Going door to door to get kids to school

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 23, 2013

WHILE December is the month of holidays and festivities, it is 30 days of hard work for Mr Samuel Koh.

For the past 14 years, the 68-year-old has spent the month knocking on up to 500 doors, with one message to parents: Please send your child to primary school.

Liaison officers like him have helped Singapore to set an enrolment record, 10 years after it made primary education mandatory under the Compulsory Education Act.

Education Ministry figures show that of the 34,166 pupils who were due to attend Primary 1 this year, only one child remained unregistered. Last year, there were two pupils, and in 2011, one.

The Act is in place to ensure that children are registered in primary schools and complete six years of primary education by the time they turn 15.

Parents who fail to register or ensure regular attendance of their children can be fined up to $5,000 and jailed for up to a year, although The Straits Times understands that no prosecutions have been made under the Act.

The Education Ministry said that while the majority of parents do register their children for school, "there is typically a small number - around 1,500 children" who are not registered by the end of the Primary 1 registration exercise.

At the end of this, the ministry matches those who have registered and those exempt from school - such as pupils with special needs or those who have applied for home-schooling - against birth records. Reminder letters are sent, but when parents still do not respond, liaison officers visit their last known addresses to check on them.

"The majority of the cases, maybe over 70 per cent of them, are residing overseas, or have signed up for home-schooling, so we are not worried," said Mr Koh, a retired primary school teacher.

"But the remaining families... we have to come in and help," he added. "None of them tells me education is not important. But they are so preoccupied with other problems, such as low income or unemployment, and they just did not register."

Mr Koh will advise these families on where to seek assistance.

He recalled one case several years ago when a father turned aggressive on him.

"The parent pointed to his daughter and told me, 'Whether I send her to school or not is none of your business'. He warned me never to come back, or he would punch me," he said.

Cases of families requiring counselling and support are forwarded to the Singapore Children's Society (SCS). In the past 10 years, it has handled 60 cases of children not being registered for school, though this number has been falling.

Ms Sue Cheng, senior director of SCS' Research and Outreach Centre, said education may not be the main priority when a family is struggling with financial issues.

"At six years old, rarely are children independent enough to wake up on time to go to school," she said. "You need an adult to wake them up and get them ready and if the adult is struggling with mammoth issues, this is going to be sidetracked."

Mr Benedict Kuah, assistant director at SCS' Research and Outreach Centre, has also encountered problems with overprotective parents who are reluctant to let their young ones attend school. Persuading them to do so can mean schools having to make special arrangements for their children.

"We have cases where the mothers sit in the canteen or outside the classroom, but we have to gradually ease them off," he said.

Mr Koh has visited 130 households in 10 days so far this year.

After receiving a list of addresses, he makes a map of the most efficient route, and sets out to work, from 10am to 10pm. Sometimes, he has to visit three neighbourhoods just to locate one family.

"I hope to keep doing this until I can no longer walk," he said. "There is a sense of fulfilment when I see smiles on parents' faces after I help them to fill out the application form."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 23, 2013

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