When Mrs Chua Yen Ching was recruiting a pioneer team of teachers for NorthLight School – a specialised school that takes in those who fail their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) – 10 years ago, one of her first thoughts was: “Who would want to teach the weakest students in Singapore?”
But, to Mrs Chua’s surprise, 150 educators did, turning up for a recruitment talk in March 2006.
“I told them, ‘If you do not have experience working with this group of children, don’t apply,’ ” the founding principal of NorthLight said.
“I felt that the mission was a tough one, so those who join must not only be passionate but competent. If not, they will feel very discouraged.”
A total of 96 teachers – including award-winning ones – later applied for the initial 20 teaching jobs available. Some were even willing to give up their head of department roles to teach at the school.
Said Mrs Chua, 58: “We had to start from scratch. It was something not done before.”
Ten years on, NorthLight has helped give many students who struggle with mainstream studies a chance to continue studying.
It boasts a curriculum customised to help these students stay interested in their studies, with an emphasis on character development.
More than 1,400 students have since completed their education at NorthLight, which welcomed its first batch of 228 students in 2007.
Mrs Chua, who left the school at the end of 2011, said: “The story of NorthLight is about hope.
“We are helping the students to redefine success – it isn’t just about academic excellence.”
But when NorthLight started, many felt that it too, would be a failure. “One of the common questions that people ask is what if the NorthLight story did not succeed?” said Mrs Chua, who is now the deputy director-general of education for professional development at the Ministry of Education (MOE).
“My response is that at least we have the courage to try. If we do not try, nothing is going to change.”
Today, more NorthLight students – previously written off by many as hopeless cases – are making it to tertiary institutions.
About 45 per cent of students now go on to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), up from some 30 per cent in the school’s initial years.
Fourteen graduates have done well enough to move on from the ITE to polytechnics and, so far, three have graduated with diplomas. Others have gone to private institutions such as Kaplan Singapore.
Each year, NorthLight takes in about 200 new students.
NorthLight’s current principal, Mr Martin Tan, who took over from Mrs Chua about five years ago, said the school’s unique model works.
“The teachers teach by adopting an encouraging approach, where we celebrate small successes and highlight students who have made improvements,” he said. “Through this, we help them discover their self-belief and confidence.”
In 2009, the MOE, inspired by NorthLight’s progress, started Assumption Pathway School, which also takes in those who fail the PSLE.
NorthLight and Assumption Pathway students learn literacy and numeracy skills and receive vocational training in areas such as hospitality services. They graduate with an ITE Skills Certificate, which qualifies them to enter the workforce or the ITE if their grades permit it.
According to data released by the MOE last year, about 60 per cent of pupils who had failed the PSLE would drop out of school, before these two specialised schools were set up. With these schools, this has been lowered to about 10 to 15 per cent.
Mr Tan said the resilient trait nurtured in NorthLight students, coupled with their relevant skill sets they pick up at the school, “makes them very employable”.
And it does not matter which path students take, said Ms Euleen Goh, chairman of NorthLight’s board of governors, who has seen the school grow over the decade.
“What is more important is that each student finds the confidence to go and build a life for themselves,” she said.
Last Wednesday, NorthLight was lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at an event to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
“NorthLight has not only changed the lives of its own students, but it has also influenced our wider education system,” Mr Lee said.
Some former teachers have since brought NorthLight’s best practices, such as its hands-on approach to teaching, to their current schools.
The event also marked the official opening of NorthLight’s campus in Towner Road, its home since December 2014. The school’s former campus was in Dunman Road.
The current campus features vocational education facilities, including a supermarket and culinary kitchens, and sports facilities, such as a synthetic soccer field and an indoor sports hall. There is also a student recreation centre – with video game consoles and foosball tables – where students can hang out before and after school.
During his speech, Mr Lee recalled a visit to NorthLight’s Dunman Road campus in 2009, when he met with the school’s teachers.
“They poured their hearts out for the students, encouraging them to stay the course, visiting their homes to make sure the students were all right, and taking them to the doctors when they were unwell.”
One such educator is mathematics teacher Nicholas Pinto.
The 40-year-old, who has been with the school for six years, said teaching the kids can be challenging “but it is not rocket science”.
“We are always improvising, always adapting,” said Mr Pinto, adding that this includes engaging students through games.
Recalling a difficult student who many felt might fall through the cracks, he shared that the boy, whom he would play soccer and have informal chats with, recently came back to visit on Teachers’ Day. The boy did well enough to graduate from NorthLight and is currently employed.
“It took time to gain his trust and work with him, such that he stayed on,” he said. “We’re happy for him.”
Fourth-year student Mohd Irfan Shah, 16, entered NorthLight after failing his PSLE. “It was demoralising, but my teachers here didn’t give up on me,” he said.
Irfan, who is faring well in school, hopes to study digital animation or retail services at the ITE after graduating from NorthLight. He also has his sights set on getting a degree. “I don’t know what I would be doing now if NorthLight didn’t exist.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline ‘New hope for PSLE ‘no-hopers