Running the Institution (Part 2): Systems Demystified

by Kate Tan (15S03U), Wilson Chan (15A01C), Tan Yi Chern (15S03N) and Yeo Jia Qi (15S03H)

In Part 1 of our interview with Ms Chen Yee Chien, Dean of Systems, Raffles Press learnt more about the details and difficulties of class allocations and timetabling. In Part 2, we ask her about what her role encompasses, as she shares with us her experiences.

After finding out about timetabling and class allocation, we shift our focus, asking Ms Chen what her job scope of Dean of Systems consists of. She ponders briefly, before laughing and commenting, “I always have trouble explaining the word ‘systems’, I hate the word ‘systems’!”

Going on, she details how her job scope covers seemingly all logistical areas of the school, from student data, to scheduling of examinations and classes, results management (i.e. collating the results and comments entered by tutors to print progress reports) and results analysis. Her job also encompasses the duty of registering students for A level exams and submitting applications for access arrangements for students who may be colour-blind or need other special requests.

It’s not easy work; having barely managed to arrange a free timeslot for an interview, we were curious as to how busy Ms Chen was now, given that Term 1 is mostly certainly a peak period for her. Indeed, she confirms, “My peak periods are actually Term 1 and Term 4. I always joke that I should take no-pay leave in Term 1 and Term 4, and come to work only in Term 2 and Term 3!”

Term 1 consists of dealing all the matriculation issues, and by the time they are more or less settled, A-Level results are released, meaning a sudden surge in demand for data analysis. After that, Term 2 tends to be a lull period, and she starts preparing for the matriculation of the next batch of students in Term 3. The beginning of Term 4 is another lull period. Of course, once exams end, results analysis begins, followed by applications for H3s, and then matriculation starts over again in November.

“I’m actually the freest during your exams! Nobody will disturb me!”

She is quick to credit the teams she works with, including two Heads of Systems, two Assistant Department Heads, the IT department, the data management centre, and various committees. Summing up her job, she quips, “It involves a lot of data work. That’s why, after a while, I know a lot of students’ names, and results, and a little bit of everything!”

systems 1
The people who work in Systems and the Data Management Centre as of 2014 (Ms Chen is fourth from the left)

Her job as Dean of Systems actually covers Years 1-6, though she works more closely with the Years 5-6. After the re-integration of the Junior College and Secondary sides of RI, Ms Chen also worked towards creating the Stamford portal that all RI students are now very familiar with. With an integrated system, Stamford was able to collate the two sets of student data and merge it into one easily accessible set that we now easily take for granted. As for where the data comes from, Ms Chen shares about the MOE-equivalent of Stamford, a system called Cockpit that holds data of all students in the local education system.

When asked about the skills necessary for her job, Ms Chen revealed that she majored in Math and Physics in university, while taking some computing courses. As she was on a PSC Teaching Scholarship, which was then very rigid, the officer questioned her every year why she was taking computing courses. In hindsight, she now comments, “Ironically, like 20, 30 years later, when I took over this job, all those computing lessons come in handy!”

“So I always tell students, ‘Don’t ask why you’re studying this. You’ll never know when it comes in handy.’”

Over the years, she has also learnt the crucial importance of human judgment. “You cannot just work on the system; you have to use a system to do the first cut, but after that the human touch has to come in to help you manage,” she says. She raises an example of the criteria for H3, which is a B for the prerequisite subject and a C for all other subjects, before asking, “But the thing is, what about people who scored AAAD? Technically, they don’t meet the criteria. Should I reject them?”

In such cases, she looks the cases individually and makes a decision. As she advises students, “Don’t worry, apply first, and let the system cut based on the criteria. If you don’t get it, you can appeal, and we will look at it on a case by case basis.” As for appeals, Ms Chen also does a lot of consulting and counselling for students, as those who had a chance to talk to her about subject combinations would know.

“Actually I think it’s quite interesting. I don’t even know these people but they come and talk to me and tell me about everything, like we’re good friends,” she laughs. “It’s like look, I don’t know you! I don’t know whether you should take Physics or Chemistry or Biology; you know it yourself. I can only help you to unravel yourself. But of course I see that as part of my job to help you, and I’ll do my best.”

So when you do get a look at your new timetable, and grumble about the unnecessary three-hour breaks, or why lessons are on the seventh floor, do consider the hard work and effort that goes into managing all the different timetables for various students. After all, Ms Chen does use the “human touch” to eliminate such issues – even if it doesn’t seem like that when you end at 4.10 p.m.

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