SPEECH BY MR THARMAN SHANMUGARATNAM, ACTING MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, AT THE OPENING CEREMONY OF THE REDEVELOPED CAMPUS OF PRESBYTERIAN HIGH SCHOOL ON FRIDAY, 14 MAY 2004 AT 5.30 PM
DEVELOPING STRENGTH OF CHARACTER AND DISCIPLINE
Mrs Carolin Tan
Ladies and Gentlemen
Boys and Girls
1 I am very happy to be here to celebrate with you the Opening of the Redeveloped Campus of Presbyterian High School. Over the past 39 years, Presbyterian High School has played a key role in nurturing pupils from all walks of life. The school’s emphasis on providing pupils with a strong academic foundation and sound moral values has prepared its students well for life, and to contribute to society as active and good citizens.
2 The school’s emphasis on developing sound values as part of a holistic education is fully appropriate in the fast-paced, knowledge-based economy that we now live in. Science and technology are advancing rapidly. Knowledge that has held true for decades can turn obsolete overnight, as new truths are uncovered. We cannot tell what the future will look like, but it will be a future of continuous and often unexpected change. Social norms in Singapore, as in Asia and globally, will be continually tested.
3 Our schools play a key role in helping new generations of Singaporeans thrive, and shape social norms that will keep Singapore secure and cohesive in a constantly changing future. They have to open the minds of their students to the rich expanse of possibilities in the world around us. They should nurture an ability to think originally, and to take the initiative. And, most importantly, they have to help their students develop strength of character - the ability to face up to difficulties, fight as a team, and lead. They must groom citizens who are keen to contribute to the well-being of fellow citizens. Singaporeans who will push the boundaries of achievement, not just to enjoy life’s comforts, but so that we can enhance the lives of others, and leave something behind to enrich future generations.
4 I am therefore glad that Presbyterian High aims to give its students a holistic education, that is underpinned by strong values. This will help them to face a future of change with confidence and a sense of rootedness.
5 In my recent visits to Presbyterian High School, I have seen how its staff and pupils have worked together to promote a dynamic and innovative learning environment.
6 Presbyterian High has made many improvements in teaching and learning. It has customized and improvised classroom teaching methods in a way that is relevant to its students, and adds value to their learning. Its seven years of academic value-added awards are an achievement. We do not celebrate such awards for their own sake, or for the sake of recognising winners. We celebrate them because they reflect what a school has done to meet the aspirations of its students and parents. The teachers and students’ achievements are a source of pride to parents, most of whom are seeing their children do far better in education than they had a chance to in their time.
7 The school has also piloted programmes involving project work and new learning methods like SAIL - Strategies for Active and Independent Learning. I am also pleased to note the breadth of CCAs offered in the school. CCAs have and are still playing a significant role in building the school spirit and identity. Its achievements in this area include obtaining the Sustained Achievement Awards for Uniformed Groups (Gold) for the past four years.
8. Presbyterian High promotes active citizenship by providing meaningful opportunities for pupils to engage in active learning outside the classroom. An example was the involvement of pupils in researching and contributing ideas and exhibits to the static and digital displays of the School Archives. Similarly, pupils took on the task of setting up a school broadcast station in association with Radio Singapore International. They developed a greater sense of not just the technical aspects of broadcasting, but also of the world they live in. The school’s “New Paper” project was given a National Environment Agency Award for creating greater awareness of the importance of recycling. I understand that the recycling efforts first started out as a project within the school but eventually grew into an effort involving the whole constituency. It is through engaging activities such as these, outside the classroom, that pupils learn best what it means to be active citizens.
9 The school has developed close partnerships with its key stakeholders, many of whom are, I understand, here tonight - parents, the church community that supports the school, and corporate partners. By collaborating closely with all these partners, the school has been able to provide a better education for its students. It has worked closely with the PHS Parents’ Support Group. It has also collaborated actively with industry partners, including a partnership with IdealSoft for the Mobility@School project. The school worked with Nanyang Polytechnic in a study of the effects of alternative medicine on cholesterol level, and with the Central CDC to help pupils turn their entrepreneurial ideas into action.
10 Our most difficult task is not in grooming students with the knowledge and skills required for the future, but the strength of character and values that they need.
11 Our schools face a particular challenge because of changes in the social environment over the years. Our principals and teachers observe that students are increasingly individualistic, lacking a spirit of wanting to help others. Nor are they encouraged to do so by their parents. They also observe that young Singaporeans are getting softer, and lack hunger. Success and improved living standards has reduced the appetite to take to difficult situations and learn to overcome them. They will find themselves disadvantaged by these attitudes as they enter the working world.
12 The home environment is also changing. More students are coming from homes where there is unfortunately little parental care. They inevitably bring the problems they face at home with them into the school. Others come from homes where they are showered with care, but not taught enough about responsibility.
13 We have to address these issues honestly, in schools, at home and in society. There is no one programme, no simple solution for this. Our schools are trying a variety of ways, within and outside the classroom, to develop character and self-discipline, consistent with their own missions.
14 We should first recognise that it is not a losing battle. Our schools are doing a good job, and deserve full credit for what they have achieved. Discipline in our schools is not getting worse. There has been no increase in disciplinary offences in recent years. And school leaders attest to the fact there has been a significant reduction in serious offences over the years. Compared to even 15 years ago, let alone 20-30 years ago, we see fewer serious offences such as theft, vandalism, and violence or gangsterism. And discipline in Singapore schools is far better than in most other countries, by any objective measure - not just in comparison to the Western nations, but also to Asian nations like Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and those nearer home. In Japan and Hong Kong, violent bullying is rampant, and a serious concern for educationists and society. Violent abuse of teachers is going up.
15 We should therefore maintain a sense of perspective as we address the challenges we face. We should recognise the excellent work of our principals and teachers in maintaining high standards of discipline in our schools. They have done so within the guidelines of the Ministry, which have served us well for many years. These guidelines provide schools with the flexibility to implement a full range of programmes, including proactive programmes aimed at building strength of character and belonging, measures aimed at pre-empting disciplinary problems, and corrective measures that help students recognise where they have gone wrong and send clear signals on the importance of good discipline in schools. The guidelines provide school leaders considerable latitude to decide on how best to ensure discipline, within broad but clearly defined limits. Our principals support these guidelines, because they have found them conducive to maintaining discipline, and given them the leeway they feel they need in running their schools.
16 Let there be no mistake about MOE’s resolve to support schools in maintaining high standards of discipline. There is overwhelming consensus amongst principals that we should keep our guidelines on discipline in place, including the guidelines allowing for corporal punishment to be implemented under clearly defined procedures, where other measures have been tried and failed. The guidelines have allowed schools to do what it takes to bring disciplinary problems down and help turn students around, while allowing us to maintain public confidence over time in school’s programmes and measures to do so.
17 Everyone has to play a part in maintaining discipline in schools, and take responsibility. The student-teacher relationship is at the core of good discipline. Students should respect their teachers, and take their advice. They should know that a caring teacher will often be a firm teacher. They must also know that freedom brings with it responsibility and self-discipline.
18 Our schools find that when there is mutual respect and students understand and appreciate the care, patience and guidance shown to them by teachers, they respond with trying to do their best to improve so as to live up to the belief that their teachers have in them.
19 Our teachers are indeed a caring group of people. The most effective teachers are often those who connect with their students as individuals. We find examples of them, in every school. There is nothing more inspiring in education than the stories they tell of how they turned around the most difficult pupils, by engaging them as individuals, getting to understand their problems and anxieties, and winning their hearts.
20 Schools have adopted various proactive measures to inculcate in their pupils a sense of social responsibility and self-discipline. Presbyterian High, for example, gets students with problems to engage in self-reflection. They write down their thoughts on their problems, and talk through them with their teachers. Many schools have implemented proactive strategies aimed at building confidence and a sense of responsibility amongst their students. They seek to engage pupils in activities that interest them. Naval Base Secondary has a school-wide outdoor experiential learning programme to bond its students. Pupils are given opportunities to confront challenges, and learn to work with others. They develop a sense of being valued and get the opportunity to channel their energies into team endeavour. Naval Base Secondary has seen a significant reduction in disciplinary offences by pupils. Northland Secondary has a leadership programme that identifies at-risk pupils for leadership roles. These pupil leaders are guided and closely monitored by teachers and have developed a stronger sense of responsibility.
21 These are amongst the many encouraging efforts by our schools to nurture and maximise the potential of their pupils, while addressing problems before they show up in a loss of discipline. Schools have also found that close and regular communication with parents helps to bring them on the side of the school. Parents are more ready to buy into the school’s programmes and support its efforts to maintain high standards of discipline in the school.
22 However, parents have to take responsibility for the discipline of children. We should think hard about how we can inculcate responsibility and discipline, in the way we bring up our children. We should also recognise that our own attitudes towards teachers shape the child’s views towards his teacher. Parents should respect teachers, and let teachers do their job the way they see best.
23 Finally, the community has a valuable role to play in supporting schools in their efforts to develop strength of character and self-discipline. Besides working with the community directly supporting the school, schools have found it useful to leverage on others around the school, including grassroots organisations, in organising programmes to inculcate responsibility for others and a spirit of service. The Police have played a valuable role in working with schools to engage at-risk students in activities that build self-esteem and the motivation to do well for themselves. MCDS and the VWOs are also working with schools to supplement the counselling resources required to help students at risk.
24 While the software and “heartware” is what matters most in education, a school’s physical environment also plays a role in supporting and facilitating what schools are trying to achieve in learning and teaching. The upgrading of Presbyterian High School is part of the Ministry’s Programme for Rebuilding and IMproving Existing Schools (PRIME), which was launched 5 years ago. To date, 201 schools have been included in the first five phases of PRIME. We will add 9 more schools to this upgrading scheme under PRIME from next year, bringing the total to 210. Like Presbyterian High School, these schools have new and upgraded facilities, including computer laboratories, media resource libraries, IT resource rooms, pastoral care rooms and health & fitness rooms.
25 In conclusion, I would like to extend my heartiest congratulations to the School Management Board, the Principal, staff and pupils of Presbyterian High School on the official opening of the Redeveloped Campus. It is my pleasure now to declare the redeveloped campus of Presbyterian High School open.