A GOOD school aims to nurture a child to his fullest potential, and inculcates character building and values ("Acid test of MOE's 'every school is a good school' statement" by Mr Patrick Tan; Sept 14).
In neighbourhood schools, there are students who are not as academically inclined but have different strengths, such as in entrepreneurship, sports, music or the arts. Teachers in neighbourhood schools are equally dedicated and work as hard as those in "branded" schools.
Schools such as Raffles Institution, Hwa Chong Institution and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) admit students who are academically inclined, and the programmes they roll out stretch these students and prevent them from becoming bored and under-performing.
These schools should not admit students with "normal" grades as their programmes may not be appropriate for them.
Even within these "branded" schools, there is a disparity in intellectual prowess among the student population. The acute stress of the paper chase should not be blamed on the existence of such schools.
Ultimately, parents should know the strengths of their children and ensure that they have happy school lives, by not comparing them to other children, or pushing them to enter "branded" schools.
Many students from neighbourhood schools have gone on to pursue tertiary education, and some have become entrepreneurs, teachers, musicians and so on.
More importantly, we should ensure that our children grow up with life skills and values such as self-discipline, a love for learning, respect for others, honesty, perseverance, kindness, compassion and an ability to solve problems. These skills will stand them in good stead well into their adult lives.
Once these skills and values are internalised, children will be able to face life's challenges positively and grow up well-adjusted and happy.
Soil movement at work sites 'difficult to predict'
Experts say damage to Watten Estate houses may have been unforeseeable
By Feng Zengkun
DAMAGE to the houses in the Bukit Timah Watten Estate due to underground soil movement from the Downtown Line construction may have been unforeseeable, four independent engineers told The Straits Times yesterday.
This is because the strength and properties of Singapore soil vary so much that it may be difficult to predict how it will shift or move in response to construction.
Site surveyors may also not be able to obtain enough soil samples in the country's built-up urban environment.
Still, one engineer has suggested that special sensors placed closer to the Downtown Line construction site nearest to the damaged houses could have provided an early warning that something was amiss.
At least 40 homes in the upscale neighbourhood in central Singapore sustained damage from shifting walls and floors that have cracked as a result of construction works on the upcoming Tan Kah Kee MRT station of the new Downtown Line.
Following complaints, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) checked the houses to ensure that they are structurally safe and started interim works to prop up car-porch roofs and help move gates that could no longer open.
Yesterday, the LTA said that it had investigated the soil in and around the train station and the tunnel construction zone, both before and during construction.
Soil samples were collected at 20m intervals along the perimeter of the station and tunnel.
These samples enabled the LTA to analyse the types of soil beneath the ground and use computer models to estimate the way the area would be affected by the construction work.
From this and other data, such as the types of buildings in the area, the LTA had concluded that only buildings within a 250m radius of the construction site were likely to be affected.
This included part of Hwa Chong Institution, but Watten Estate fell just outside this zone.
The LTA attributed the damage caused to the houses to water seepage after excavation works. The ground then adjusted, causing cracks in the buildings.
Asked for their views on the issue, four independent engineers said that there were no fixed guidelines for taking soil samples outside a construction zone.
But they added that, in their view, the LTA's pre-construction survey was "reasonable" and in accordance with industry practices.
"In every construction project, there is the possibility of unforeseen soil conditions. You can only take so many soil samples for each project, and the soil profile is seldom uniform," said Professor Leung Chun Fai, from the National University of Singapore's civil and environmental engineering department.
Mr Chong Kee Sen, vice-president of the Institution of Engineers, said: "The soil formation in Singapore is notorious for very high variation in terms of rock levels, strengths and properties."
Other engineers said the built-up nature of the neighbourhood may have limited the number of samples that could be taken.
Associate Professor Leong Eng Choon, from the Nanyang Technological University's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said: "In some cases, it's impossible to take a sample. You can't have a sample site in someone's property."
But he also noted that the monitoring instruments installed by the LTA could have raised a red flag for the agency.
The LTA said at a briefing on Tuesday that it had installed about 2,400 instruments within the 250m zone to monitor the effects of construction.
These included ground settlement markers - which measure soil movement - as well as vibration sensors.
Prof Leong said: "If the impact of the works spread that far away (to Watten Estate), then the impact nearer to the construction site would have been much higher.
"If the sensors near the site were correctly placed, working properly, and checked regularly, they would have provided early warning of the impact of the construction that would be felt farther away."
The LTA said on Tuesday that 28 "recharge wells" would be built by next month to prevent further damage to the houses.
These wells will pump water back into the underlying soil to replace the seepage caused by the construction works.
In the meantime, excavation work for the Tan Kah Kee station, at areas closest to the estate, has been stopped.
It will resume only when water has been pumped back into the area and the water level in the ground has been stabilised, the LTA said.
It added that this will not delay construction of this part of the Downtown Line, which is due to open in 2015.
MOE to fund teacher training and facilities, to help build expertiseBy Stacey Chia And Matthias Chew
BY 2017, every school in Singapore will have a niche of its own.
To help them along, schools will get money from the Education Ministry (MOE) starting next year to train teachers, build facilities, buy equipment and run programmes to build expertise in their chosen area.
Schools can also work with external organisations and tap other sources of funding. For example, they can look for grants from arts or sports promotion agencies, or link up with tertiary institutions to do research.
The MOE will also work with schools to ensure a good spread of niche areas, it told The Straits Times yesterday when giving more details of its niche programme.
Currently, schools get MOE funding only after their niche areas have been recognised. Only 191, or about half of all schools here, have recognised niches under a programme that started in 2005.
Last week, the ministry announced that it would spend $55 million over five years to help all schools find their niche. Schools with recognised niche programmes get a three-year funding of $150,000. They have to re-apply for funding every three years.
Secondary schools are also allowed to accept up to 5 per cent of their Secondary 1 intake for the purpose of building up their niche areas. For instance, a school with rugby as its niche can take in students good in the sport even if they do not meet the academic entry requirement.
Principals welcomed the extra help from the MOE, as the process of building a niche from scratch can take three to five years.
To get recognition, schools have to demonstrate consistent excellence in their chosen fields and involve the entire school in that activity. They need to show that interest can be sustained over the long term.
Schools do not always succeed on their first try. Edgefield Primary, for instance, had two applications to get dancesport recognised as a niche turned down before finally getting approval this year.
Principal Willy Tan said this was because no other school offered a similar programme, and it had difficulty showing it could excel in competitions. It had to compete overseas, in Malaysia and Hong Kong, to demonstrate success.
Mr Mark Minjoot, principal of Greendale Secondary School, which has been trying to build its proposed niche in outdoor education over the past three years, said: "You'll need to show that your programme is not one-off, or ad hoc, and it's been building up over the last few years."
St Anthony's Canossian Primary School hopes to get the nod soon for performing arts as its niche. Principal Eugenie Tan said: "We can develop a bigger pool of performing arts teachers so that we can run most of the programme on our own without external vendors."
Despite the long process it takes to carve a niche, principals said it is worth the effort. Students get to learn a new sport or skill, while schools can use niches to mould more rounded students, inculcate values and earn a brand reputation.
Having a niche has also allowed lesser-known schools like Woodgrove Secondary to make a name for themselves, said principal Sung Mee Har. The school, with environmental education as its niche, has grabbed headlines with a string of awards, including being the first school to win the Singapore Environmental Achievement Award given out by the Singapore Environment Council.
The payoff can also come at a later stage.
Some parents feel that their children may have an advantage over others if they apply to a secondary school with the same niche programme.
While parents said a niche programme is not a major consideration when they choose schools, they admit it can be beneficial. Said housewife Chua Keng Leng, 36, whose daughter will enter Nan Chiau Primary, which has a niche in basketball, next year: "I would rather the school have a niche in drama, but maybe basketball can help her develop motor skills or just know more about how to appreciate a basketball game."
Pupils trying out maths olympiad questions (above) during an exam in Xi'an, and a boy looking through assessment books with olympiad questions at a Shanghai bookstore. For many pupils whose families have neither money nor connections, being a maths ace, proven by olympiad wins, is a way to get into a good school. -- PHOTO: CHINA FOTO PRESS
By Ho Ai Li, China Correspondent
BEIJING - Grandpa Li is 70 years old and has three grandsons aged five, 15 and 20. How many years does it take before the total of their ages is the same as their grandfather's age?
This maths question is aimed at Primary 3 pupils in China - or at least those who go for classes to prepare for the International Mathematical Olympiad contest.
Chinese students may be top in maths worldwide, but officials in Beijing have banned such maths classes, for fear that too much advanced adding and subtracting will not only spoil pupils' childhoods, but also stymie their creativity.
What started out as a way to pick out whiz-kids who can represent China in a global maths competition has become a thriving industry of after-school classes to hothouse maths geniuses.
"Overly tough maths questions are the merciless murderers of children's health and interest in learning," wrote Professor Yang Dongping, an education expert, who supports the ban.
But many observers wonder if the latest move is enough to kill this many-headed hydra, which reflects deeper problems in China's education system.
As Education Minister Yuan Guiren explained to reporters on Thursday, the demand for such maths classes stemmed from differences in school standards.
"The problem stands out particularly in big cities, due to the uneven development of compulsory education and the lack of quality education resources," he said.
Under China's nine-year compulsory education system, there are no primary school leaving exams, like in Singapore, to decide which junior high school children get into. They are supposed to just go to the nearest one.
But in major cities like Beijing, parents want their children to get into key schools, or zhong dian xue xiao, which enjoy better resources and results.
In the case of the high school affiliated to Renmin University, for instance, half of its 2009 school-leaving cohort made it into Beijing's top three universities: Peking, Tsinghua and Renmin.
"The problem is especially serious in Beijing as it has many key schools at the junior high level. They all want to choose their own students," Prof Yang, who is from the Beijing Institute of Technology, told The Straits Times.
Currently, these schools select students based mainly on fees, talent or "slips" (tiao zi), a way of denoting those with connections.
Being an ace in maths, proven by wins in maths olympiads (ao shu), is seen as a way to get into a good school for those with neither money nor special ties.
"Maths olympiads are the last resort for ordinary salaried families like ours... We can't find any solid connections and are not big shots," a mother surnamed Ding told the China Youth Daily.
Other parents welcomed the move to lighten the burden on their children, but said the classes were not all bad.
Said Mr Xing Hua, 39, a logistics manager whose 10-year-old daughter attends special maths lessons twice a week: "Some parents with no time to pick up their children early see these classes as a kind of childcare."
For now, officials have put their foot down on ao shu classes or contests.
Thirty of Beijing's most popular secondary schools have promised not to take in students based on exams or maths contest wins.
"In the long run, schools must be more or less even (in quality)," said the Education Minister.
Despite the ban, the demand for ao shu is unlikely to fall dramatically any time soon. After all, as Prof Yang noted: "Everybody wants to go to a good school."
By the way, the answer to the maths question is 15 years.