Monday 30 June 2014

What my 8-year-old learnt at a Philippine school

By Toh Yong Chuan, The Sunday Times, 29 Jun 2014

Like many parents, I sent my eight-year-old daughter Deborah for extra lessons during the June school holidays which end today.

But she didn't attend an enrichment centre in Singapore; she spent three days at an elementary school in Cauayan city, a nine-hour drive north of the Philippine capital Manila.

It came about after my daughter came home from school in early January asking why she did not get to go overseas during the December school holidays. "My classmates went skiing and to Disneyland," she protested.

Our family did not go away on holiday last December, but we have taken our children to Malaysia, Thailand and Japan previously. My wife and I were taken aback that children as young as eight were already comparing where they went for vacations.

Worried about where this might lead, we wondered how to give our daughter a bit more perspective about life and holidays. Which was how we came up with the idea for a visit to the Philippines.

Our resourceful Filipino maid Maricel, who lived in Cauayan before she came to work for our family eight years ago, arranged for Deborah to join her nine-year-old daughter Charelle at her school.

Cauayan city has a population of just 122,000, according to the 2010 census, and is set in the midst of rice and corn farms, with few buildings taller than the three-storey city hall.

But Cauayan South Central School, the largest public elementary school there, is huge. It has about 4,000 pupils aged from five to 14 in 87 classes from kindergarten to Grade 6, the equivalent of Primary 6. It provides free education for the children of working-class parents including farmers, labourers and women working overseas as maids, like our family's Maricel.

We arrived at Cauayan on a Sunday, stayed at a $45-a-night hotel in the city, and knew that Deborah would attend school from Monday to Wednesday.

To blend in, she wore the uniform white blouse and long blue skirt donned by girls in Philippine public elementary schools. Maricel's husband Norman provided transport to school on the motorised tricycle taxi that he plies for a living.

On the first day, my wife and I went along and found a school nothing like any in Singapore. All 4,000 boys and girls were tightly packed under the sun for morning assembly in an outdoor area about the size of three basketball courts.

There were uncovered drains, uneven pavements and unsheltered walkways lining the collection of buildings spread out in a compound about the size of a football field.

Classrooms were dimly lit and poorly ventilated despite having electric fans, with as many as 46 pupils per class. Teachers kept going even as the temperature soared to a sweltering 38 deg C.

During recess, pupils ate at benches under shady trees because the two canteens had no tables or benches. The boys played basketball - the most popular sport in the Philippines - while the girls made and traded colourful Rainbow Loom bands.

On two of Deborah's three days there, there were blackouts lasting more than three hours each.

It couldn't have been more different from her convent school at home, nestled among the houses that make up middle-class Serangoon Gardens estate.

But what surprised my wife and me was how little all of that seemed to bother our daughter.

At the start of Day One, she was more concerned about whether she would make friends.

She was an object of curiosity from Singapore, speaking English with a strange accent, but her classmates and form teacher Lani L. Gamido welcomed her warmly.

She was made to introduce herself and present an English group exercise.

By the end of the day, she had made friends with a handful of girls with cheerful names like Precious, April Joy and Sunshine Nicole.

On Day Two, Deborah's classmates lined up for a class photo so she would have a memento to bring home.

Although she spent just three days there, her class held a party for her on the last day. The pupils and their parents threw a pot luck lunch, bringing fried noodles, grilled fish and stewed pork. One girl, whose mother works as a maid in Singapore, turned up with her father, both wearing matching "I love SG" T-shirts.

Afterwards, we asked Deborah what she liked or disliked about her three days at a Filipino school.

The school uniform got her thumbs-up for being more comfortable than the pinafore she wears to school here. She also liked that classes were lively, with pupils answering questions spontaneously.

"The class is noisier, especially the boys," she said.

But she found the full-day session - from 7.15am to 4pm, with a two-hour lunch break - too long.

The physical condition of the school and its surroundings did not figure on her list of dislikes.

Asked to write down her strongest impression of her classmates, she wrote: "Kindness."

She gave some examples.

During the blackout on Day One, some classmates saw that she was perspiring profusely and took turns to fan her using cardboards and paper fans, without her asking.

On her second day, a shy girl gave her a note on which she had written as best she could: "To Debora Hi I'm Blessing please bes friend."

And before she left, more than 10 classmates gave her a spontaneous group hug to say good bye. "Nobody's hugged me like that before," she said.

My wife and I had imagined that a few days in a school in Cauayan would leave Deborah appreciating Singapore and her school more. But physical discomforts left less of an impression on her than the acts of kindness and friendship from children she had known for such a short time.

And then she asked: "Can I come back to school here again next year?"

We realised our daughter had indeed learnt something from her visit. As parents, we had our "teachable moment" in Cauayan too. We had been guilty of under-rating Deborah's ability to adapt and to value small acts of love and kindness over material comforts.

And while we will take Deborah somewhere else on holiday the next time, we promised her that we will return to Cauayan again - soon.

True purpose of overseas school trips

After reading last Sunday's article ("What my 8-year-old learnt at a Philippine school"), I thought that what Mr Toh Yong Chuan's daughter experienced was what I wanted for my daughter on her overseas school trips.

It is becoming popular for schools to organise overseas trips for their students to make learning more holistic and enriching.

My secondary school-going daughter's most recent trip was to Shanghai and Suzhou in China. The week-long trip's itinerary was well designed with a variety of activities, such as visits to places of interest and schools, including a university, where the students attended two sessions, each lasting about three hours.

This is inadequate and barely meets the purpose of an educational trip, which is to immerse our students in a foreign school environment and to interact with the students there.

Attending a foreign school for two to three full days would let our students gain a deeper understanding of the school life and education system abroad, as well as forge friendships with their students.

While parents can organise holidays involving sightseeing and shopping, visits to schools abroad can be facilitated only by the authorities.

Schools planning overseas trips should focus on what they can do that parents cannot, to make such trips more rewarding and educational for students.

Lim Lih Mei (Ms)
ST Forum, 6 Jul 2014

Get the children's hands dirty to inculcate values
That is one of the takeaways after visiting Philippine primary school
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2014

TWO weeks ago I visited a public primary school in the Philippines and saw something that I have not seen in decades.

Right after the morning assembly at 7.30, the pupils in the Cauayan South Central School picked up brooms, dust pans and rags to clean their classrooms, staircases and common areas.

The area cleaning was an official 30-minute block in their timetable under "character education" and "community service".

How apt, I thought.

It reminded me of when I was in primary school from 1976 to 1981 and our daily ritual of school cleaning. I remember even having to clean the teachers' common room.

When I enlisted for national service in 1987, I continued to clean. It was normal for soldiers to clean their own bunks, toilets, barracks and common areas in the camp.

Now, armies of cleaners and maids have taken over most of the cleaning of our schools and homes.

The only cleaning that pupils do these days is the sweeping of their classroom floors and wiping of blackboards.

In Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech in Parliament during the debate on the President's Address last month, he pledged to improve the education system - not just in academic performance, but also in the values and culture of schools.

He also talked about building an open and egalitarian society, without rigid hierarchies or class distinctions.

But values like collective responsibility and egalitarianism cannot be taught through textbooks - they are best learnt through simple acts like getting pupils to clean their school compound regardless of their backgrounds.

Such school cleaning is common in Japan and Taiwan, but I was not expecting it in the Philippines because the practice there was not widely known.

However, that was not my only takeaway from my visit to the Philippines school.

The public school is the largest in the city of Cauayan in north Philippines with 4,000 pupils.

I was there because my eight-year-old daughter was a guest pupil in the school for three days. I shared her experience in The Sunday Times last week.

While she was attending classes, I spent time talking to parents, teachers and the principal. Although the visit was short, it gave me a better appreciation of the public school system there.

Apart from getting the pupils to clean their school compound, there are at least four aspects of the Philippine school which are different from Singapore's schools that give us something to ponder over.

The first is having primary schools run kindergarten classes. The kindergarten pupils aged five and six attend half-day sessions from 7.15am to 11.30am, while the rest finish school at 4pm.

The Philippines started making kindergarten part of official basic education in 2012.

There are obvious advantages of making kindergarten education part of primary schools. It gives pupils an early start through an official curriculum and helps them integrate into the primary school system.

If this happens in Singapore, it may even take the competition out of Primary 1 places, although it may also start the competition for places earlier. At the very least, having primary schools run kindergartens could be the next step in the Ministry of Education (MOE) experiment of running kindergartens.

Second, the primary school pupils have a fixed daily timetable, with English, Tagalog, science, maths and character education lessons spread throughout the day.

These lessons are mostly taught by the same teacher, not a rotating roster of teachers. While it may put the strain on one teacher, it gives a routine and certainty to the pupils who will not have to pack their school bags according to the different days of the week.

Third, while some Singapore parents object to streaming in primary school, pupils in the Philippines are streamed through a national examination even earlier, before Primary 1.

After streaming, about 10 per cent of pupils in each cohort are placed in gifted classes, which receive more government funding and, more importantly, an emphasis on the English language.

A gifted education class teacher said this is because English is the international language. "The classes for gifted pupils recognise that some are gifted and talented, and they learn at a faster pace."

At the upper primary level, pupils with aptitude are also streamed into science classes.

Fourth, the school integrates different learning groups.

There are classes for the hearing impaired, autistic and physically handicapped. Having the special needs pupils in the same school helps them mingle with regular pupils during recess time.

The school even has a separate department that conducts basic literacy and numeracy classes and Singapore Workforce Development Agency-type skills courses, such as how to give manicures and pedicures, for parents to also learn at the same school as their children.

This idea is not realistic to implement in Singapore because parents have to work or do housework when their children are in school, but it was the effort to integrate the different learning groups that impressed me.

While there were aspects of the school that were impressive, the lack of resources in the school was evident.

Facilities were generally poor. There was no covered assembly area, the school buildings were old and some areas were crying out for urgent repair, such as uneven pavements that pond after rain.

The government provides only minimal facilities such as a fixed number of fans and lights per class, leaving the rest for the school to raise its own funds for, including, for example, a covered assembly area.

Singapore parents would also disapprove of the class sizes which typically exceed 40 pupils. There were 46 pupils in the Primary 3 class which my daughter attended. The size of the gifted education classes are capped at 35, which is considered low in the Philippines.

And while education is free and textbooks are provided at no cost, pupils have to make do with used textbooks handed down from the previous cohort. This, however, does encourage collective responsibility because pupils have to take care of the books they are using for the next batch of pupils.

Salaries are low. A new teacher starts at 20,000 pesos (S$570) a month, but this did not stop aspiring teachers from joining the corps.

The Philippine teachers' commitment to their jobs became clear when the school was hit by two blackouts lasting more than three hours in two of the three days I was there.

The fans and lights stopped working, but the teachers did not. Classes continued.

Curiously, the teachers wore uniforms too, a different coloured top for each day. This gives them a strong identity and a sense of solidarity.

The visit made me thankful for the resources that Singapore schools enjoy, but it also left me with an admiration for how the pupils and teachers in the Philippine school make the most of what little they have.

As for Singapore, besides improving school facilities, aspects like character building are equally important, as the MOE has made clear it will focus on.

So why not start with pupils getting their hands dirty to learn about responsibility, egalitarianism and resilience by cleaning their school compound once again?

I am optimistic that there will be more than a handful of like-minded parents who would feel the same way.

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