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Wed, Mar 31, 2010
The Straits Times
Aiming for the bottom is no way to go

By Alan John, Deputy Editor

LAST Friday night's annual general meeting of the St Joseph's Institution Old Boys' Association (SJIOBA) drew a record turnout, and that should not have surprised anyone.

Ahead of the meeting, some old boys had said they were worried their alma mater was becoming too 'elitist'. That was controversial enough to attract a crowd.

'Elitist' is an odd label for a school that is anything but. SJI was not elitist before it went independent in 1988, and it has not become elitist since.

It has improved and expanded its range of programmes, and the mission of the Christian Brothers remains alive in a religious and moral education programme.

For parents anxious to ensure the best for their children, the elitist label smacks not only of exclusivity but also unfairness. For loyal old boys who love their alma mater, it means their sons are being blocked entry.

The source of Josephian unhappiness is this: Not enough Catholic boys are making it to SJI, despite attending affiliated primary schools.

So last Friday's meeting attracted more than 250 old boys, lasted four hours, and from what some who attended say, saw a robust debate over elitism, entry criteria, and not a little nostalgia for the way it was in the good old days in Bras Basah.

Like other independent schools, SJI has shrunk its class size, introduced new programmes, raised standards and tightened entry requirements. Its students come from everywhere, not only from Catholic primary schools.

Although the school sets a lower cut-off for boys from its feeder Christian Brothers schools, many still don't get in.

The SJIOBA debated a suggestion to reserve half the places for boys from SJI Junior - previously St Michael's School - and another 25 per cent for those from other feeder schools.

The old boys plan to collate their views to present to SJI's board. While their concerns may be legitimate, this exercise threatens to damage their old school.

I attended a Christian Brothers school and by the time I finished I was glad for my time there, grateful for life. So when the time came to enrol my son in Primary 1 here, there was no question about where to send him. It had to be St Michael's School.

I remember his PSLE Results Day like it was yesterday. The boys were assembled in the school hall and, as we parents waited anxiously within earshot, a teacher launched into a rambling prayer beseeching God to help the parents accept their sons' results.

Then came the announcement of results so disappointing that one in two boys had no hope of going to SJI. My son was among boys who got into SJI, and I remember his first hour in Secondary 1 like it happened this morning.

The new Josephians from dozens of primary schools were assigned to 12 classes, ranked by their PSLE scores. As they trooped to their classrooms, it was heartbreaking to see the majority of the St Michael's boys in the bottom four classes. In the years that followed some did make the leap to the better Secondary 3 and 4 classes, but most stayed put in the bottom half all their years at SJI.

So I am dumbfounded that the SJIOBA would consider an idea that will result in even more Catholic boys crowding the school's weakest classes. Parents who believe there's nothing wrong with that, because getting into SJI is all that matters, ought to think again. It's not a great experience to spend four years eclipsed by better performers not only from non-feeder schools, but also from Asean countries.

In pressuring SJI to lower entry standards significantly, a move guaranteed to set the school on the path to mediocrity, the SJIOBA has the wrong end of the stick. They ought to ask why Catholic primary schools have failed to get more boys into SJI, and into its best classes.

My son's school, St Michael's, had boys mainly from middle-class homes, speaking good English. Yet it has struggled to get more of its boys into SJI.

A name change that turned it into SJI Junior did nothing but raise parents' expectations that their boys would sail into SJI secondary. No such thing has happened, and parents want to know: Why?

It is apparent that while SJI correctly raised standards, the same did not happen enough in its feeder schools.

You still hear parents lament that mother tongue results pulled down their boys' PSLE performance. Is that true? Other primary schools which had the same problem have managed to fix it.

At many neighbourhood schools, principals and teachers work hard to help their children do well at the PSLE and work on areas of weakness. Their efforts are all the more admirable because they often work with children from humble socio-economic backgrounds, who start Primary 1 handicapped by poor English. Some of their boys make it to SJI, despite the higher cut-off for those from non-Catholic schools.

Instead of demanding lower entry standards, the SJIOBA would do the Catholic community a greater service by prodding the feeder schools to do better. They should also ask the primary school leaders what Catholic parents need to change or do more of, to help their sons get into the secondary school of their choice.

The old boys cannot be unaware that loyalty can transform miraculously into pragmatism on PSLE Results Day. Many who swear they want their sons in SJI and nowhere else, behave quite differently the moment their boys qualify for Raffles Institution, Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) or Victoria School.

They buy into these other schools' emphasis on meritocracy, they prefer the through-train programmes that bypass the O levels and want their sons to have more options after secondary school. For the same reasons, SJI students have left after Secondary 2 for more attractive integrated programmes at non-Catholic schools and junior colleges.

The SJIOBA members should consider carefully the changes they recommend. Loyalty, devotion and nostalgia are wonderful, but they should not be wielded to damage a good school. If the old boys persist, I hope the school's board of governors will reaffirm persuasively the reasons why it must not abandon its efforts to keep moving up.

Because it will be a sad day when Catholic parents tell their sons the SJIOBA has assured them of an easier ride into SJI, and add: 'Aim for the bottom, son.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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