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Getting students to clean can hit pay dirt

Done right, getting students to clean up after themselves in school can spark a change in social attitudes, if the message is also reinforced at home

When schools reopened this week, students from primary school to junior college found themselves picking up more than just textbooks in the classroom.

For at least a few minutes every day, they will be using rags, brooms and other cleaning tools to make sure that their classrooms and other common areas are kept free of rubbish and remain tidy.

The Ministry of Education's (MOE) announcement last February that daily cleaning would be made compulsory in all schools here has drawn a flurry of comments, both online and offline. While many lauded the move as one that will bring about positive change, it has also earned its share of brickbats.

Among the most visceral of reactions include a Forum letter to this newspaper written by Mr David Soh,who questioned the objectives of introducing daily cleaning. "Is it to create social responsibility in children, and if so, does it work? Do the schools just not have any other programmes?"

He doubted the ability of such enforced measures to bring about positive change, given that he does not see moves to encourage children to return their food trays after eating in their school tuckshops translating into similar behaviour in public foodcourts, where many still leave their food trays despite the introduction of tray-return stations.

Other parents interviewed by The Straits Times earlier worried if students may be distracted from their studies because of the cleaning activities, and said that janitors are already there to keep school premises clean.

Granted, all new schemes to modify social behaviour may experience teething problems, and it is natural to question their efficacy. But why has a move that should be seen as a no-brainer in terms of inculcating good values in children been met with a degree of resistance?


After all, similar practices are part and parcel of school life in other East Asian societies, such as in Japan, where students do o-soji ("big cleaning") in classrooms and toilets on a regular basis.

And they have proven to have positive trickle-down effects - Japan is known for its cleanliness, with citizens accustomed to even taking their rubbish with them in the absence of dustbins in public spaces like parks.


Ironically, Singapore's rapid development could have contributed to this resistance.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan said that concerns raised about the new scheme should not be dismissed as overreactions.

While getting students to clean up is "normatively the right thing to do", she said, with many schools doing so during the early days of independence, Singapore as a nation-state has developed a "keenly competitive culture" that magnifies expectations for children to achieve academically over the years.

"Parents (here) focus all their efforts on giving children that head start," explained Associate Professor Straughan, pointing out that this includes freeing children from responsibilities such as housework so that they can fully concentrate on doing well in school.

It may thus seem counter-intuitive to some when activities like this are re-introduced in schools.

And while Singapore has a reputation as a clean country, it differs from that of, say Japan.

Japan is clean because people generally pick up after themselves, whereas Singapore's public and private spaces are mostly kept clean by an army of domestic helpers, janitors and cleaners - so much so that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had to make a call in 2015 for Singaporeans to pick up their own litter so that Singapore can progress from being a "cleaned city to a truly clean city".

"People are very much dependent on cleaners to clear up their mess," said NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

Also, extrinsic punishments that deter littering, instead of schemes that help people "internalise the intrinsic rewards of civic and environmental consciousness and beauty of public spaces", crowd out people's motivations to clean up after themselves, noted Associate Professor Tan.

"For these reasons, requiring schoolchildren to clean up is seen as an unnecessary imposition to an already tight academic and co-curricular activity schedule," he added.


Experts said that schools should prioritise intrinsic motivation over extrinsic punishments in order to get both parents and pupils to see the value in such cleaning activities.

Already, schools are given the flexibility to decide on what these daily activities should be and when they take place.

Some, such as Meridian Secondary School in Pasir Ris, laud classes with the cleanest classrooms during morning assembly and encourage them to come up with ideas for improving their classroom spaces to help them take ownership.

Others, like Teck Ghee Primary School in Ang Mo Kio, play adapted songs that are sung by teachers while pupils clean at the end of the school day.

This is similar to what is being done in Taiwan, where cleaning tasks in some schools are organised into a school-wide contest. The class that wins first place for cleanliness every week is awarded a plaque of honour to hang on the classroom door.

Prof Tan suggested that schools not be "overly preachy" about the cleaning activities when communicating with parents and students, and assign different classes to their own areas of responsibility to "inculcate a sense of 'house-proud' ownership".

"If we want to change norms, we need to message it in a positive, affirming manner rather than (it) coming across as a punishment," added Prof Straughan.

But the work done by schools could be unravelled if parents do not reinforce the message at home. Administrative assistant Irene Ling, 42, realised that her two children had become used to having someone clean up after them when her domestic helper was away in the Philippines last week.

"I had always taught them to be responsible for cleanliness at home but it really hit home how much work needed to be done in that area last week," said Madam Ling, who reminded her daughter, eight, and son, 11, that there are some basic chores that they are expected to do even when there is help around, like washing their own cups.

"We have to teach them these habits at home, not just in school, because it's important that they learn the meaning of responsibility."

Keane Tan, a Primary 6 pupil at St Joseph's Institution Junior, said that he and his classmates now have to clean up the classroom at the end of the school day, such as by wiping down the windows or sweeping the floor.

He thinks that an incentive scheme that rewards those with the cleanest classrooms will help change attitudes. "I don't mind doing it because it makes the classroom a better environment to study and play in.

"But not everyone in class may want to do it because they are used to having helpers at home."


Getting schools to implement such programmes displays MOE's commitment towards going beyond mere lip service to nurture socially conscious citizens.

Instead of launching yet another campaign, such experiences that get students to take concrete action can address the "crisis of cleanliness" that Singapore is facing - in the words of Mr Liak Teng Lit in 2015, who was then chairman of the Public Hygiene Council.

But more importantly, if students can be taught the value of caring enough for the community to keep their surroundings clean, it will also raise the level of civic consciousness in society - and ultimately strengthen their sense of belonging to the community and society.

It can also develop in them a sense of empathy for those who keep our spaces clean, and help them see dignity in all forms of labour.

And if that is not enough to convince kiasu-minded parents of the value of cleaning up, guess what? Studies also show that schools that implement such character education programmes well tend to do better in academics.

If done right, getting students to clean in school can be a move that hits pay dirt.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2017, with the headline 'Getting students to clean can hit pay dirt'. Print Edition | Subscribe