reputation; they do their utmost to keep children coming to school; they love their students, even the naughtiest; all are quick to attribute success to their team of teachers. And they all do believe that every child matters.

For these principals, "every school is a good school" is not a far-fetched notion.



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