The niche scheme was introduced 10 years ago to help every school develop excellence in a particular field but it has attracted its fair share of controversy. And schools are now starting to move away from the achievement-oriented scheme.
Parents had in the past voiced concerns about children being barred from taking part in activities because they are deemed not good enough to participate competitively. A co-curricular activity (CCA) could also be sidelined for not bringing in awards for the school.
Now, primary schools are moving away from this scheme, TODAY has learnt. Instead, the schools are shifting towards creating an environment that will allow every child to try his hand at a sport or activity regardless of ability.
In response to queries, the Ministry of Education (MOE) confirmed that as of last year, primary schools here have begun transiting from the niche scheme — also known as the School-Based Excellence initiative — to develop the Learning for Life and Applied Learning programmes, which MOE had unveiled in 2013 for secondary schools to create “a colourful landscape of distinctive schools to choose from”, as Education Minister Heng Swee Keat had put it.
This means that over the next few years, the niche scheme will be gradually phased out from the entire education system here.
Learning for Life programmes are meant to instill life skills and socio-emotional competencies, and could be in the areas of sports or the performing arts. Applied Learning programmes teach students to apply learning in real-world settings and schools can focus on areas such as logical thinking or problem-solving.
The MOE said the programmes will “provide all students with more varied and authentic learning opportunities”. With these initiatives, schools can consider learning opportunities for all pupils, intended student outcomes and the quality of initiatives.
The niche scheme was introduced in 2005 for schools to build their brand in an area such as the sports or the arts through a maximum S$100,000 grant yearly for primary schools. One of the evaluation criteria for fundings was the “strength of the school in the proposed school-based excellence”.
However, this has resulted in schools having to chalk up awards to maintain their niche status. Educators also shared that this led to schools concentrating their resources on a relatively smaller portion of talented students.
With the new programmes, educators also pointed out schools will now be evaluated primarily based on the pervasiveness of their programmes instead of achievements alone.
The MOE said 176 out of 187 primary schools currently have at least one Learning for Life, Applied Learning programme or a niche and all primary schools will eventually move towards the Learning for Life and Applied Learning programmes.
Some could have one of each type of programme, while others may choose to have two Learning for Life programmes.
EXPOSURE, NOT ACHIEVEMENT, THE FOCUS
Parents interviewed felt that children should be exposed to a range of activities regardless of their abilities, to discover new interests and skills.
Mr Jack Kang, a father of two boys, pointed out that some children may only show their potential in later years but they should have a chance to try different activities. “They may just be playing the sport for fun but they may acquire a hobby and not only sitting in front of the computer all the time,” he said.
Mountbatten Member of Parliament (MP) Lim Biow Chuan, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Education, said giving every student a chance to participate alleviates concerns of parents who felt their children are disadvantaged because they lack talent in that activity.
He, however, cautioned that schools must still ensure that different interests are being catered for through CCAs, for example.
Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, who also sits on the GPC, welcomed the shift in primary schools. “It is a good move as it is additional exposure for the student without necessarily having the pressure to achieve awards,” he said.
Primary school leaders interviewed also applauded the change. Concord Primary principal Tonnine Chua said: “In the past, to prove our strengths in a niche area, the most tangible way would be through results such as achievements. But now, we will instead submit a report explaining how we develop every child and the distinctive features of our programmes.”
West View Primary vice-principal Quek Swee Nee agreed it means “not only helping the talented students achieve, but also exposing the whole student population to the various educational experiences”.
Instead of striving for results in competitions, schools can focus on the learning process. In the case of West View’s Learning for Life programme in brass band, the school looks at helping students appreciate music. “For the majority of the student population, the message is they may not be good at the activity now, but because of the exposure in primary school, they may eventually pursue it as a hobby or even a career,” added Mr Quek.
Nanyang Primary School principal Lee Hui Feng said the new programmes allow schools to pay more attention to character development.
Echoing a point made by other school leaders, she said the new focus does not mean pupils who show talent in a particular area will be neglected, as CCAs are still a channel for students to specialise and build their strengths.