The 10th anniversary of NorthLight School exemplifies the rewards of cognitive daring. This lies in giving "second chance" pupils the means to believe in themselves, no matter what their earlier setbacks. Failing the Primary School Leaving Examination once represented the end of the educational road for many students weighed down by difficult family situations, poverty or poor learning experiences. They dropped out of academic sight behind the chariot race for ever better grades. The system now, as guided by education ministers in recent years, seeks to level up across the board. Young Singaporeans, including those who were falling through the cracks, have the chance to pursue different peaks of excellence.
There was no guarantee that the new effort would succeed, because often the most difficult task of all is to convince those who feel defeated that they have not lost everything. Thankfully, an exemplary group of educators set about rewriting the rules of the game by emphasising what their students could do, not what they could not.
NorthLight emphasises development through sports and arts, literacy and numeracy, information and communications technology, and vocational skills that open doors to tertiary education and a host of careers. Certainly, the education system in general seeks to promote such goals, but where NorthLight has succeeded is in mainstreaming its students into an academic and vocational culture that enables them to outrun their previous shortcomings. NorthLight's teachers went beyond the call of duty by making their students' families stakeholders in a common enterprise. Children, particularly those from problematic homes, learn best when they know that their parents have not given up on them in spite of their own difficulties.
Thus, about 45 per cent of its students now go on to the Institute of Technical Education. A number of graduates have succeeded in moving on from there to polytechnics, while others have entered private institutions. None of these achievements would have been possible but for the trust that the school had invested in them. The setting up of Assumption Pathway School in 2009 attests to the infectious spread of NorthLight's pioneering efforts. Assumption's guiding principles of "connecting lives, nurturing individualised growth and flourishing through opportunities" offer its students lifelines to a future that many of them did not know they had.
The education system must continue to move in this inclusive direction if the base of achievement is to be broad enough to sustain meritocracy. Meritocracy must exist not only at the top but must also prevail at every level. The answer lies not in bringing down standards to create the lowest common denominator of success but in empowering every student to make the best of himself or herself - by pursuing unique interests and talents.