By Jane Ng
BY ANY standard, Singapore has a great track record for keeping kids in school.
Fewer than two out of every 100 drop out, thanks to concerted programmes spearheaded by the schools themselves.
But the Education Ministry (MOE) hopes to push the current dropout rate of 1.6 per cent even lower. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set the target of 1.5 per cent in 2006 to be reached in five years, but schools hit 1.6 per cent in just a year.
As the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, put it: 'We're as paranoid as if it's 16 per cent.
'We do all sorts of things to reduce it because everyone matters. We want everyone to have a fair go at the system.'
Mr Masagos heads a committee that is looking into cutting the rate even more. One way is to make sure that good stay-in-school programmes continue.
He said: 'Programmes targeting dropouts tend to be largely principal- or teacher-centred, to the point that when the principal or teacher leaves, the programme doesn't run any more.'
The ministry will help by providing more resources, such as school counsellors.
It will also help document programmes and cases so that others can take over easily, he said.
There will be a centralised computer system, called the Cockpit, which records students' case files so they can be passed on as they move from primary to secondary school. Teachers use this MOE system to input details of data such as students' conduct, exam results and co-curricular activities (CCA) performance.
Most dropouts are secondary school students, numbering about 400 a year. About 160 leave after Primary 6, while 80 drop out during primary school. There are about 40,000 in each school cohort.
Keeping track of them is one thing. Persuading students to stay with a programme is another.
The key is getting them to recognise that having 10 years of education is crucial to having a better life.
Said Mr Masagos: 'An Institute of Technical Education grad's starting salary of $1,400 could be $2,000 in five years. A family of two ITE grads will have a household income of $4,000, and that's very workable in today's context.
'But if they don't have an ITE cert or 10 years of education, they can't take this path. So they need to know the reality.'
To help dropouts return to the fold and complete their education, the re-admission criteria for schools have been relaxed.
In the past, returning students could not be more than two years older than their classmates. Now, the age gap can be as big as four.
Schools say this particular move is yielding results.
One student who has benefited is 17-year-old Guo Shaopi, who dropped out of school in 2006 but returned in January. Now in Secondary 2 at Shuqun Secondary, his classmates are three years his junior.
Shaopi ran away from home and was eventually caught for housebreaking and rioting. He is now a resident at the Boys' Home, a centre for troubled youth. He realises now how hard it would be to land a good job without at least an N-level certificate.
Though he still gets into trouble in school for misbehaviour such as disrupting the class, and is having trouble passing his subjects, he says he has changed his mind about dropping out as he realised he could not get a good job without a certificate.
The ministry's efforts to lower the dropout rate come as the schools themselves are becoming increasingly innovative in doing so.
The schools say they have identified a variety of reasons why students drop out, such as family problems or negative peer influence, but the key to retaining them is to keep their interest in classes going.
Many try to engage the more restless students by including electives in their curriculum.
Shaopi, for example, takes bowling, judo and cycling as part of his lessons.
'Time passes faster with these,' he said.
At Pioneer Secondary in Jurong West, Secondary 2 students learn drama, while Secondary 3 students can choose from hairstyling, tourism, motorcycle servicing and culinary classes.
Students identified as 'at risk' are also taken out of the classroom every Friday, to play games and take part in activities which guide them on social issues such as why they should not smoke.
The aim is to have a lighter programme to keep them engaged in school, said principal Satianathan Nadarajah.
Another school trying a new method of teaching less academically inclined students is Bedok Town Secondary.
Each Normal (Technical) class gets three teachers during a lesson, including an education associate who assists with group work.
Principal Tan Siew Woon said the aim is to give teachers a chance to collaborate and make lessons livelier, while students get to experience different styles of teaching within the same lesson.
A different approach to school is also working well at NorthLight School, which accepts pupils who fail the PSLE.
Instead of the dreaded report card, students get an achievement file showcasing their involvement in community projects, school activities and school awards, on top of academic achievements.
'We redefine success for them and get them to experience and celebrate small successes,' said principal Chua Yen Ching.
Her students absorb the lesson well. One day, she found three ladies' fingers on her table, a gift from students who successfully grew the plant in the school garden.
'They said they wanted to give the first fruit of their labour to me. I was very touched,' she said.
Mr Masagos complimented the schools on their efforts, and said he hoped his ministry would provide that extra bit of help to complement their programmes.
'The schools are already doing a good job and we want to make more resources available to them. Even if the dropout rate does not drop, we would have, at the end of the day, a more systematic focus on at-risk students and a way to help schools with their work,' he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on August 29, 2008.