Friday, 23 September 2016

NorthLight School influenced Singapore's education system: PM Lee

More NorthLight students making it to tertiary institutions
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 22 Sep 2016

More students from NorthLight School - a specialised school that takes in those who failed the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) - are furthering their studies at tertiary institutions.

Currently, about 45 per cent of students move on to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), up from about 30 per cent in its initial years.

Today, more than 1,400 students have completed their education at NorthLight. Fourteen have done well enough to jump from the ITE to polytechnics and, so far, three have graduated with diplomas.

Others have gone to hospitality institutes such as Shatec and private institutions like Kaplan Singapore.

But when NorthLight started in 2007, many thought it would fail.

The school's founding principal, Mrs Chua Yen Ching, said many did not think its students would be able to progress to tertiary institutions.

"Some of the students may have a difficult past, so we cannot change the starting of the story," she said. "But we tell the students and their parents that we can work together to change the ending of the story."

The school has since proven its critics wrong.

NorthLight's current principal Martin Tan, who took over in 2011, said: "A model like this works for those who appear to be struggling in their early years of education."

He said teachers at the school do more than just teach and would make countless home visits, take students to the doctor, buy food for students who are hungry and even provide counselling.

Some former teachers have since brought NorthLight's best practices, such as its hands-on approach to teaching, to their current schools.

In 2009, the Ministry of Education (MOE), inspired by NorthLight's progress, started Assumption Pathway School, which also takes in those who fail the PSLE.

In data released by MOE last year, before these two specialised schools were set up, about 60 per cent of pupils who had failed the PSLE would drop out of school. With the two schools, this has been lowered to about 10 to 15 per cent.

Yesterday, NorthLight was lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said its success is a result of the effort put in by many different individuals, including passionate educators who volunteered to teach at the school.

"NorthLight has not only changed the lives of its own students, but it has also influenced our wider education system," Mr Lee said. "It has helped us rethink how we should develop a school's culture, and how teachers relate to students and to the curriculum."

He was speaking at an event to mark NorthLight's 10th anniversary and the official opening of its campus in Towner Road, its home since December 2014. NorthLight welcomed its first 228 students at its former Dunman Road campus.

When Secondary 4 student Syafiee Abdullah, 16, entered NorthLight four years ago, he was disappointed that he had failed his PSLE.

"But the teachers here, they inspire me and tell me to never give up," he said.

He is now doing well in school and hopes to go to university.

"I hope to show everyone that NorthLight is not a school for failures, but a school of second chances," he said.

A decade of NorthLight

New hope for PSLE 'no-hopers'
Specialised school lets students who fail exams have another shot at education
By Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 25 Sep 2016

When Mrs Chua Yen Ching was recruiting a pioneer team of teachers for NorthLight School - a specialised school that takes in those who fail their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) - 10 years ago, one of her first thoughts was: "Who would want to teach the weakest students in Singapore?"

But, to Mrs Chua's surprise, 150 educators did, turning up for a recruitment talk in March 2006.

"I told them, 'If you do not have experience working with this group of children, don't apply,' " the founding principal of NorthLight said.

"I felt that the mission was a tough one, so those who join must not only be passionate but competent. If not, they will feel very discouraged."

A total of 96 teachers - including award-winning ones - later applied for the initial 20 teaching jobs available. Some were even willing to give up their head of department roles to teach at the school.

Said Mrs Chua, 58: "We had to start from scratch. It was something not done before."

Ten years on, NorthLight has helped give many students who struggle with mainstream studies a chance to continue studying.

It boasts a curriculum customised to help these students stay interested in their studies, with an emphasis on character development.

More than 1,400 students have since completed their education at NorthLight, which welcomed its first batch of 228 students in 2007.

Mrs Chua, who left the school at the end of 2011, said: "The story of NorthLight is about hope.

"We are helping the students to redefine success - it isn't just about academic excellence."

But when NorthLight started, many felt that it too, would be a failure. "One of the common questions that people ask is what if the NorthLight story did not succeed?" said Mrs Chua, who is now the deputy director-general of education for professional development at the Ministry of Education (MOE).

"My response is that at least we have the courage to try. If we do not try, nothing is going to change."

Today, more NorthLight students - previously written off by many as hopeless cases - are making it to tertiary institutions.

About 45 per cent of students now go on to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), up from some 30 per cent in the school's initial years.

Fourteen graduates have done well enough to move on from the ITE to polytechnics and, so far, three have graduated with diplomas. Others have gone to private institutions such as Kaplan Singapore.

Each year, NorthLight takes in about 200 new students.

NorthLight's current principal, Mr Martin Tan, who took over from Mrs Chua about five years ago, said the school's unique model works.

"The teachers teach by adopting an encouraging approach, where we celebrate small successes and highlight students who have made improvements," he said. "Through this, we help them discover their self-belief and confidence."

In 2009, the MOE, inspired by NorthLight's progress, started Assumption Pathway School, which also takes in those who fail the PSLE.

NorthLight and Assumption Pathway students learn literacy and numeracy skills and receive vocational training in areas such as hospitality services. They graduate with an ITE Skills Certificate, which qualifies them to enter the workforce or the ITE if their grades permit it.

According to data released by the MOE last year, about 60 per cent of pupils who had failed the PSLE would drop out of school, before these two specialised schools were set up. With these schools, this has been lowered to about 10 to 15 per cent.

Mr Tan said the resilient trait nurtured in NorthLight students, coupled with their relevant skill sets they pick up at the school, "makes them very employable".

And it does not matter which path students take, said Ms Euleen Goh, chairman of NorthLight's board of governors, who has seen the school grow over the decade.

"What is more important is that each student finds the confidence to go and build a life for themselves," she said.

Last Wednesday, NorthLight was lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at an event to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

"NorthLight has not only changed the lives of its own students, but it has also influenced our wider education system," Mr Lee said.

Some former teachers have since brought NorthLight's best practices, such as its hands-on approach to teaching, to their current schools.

The event also marked the official opening of NorthLight's campus in Towner Road, its home since December 2014. The school's former campus was in Dunman Road.

The current campus features vocational education facilities, including a supermarket and culinary kitchens, and sports facilities, such as a synthetic soccer field and an indoor sports hall. There is also a student recreation centre - with video game consoles and foosball tables - where students can hang out before and after school.

During his speech, Mr Lee recalled a visit to NorthLight's Dunman Road campus in 2009, when he met with the school's teachers.

"They poured their hearts out for the students, encouraging them to stay the course, visiting their homes to make sure the students were all right, and taking them to the doctors when they were unwell."

One such educator is mathematics teacher Nicholas Pinto.

The 40-year-old, who has been with the school for six years, said teaching the kids can be challenging "but it is not rocket science".

"We are always improvising, always adapting," said Mr Pinto, adding that this includes engaging students through games.

Recalling a difficult student who many felt might fall through the cracks, he shared that the boy, whom he would play soccer and have informal chats with, recently came back to visit on Teachers' Day. The boy did well enough to graduate from NorthLight and is currently employed.

"It took time to gain his trust and work with him, such that he stayed on," he said. "We're happy for him."

Fourth-year student Mohd Irfan Shah, 16, entered NorthLight after failing his PSLE. "It was demoralising, but my teachers here didn't give up on me," he said.

Irfan, who is faring well in school, hopes to study digital animation or retail services at the ITE after graduating from NorthLight. He also has his sights set on getting a degree. "I don't know what I would be doing now if NorthLight didn't exist."

Skills learnt at school made a difference
By Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 25 Sep 2016

Mr Eric Zhuo remembers crying when he got his Primary School Leaving Examination results eight years ago.

"I was looking forward to going to a mainstream secondary school, but it didn't quite turn out the way I had expected," recalled the former Ahmad Ibrahim Primary pupil. "I was one point away from getting into a secondary school," he added.

But he has come a long way since attending NorthLight School.

Besides running "a small business" selling rockclimbing equipment, he is one month into his foundation studies at Kaplan Singapore. He is hoping to eventually pursue a hospitality and tourism diploma.

For Mr Zhuo, who graduated from NorthLight in 2012, the specialised school was where he discovered his passion for hospitality.

Among others, he picked up cooking and customer service skills, such as face-to-face communication and handling guest requests.

"I was kind of clueless when I came to NorthLight, but the school has made a difference," he said.

"What they provide us in school is what the industry would like us to have," said Mr Zhuo.

Supportive teachers helped him make the grade
By Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 25 Sep 2016

Throughout his time at Tampines North Primary School, Mr Kenneth Yong could not spell words of more than three letters.

"I could only spell simple words like 'and' and 'the'," said Mr Yong, who failed his Primary School Leaving Examination.

He then entered NorthLight School, where he did well enough to move on to the Institute of Technical Education.

And he has not stopped there.

The 21-year-old is now a first- year information technology student at Temasek Polytechnic.

"If I went to a mainstream school, I don't think I would make it that far," said Mr Yong, who has two older sisters.

At NorthLight, he attended an English language programme, where a female teacher guided him through more complex words.

"The teacher would spend time to help me and over time, my English improved," said Mr Yong, who could not recall her name.

For Mr Yong, the NorthLight community is like a second family.

"My teachers were supportive and they made learning fun," he said. "I am glad I didn't let them down."

NorthLight staff pull out all the stops to help their students
By Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 25 Sep 2016

When he received a call five years ago asking if he would like to take the helm at NorthLight School, Mr Martin Tan, then principal of Anderson Primary School, did not hesitate.

He said: "I grew up in a lower-income family. All my opportunities growing up came from school.

"As principal, I realised this was my best opportunity to give back, to create the same opportunities I had when I was a student."

Mr Tan, who took over from NorthLight's founding principal Chua Yen Ching, added: "Because of my background, I found it easy to relate to the students and some of the challenges they were facing at home and in school."

More than just teach, his teachers make home visits, take students to the doctors when they are ill, and even provide them with transport and meal allowances.

"The staff always make time for the students, even if it is at night or on a weekend," Mr Tan said.

During his term, he has received numerous e-mail messages from the public complimenting students for their acts of kindness.

For instance, a pregnant lady was touched when one of them offered his seat on the train even though he appeared visibly exhausted.

"Positive examples such as this show that the students have learnt the values well and are applying them in their daily lives," said Mr Tan, who also acknowledged the support from the community and the Government to help his students to excel.

He said: "With the right opportunities and environment, they can do well, just like the others."

However, he hopes more can be done to help students who face various family issues.

"The faster we can do that, the faster the children can focus their energies on their education," he said.

* Official Opening of Spectra Secondary School

Crest, Spectra students to get advantage entering ITE

By Faris Mokhtar, Channel NewsAsia, 4 Oct 2016

From next year, Normal (Technical) students from two specialised schools will have a higher chance of getting into the Institute of Technical Education (ITEs).

Students from Spectra and Crest Secondary Schools who apply to enter related courses through ITE’s discretionary admissions exercise will be considered favourably, as they will be seen to possess the necessary aptitude.

This was announced by Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng on Tuesday (Oct 4) at the official opening of Spectra Secondary School – one of two specialised schools for Normal (Technical) students.

The move is in line with a policy shift towards aptitude-based admissions and reduced emphasis on grades. It is also to recognise the importance of a skills-based education like the one provided by the two schools.

Speaking at the ceremony, Mr Ng said: "Scoring well in school exams is important, but it should not be the end-goal of learning.

“Rather, learning is a lifelong journey of exploration and discovery, where one experiences deep personal fulfilment from acquiring new knowledge and skills.”

Currently, students from the specialised schools and other secondary schools can enter ITEs through the Joint Intake Exercise (JIE) or the discretionary route called the Special College Admissions Scheme (SCAS).

Under the JIE, students from specialised schools who graduate with the ITE Skills Certificate (ISC), as well as their peers from mainstream schools who take the GCE ‘N’ levels, go through the same evaluation.

But with the emphasis on aptitude-based admissions, students from specialised schools who perform well in their ISC will have an advantage when they apply for early admission through the SCAS.

The Ministry of Education said that as the ISC curriculum is specially customised to prepare students for progression to ITE and employment, they will be considered as having demonstrated the aptitude required for the mapped Nitec courses.

As part of the discretionary admissions exercise, students will go through a holistic assessment which will take into account factors such as their ISC performance and achievement in co-curricular activities. If successful, the ITEs can grant them conditional offers.

But students from specialised schools will still need to meet the minimum entry requirements for their courses, similar to students from mainstream schools.

Both Spectra and Crest secondary schools were set up to provide an additional educational pathway for Normal (Technical) students, who undergo a four-year curriculum.

In Secondary 3, they are required to choose one of four ISC courses in facility, hospitality and retail services, as well as mechanical servicing.

These courses are aligned to those in Nitec and the needs of the different industries to provide students with pathways – either to pursue further studies or gain employment – after graduation.

For example, students who graduated with an ISC in facility services can go on to pursue studies in electrical technology in Nitec.

Principal of Spectra Secondary School, Krishnan Aravinthan said this move sends a strong signal that a skills-based education is valued as much as an academic-based curriculum. "It also sends a clear signal to parents that this is something that the country is looking at and it's important to change their mindsets about skills-based education," he added.

Secondary three student Sri Ram Naidu, who aspires to be a chef, said he intends to pursue a Nitec course in western culinary arts. "I want to go to ITE to learn new skills," he said. "This way, it will build up my confidence in my abilities before I enter the workforce." 


Aptitude-Based Admissions to Better Recognise Students in Crest and Spectra Secondary Schools

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