RI200 Special: The Hunt to Find a Home

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By Tang Lanyun (23S05A) and Hsiao Jia Ying (23A01C)

To every RI student, the House system seems almost like an immutable part of the school, given how deeply entrenched it is in our school culture. However, it has not  always been this way. 

When looking back on RI’s history, 2005 stands out as a year that brought a remarkable whirlwind of change to the school. Alongside the move to its brand-new Bishan campus, RI (then RJC) was awarded independent status and was the first pre-university institution in Singapore to receive the pinnacle School Excellence Award. All this was accompanied by a wave of educational reforms, including a revised A-level syllabus, which meant the ‘triple science’ combination (Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Math) were soon to be a thing of the past. Students and teachers alike felt as though the college was at a crossroads amidst a swiftly-changing educational landscape. 

The changes introduced by the Ministry of Education were forecasted to have a significant impact on the running of the school, especially regarding the Faculty system that was in place at the time. Prior to 2005, students had been sorted into “faculties” based on their subject combinations: someone taking an arts combination would have been automatically sorted into “Arts” faculty, triple science students were in “Medicine”, further mathematics students were in “Engineering”, and so on. Essentially, it was the precursor to the house system we now see today: competitions, events and all manner of student life were organised along faculty lines. 

However, the reforms meant that not only was the “triple science” combination abolished, rendering the Medicine faculty defunct, but the novel need for a contrasting subject would also lead to more students embarking on “unusual” subject combinations, defeating the easy categorisation of the system. The school, like MOE, recognised a need to move into a more holistic, broad-based approach to education, and as such sought to do away with the outdated Faculty system.

Indeed, the Faculty system’s demise had already been looming on the horizon for several years. While in the past, students were evenly spread across the faculties (Arts, Commerce, Computing & Pure Sciences, Engineering, Medicine), over the years the number of students concentrated in Medicine began to balloon. This came  at the expense of Arts and Commerce, which had to be merged into one ArtsCom faculty. Due to its sheer size, Medicine swept most of the inter-faculty sports competitions, though curiously enough Dramafest was always won by ArtsCom. Nevertheless, the need for change was clear, which the school administration worked tirelessly to address.

Our current RI house flags (Image credits: RI website)

The solution to this problem ultimately came down to two drastically different proposals. Proposal A, the eventual successor, detailed a five-House structure that corresponded to the five Houses of Raffles Institution (Y1-4) and Raffles Girls’ School, whose names would then be combined to form new Houses. Under this system, the sense of House spirit would be built on a foundation established during the students’ secondary school days, creating a stronger sense of community and complementing the sense of continuity and tradition of the Raffles Programme. 

Proposal B was a radically different approach: each class of incoming RI students would be allocated to a certain House, with six Houses in total. This structure would benefit intra-House communication, as well as House bonding, with students of the same House concentrated in the same classes. To add to that, students from affiliated and non-affiliated schools would be allowed to “start afresh in a new environment”, and form new bonds rather than relying on pre-existing ones. In addition, this system was seen to be fairer in terms of student leadership opportunities as it lowered the likelihood that House leaders in secondary school would simply continue as the leaders in JC.

In the face of staff indecision, the student body was surveyed to make a choice between two equally strong proposals. Out of nearly 300  students who voted, 19% opted for Proposal A, while an overwhelming 81% chose Proposal B. 

Though popular support seemed to be very much behind Proposal B’s six-House system, the Board of Directors ultimately stepped in to ensure that Proposal A was the one to end up being implemented, though there was one small change made to the original proposal. Instead of having the RI (Y1-4) Houses take precedence over those of RGS in the formation of the new double-barrelled house names, the decision was made to have them arranged in alphabetical order.

House Captains leading the House Procession at Open House 2023 (Image credits: Raffles Photographic Society)

The new House system also came with conscious changes to other elements of school life, namely the yearly Orientation for incoming Y5 students. Before, in the time of the faculty system, students were sorted arbitrarily into two factions, who then had to compete with each other.

“In my day, the theme was [the] USA vs [the] USSR, and all the orientation groups were named after states, like Texas or Armenia.”

Deputy Principal Ms Melissa Lim (RJC, 1992)

“That year’s student council happened to have a lot of history students and they were very into… that thing.” she continued, the humour evident in her tone. When quizzed on which faction ended up winning, she responded, “The US, of course!”

However, with the newly-introduced House system, students were now separated along House lines, creating a link between Orientation and House spirit. Over the coming years, the two have become nearly impossible to separate in the minds (and hearts) of students.

Indeed, it’s difficult now to imagine that our school could have embarked on any system other than our current one. The idea of a completely new six-House system is unimaginable now, but it wasn’t long ago when it was a legitimate possibility. Then again, the prospect of being sorted into faculties by subject combination may seem foreign to the Rafflesians of today, but less than 20 years ago it was the de facto way of life.

“The faculty system served us well for many years, but there were many changes to the education system that it couldn’t reconcile. It was about moving with the times,” admitted Ms Melissa Lim, who was Dean of Student Affairs at the time. Although the old system still holds fond memories for many alumni, ultimately its ending was for the better. After all, when an old chapter closes, a new one will begin.

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