Budget Cuts and the School: Dialogue with the Principal and Vice-Principals 2016

schoool

By Hari Kope (16S06H), Adelyn Koh (16S06H), Qiu Kexin (16A13A), Louisa Li (16A13A), Bryan Ling (17S06C), Bay Jia Wei (17S06R), and Gan Chin Lin (17A01B)

Meeting Mr Chan along the walkways whilst one is at school is not a rare occurrence at all. A friendly wave, an exchange of some pleasantries, and you’re off. Nonetheless, moments of extended conversation with him – or any of the Principals – should be treasured.  Three principals, two town hall sessions, and one open dialogue: following the brief but refreshing dialogue held during the Y6 Assembly before the June break, the journalists of Raffles Press adjourned to a interview with the three principals and deputy principals, to get up close and honest with their thoughts on some current school concerns.

The following is a condensed digest of the discussion, that is meant to give a concise overview of the interview’s takeaways.  Only selected questions and portions of responses have been shown.  The full transcript of the interview may be found here.

P: Mr Chan, we heard that you were one of the parties involved in initiating the first dialogue session held two Fridays ago. What was your rationale behind holding the session, and what were some of your key aims when you conceived it?

CPM: It is the student voice, which is important to me. At the end of the day, students are 17 and 18 and they’re more mature than when they were younger in secondary school. It is a good time to be given this opportunity to have a voice that will impact school policy.

P: What was your take on the students’ questions?

CPM: My general view is this: We looked at the questions beforehand to prepare ourselves for the afternoon, so generally many of the questions were no surprise for me.  […]  I’d say that generally the questions were reasonable, things that 17-18 year old JC students would ask, but there were instances that I was very happy to know, to see that there was maturity.

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What do you think were the key perceptions? [Do you think they felt] this was a genuine dialogue session?

P: The general concern was that […] we think there is some kind of vetting going on[…]. I think that it’s not true that the majority of them thought that it was filtered. People still thought there were still some questions that they thought they would have voiced out, and actually came across.

M: To be fair to the Students’ Council, they worked very hard to get this going. [For the Town Hall Meeting] they did the best they could under circumstances in a short time to raise attendance … maybe it’s a humble start but it’s important.  They’ve shown that they care and want the students to be heard.

R: My only beef with it is that it was too short. At the back, we were worrying about wrapping up our answers. We were conscious of the time, to me, one area to improve on was the lack of time. At the end of the day, many of the answers we gave I felt were touch and go since there was only 30 minutes.  So I think it was a good and important start, personally I would like to hear more of such questions.

P: Do you think RI is losing this community of care and concern?

M: I don’t think so. We can do better – I’m not saying we’re losing it but we can do better when we’re challenged. We have to ask ourselves to take a step back. Whenever Mr Chan, Mrs Reavley or I are asked a question, I wouldn’t be defensive. When I see a question I’ll take a step back and ask why they’re asking them. Did I exhibit care and concern? When the rules were implemented, were they draconian? If we do more reflection, it’ll help in many ways.

P: Students would like to know what more can be done to regulate energy consumption so we can be more environment-friendly.

M: One thing is to set the temperature at 24 degrees. That’s a way of controlling it. There is a consciousness about it. From the student development perspective, we will always remind them – simple acts, you know – of switching off the lights and fans when you leave the class etc. You can talk, but you need champions and individuals to do that. From the education perspective this is what we have been doing. We have also been using solar panels – I need to check with Estate about this – and recycling.

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CPM: Our method of encouraging students to clean up the classroom are a good start too. On the 1-4 side they have been doing it quite regularly. There were plans to see if we can only turn on the aircon after certain hours, but it’s been so hot lately that that idea was dropped. At the end of the day it’s dependent on our efforts to make sure that people aren’t careless about the usage.

P: In the past the central control aircon system didn’t exist – is it more efficient?

CPM: I don’t have the figures, but it’s been shown that energy consumption has gone down.

R: The issue with not having a central control system is that people inadvertently leave the aircon on, with a central system it’ll only turn on if there’s a booking for the room, so that saves energy.

P: Mrs Reavley, we want to ask you about what you think about the perception that student/teacher relationships are very transactional. What do you think can be done to the lecture/tutorial system to change this?

R: The student/teacher relationship will be different at every level – be it in  kindergarten, primary or secondary school. So there is always a shift towards giving more independence and bigger say  to student. So as students become older, they will start to take more ownership of their learning as well.

If you ask your seniors, when you go to University, what you may call the “transactional relationship” is going to get even worse. But that doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t care.  Even research has shown that one of the most effective ways of improving academic results is not through more remedial classes or more notes but to improve the quality of the teacher/student relationship.

[…] If you remember in secondary school you see your math teacher virtually everyday. […] But if you consider in JC, how often do you see your math teacher?  Twice a week. The interaction time is much shorter. The key impediment is actually time and therefore it is a case of how well we carve out time so that students can meaningfully engage with teachers.

Another element working against RI is its size – we are the largest JC in Singapore and have approximately 2400 students, meaning that the whole environment becomes less personal. It is very different from your secondary school setting where you used to know everyone: all the teachers all the people. That is obviously missing in all JCs, perhaps compounded in RI because we are mega big.

So how do we overcome this? One of the ways is to ensure that your small units are strong. One example is when we tried to increase the amount of time allocated to Civics from Y5 to Y6 by an extra half a period. This is just supposed to be free space for interaction between tutors and classes.

Another unit we are working on is CCAs, because they present avenues for prolonged interaction. If you are in a sport CCA for instance, the time spent waiting for a match or at trainings are all opportunities to get to know your teachers better. As for subject teachers, it would be great if students could use small group consultations to get to know their teachers better, as this may not be possible during tutorials where the ratio of students to teachers is not conducive for much personal interaction.

I spent most of my teaching career in JCs which includes a stint in Katong Convent where girls from Normal Tech classes started asking personal questions about my husband and children. It felt a little impertinent, but at the end of the day I actually enjoyed the experience. [..] Perhaps we should take a step back to see how we can change about the entire work culture that we have in the school.

reavley

P: What do you think are some areas for improvements in Rafflesians’ character development at the moment?

M: The important thing is to ask is, “What is character development?” It’s an everyday thing, about relationships, your CCA, and your interactions with your class. It is cognitive, and it is behavioural. If you start to look at one aspect itself, you will lose the essence of it. […]  It is not just one programme but a whole slew of things. You have to look at look at it as a  totality. And see where and what each aspect can do, and how to maximise it. […]  All of us are different individuals and we bring a range of things to character development. Your experience will vary it is so important to see character development as an everyday thing and not just a programme– that makes it different.

R: What we use in character development is just a model, and there are other models. I think the usefulness of a model is that it gives students a common language to discuss, otherwise leadership becomes a very nebulous concept. It’s just a reference point, highlighting certain virtues and principles.

M:  A model is just a guide for us, I think is more than that, the model helps us to operate but the important thing about character is to breathe life into it.

CPM: Students have said that there is not much personal resonance in Civics lessons.  At the end of the day this approach is quite age appropriate, to you to participate as 17 and 18 year olds. And we frame it, to be naughty, these are really just “school approved concerns”. So these are approved topics and themes that we feel at 17 and 18 is appropriate for you to discuss.  […] Frankly I don’t think teachers will want to take a lesson and teach from first word to last word. In Civics, many will even allow students can veer it to the way they want it to be done, and highlight those concerns within the larger topic, and hence the resonance will take place.

P: This has been something on the minds of many students: How will the budget cuts change the way the school achieves its vision and mission?

CPM: I think I’d like to let all of you know that even the teachers and non-teaching staff ask that question, so it is a community concern for RI. You’ve phrased the question is well, how much the budget cuts have changed THE WAY the school achieves its vision. Will it change the vision and mission? No? The way it is achieved? Definitely.

Thinker, leader, pioneer. Auspicium Melioris Aevi, this remains the same. We have to ask ourselves: do we need resources all the time to achieve it? Good old stories say: it is when people are poorer that they become more creative. This may be our good chance to be creative and innovative. Budget cuts should not be the ultimate concern. Why should we let budget cuts affect our vision and mission, the way we achieve them totally?

R: The particular premium we enjoy as IP schools has been reduced. Only the gap is narrower, but we still have the privilege. […] Why are we so successful? Because we have been given more. Of course, we have to be more successful, and achieve excellence. […] If we are an excellent school, we must show that we can achieve the same outcomes with the same resources as any other school. Because now, we do achieve excellence, but that’s a given, because we’ve enjoyed more resources.

Our challenge: can we still achieve excellent outcomes given the same resources as any other school? I’d like to think that the Rafflesian spirit can rise up to this challenge. I was in Mount Sinai before we were independent and IP, when we enjoyed the same resources as any other JC. The building was dilapidated. I had a wooden desk with only one functional drawer. The staffroom then was nothing that it is now. Ask any teacher who’s been around. The spirit, vibrancy of the school was still there even without the extra funding that we have now. I’d say, let’s rise to the challenge. As Mr Chan pointed out, we have to be a little more creative and innovative. Well, necessity is the mother of all invention right?

M:  We are very privileged, such that when we have a little taken away, we [feel like], “Gosh, things are happening.” I am concerned, about the sense of proportion. I think we are so well-endowed compared to other Junior Colleges. We have forgotten how much we have, and how privileged we are. Our grumbling is louder, but that shouldn’t be the case. Our spirit should be louder.

R: As a school administrator, with less money, it is harder to run the school. But if you look at it from a larger perspective, as an educator, do I agree with the policy of taking more resources from the top and redistributing it to schools that may not have as much? How can I say no to that? As an educator, I have to believe in that. We have been enjoying so much more compared to other mainstream schools. How can I say no to taking some of that and sharing it with other schools who need it more and don’t have what we have?

CPM: Another reason [for budget cuts] is the falling enrollment due to low birth. Over the next two years, student intake will decrease, not because we’ve become unpopular, but because there are just not enough children. Funds are given according to student count. The more students you have, the more money you get. Since we have more IP students compared to other Junior Colleges, funds thus differ.

P: In one minute, which issues would you like to focus on more in the near future or maybe now?

CPM: Budget cuts. But let’s not get too fixated on the word ‘budget’.

R: Stress levels of students – I feel that it is very high, and that’s an area that I am concerned about. How can we address this issue? To be fair, I think the JC curriculum is very vigorous, and stress levels for those taking the A levels are very high. How can we alleviate the tremendous stress levels? I’d like to appeal for any suggestions.

M: Care and concern for everyone. For those who feel excluded, or those who are stressed. I want to see it being part and parcel of Raffles. It is there, but how do we strengthen it? It should be a bottom-up approach. Care and concern comes from all of you, among each other, and I think this would be a very wonderful place. It’ll be a happy class, happy school, happy environment, and we need to do more of that. Where do we start? How can we start? What do we do? It may be cliched, but John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” You are empowered, you do it. I think that’ll make a difference.

All too often, we forget about the people who make the school tick, who keep things running behind the scenes.  And the ones who have to make the big decisions – no matter how tough they are.  Raffles Press hopes that these dialogue sessions will be but the beginning to a new era of transparency and communication between the teachers and staff of the school – so that we together we can build a better school, and a better home.

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