Friday 21 September 2012

Every school to have a niche by 2017

MOE to fund teacher training and facilities, to help build expertise
By Stacey Chia and Matthias Chew, The Straits Times, 20 Sep 2012

BY 2017, every school in Singapore will have a niche of its own.

To help them along, schools will get money from the Education Ministry (MOE) starting next year to train teachers, build facilities, buy equipment and run programmes to build expertise in their chosen area.

Schools can also work with external organisations and tap other sources of funding. For example, they can look for grants from arts or sports promotion agencies, or link up with tertiary institutions to do research.

The MOE will also work with schools to ensure a good spread of niche areas, it told The Straits Times yesterday when giving more details of its niche programme.

Currently, schools get MOE funding only after their niche areas have been recognised. Only 191, or about half of all schools here, have recognised niches under a programme that started in 2005.

Last week, the ministry announced that it would spend $55 million over five years to help all schools find their niche. Schools with recognised niche programmes get a three-year funding of $150,000. They have to re-apply for funding every three years.

Secondary schools are also allowed to accept up to 5 per cent of their Secondary 1 intake for the purpose of building up their niche areas. For instance, a school with rugby as its niche can take in students good in the sport even if they do not meet the academic entry requirement.

Principals welcomed the extra help from the MOE, as the process of building a niche from scratch can take three to five years.

To get recognition, schools have to demonstrate consistent excellence in their chosen fields and involve the entire school in that activity. They need to show that interest can be sustained over the long term.

Schools do not always succeed on their first try. Edgefield Primary, for instance, had two applications to get dancesport recognised as a niche turned down before finally getting approval this year.

Principal Willy Tan said this was because no other school offered a similar programme, and it had difficulty showing it could excel in competitions. It had to compete overseas, in Malaysia and Hong Kong, to demonstrate success.

Mr Mark Minjoot, principal of Greendale Secondary School, which has been trying to build its proposed niche in outdoor education over the past three years, said: "You'll need to show that your programme is not one-off, or ad hoc, and it's been building up over the last few years."

St Anthony's Canossian Primary School hopes to get the nod soon for performing arts as its niche. Principal Eugenie Tan said: "We can develop a bigger pool of performing arts teachers so that we can run most of the programme on our own without external vendors."

Despite the long process it takes to carve a niche, principals said it is worth the effort. Students get to learn a new sport or skill, while schools can use niches to mould more rounded students, inculcate values and earn a brand reputation.

Having a niche has also allowed lesser-known schools like Woodgrove Secondary to make a name for themselves, said principal Sung Mee Har. The school, with environmental education as its niche, has grabbed headlines with a string of awards, including being the first school to win the Singapore Environmental Achievement Award given out by the Singapore Environment Council.

The payoff can also come at a later stage.

Some parents feel that their children may have an advantage over others if they apply to a secondary school with the same niche programme.

While parents said a niche programme is not a major consideration when they choose schools, they admit it can be beneficial. Said housewife Chua Keng Leng, 36, whose daughter will enter Nan Chiau Primary, which has a niche in basketball, next year: "I would rather the school have a niche in drama, but maybe basketball can help her develop motor skills or just know more about how to appreciate a basketball game."

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