Friday, March 16, 2012

A school by any other name?

WHAT'S in a label? Plenty, if a debate that has surfaced in recent weeks is anything to go by.

By Geraint Wong

Straits Times readers writing in to the Forum page and MPs speaking in Parliament have called for the term 'neighbourhood school' to be dropped.

Among the reasons cited: the name 'has been associated with unfair stereotypes and connotations', and it 'stigmatises and isolates' such schools from 'branded schools'.

The 'neighbourhood school' epithet has been in use here for more than 20 years. On Aug 19, 1992, an article explaining it in this newspaper said: 'There is no single, agreed definition. The term is often used to refer to lesser-known government schools in HDB estates.'

The report also noted that, according to the Ministry of Education (MOE), some 80 per cent of schools could be classified as such and that some of them had been 'making impressive strides quietly in recent years'.

Today, many neighbourhood schools have bagged strings of awards, made a name for themselves in various fields and produced graduates who are doing well in society. ST reader Vicky Chong wrote in a letter in the Forum page last Saturday that the perceived reputations of neighbourhood schools are only in the minds of some parents. 'Many students and parents I know are proud of their neighbourhood schools and the term bears no negative connotations for them.'

And Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said in Parliament on March 8 that the term 'neighbourhood school' should not be used as an apology: 'The truth is, our schools are geographically sited in our neighbourhood, so naturally they draw students who are living in the neighbourhood.'

In other words, the name is a neutral expression that describes a school's locality (in an HDB estate) and history (likely established within the last 40 years). It is not meant to denote how well (or how poorly) the school is faring.

Even if we succeed in wrenching it from our collective lexicon, the fact remains that MOE does categorise schools by official descriptors such as 'government', 'government-aided', 'autonomous' and 'independent'. Such classifications are helpful to both mental perception and official policy.

Of course, people are discerning enough to know that no two schools within a category are alike - this explains why some neighbourhood schools are more popular than others. So whatever impression the public may have of a certain school has little to do with its classification, and will not change even if the category label is dropped.

A case in point is the nomenclature used for secondary school streams. When these were introduced in 1980, the five-year course was named the Normal stream and the four-year course the Express stream; the now-defunct Special stream was for the study of both English and Mandarin at first-language level.

But these terms are misnomers and have not changed the way people view what they represent. What is called Normal is clearly not the norm: less than 40 per cent of students are in the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams combined. Many parents still try to avoid having their children enter this stream if they can help it.

The Express course, rather, is widely regarded as the norm, but everyone knows there is nothing express about it - students in this stream complete secondary education no faster than their predecessors did before 1980.

No matter what we choose to call something, after a while people will form their own opinions about it - even if these opinions are at odds with the label.

Calling neighbourhood schools something else - or not giving them any label at all - isn't going to alter how people perceive them. Instead of abolishing the term, a more positive move is to make every school a good school, as Mr Heng advises.

So what's in a label? Nothing much, really. The substance is more important, and that is something every school here has, no matter which category it falls into. Any claim to the contrary would be an insult to all the dedicated teachers doing their utmost each day to mould the future of this nation.