Singapore Sports School at a crossroads

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 6, 2014

THE Singapore Sports School (SSP) has produced world champions and Asian Games gold medallists and can even boast of a President's Scholar. Yet, even though much has gone right for the country's only sport-centric education institution in its first 10 years, it is now at a crossroads.

With an eye on the next 10 years, the school is in the midst of a review that will be completed by the end of the year.

Does the SSP continue with business as usual?

Some observers question its success since it is still not the automatic choice for all of the nation's best young student-athletes.

Is it time - in the face of increased competition from mainstream schools for sporting talent and rising expectations from parents and the society - to tweak its formula of allowing students to build their academic studies around sporting pursuits?

Are there ways in which the school can become more competitive in today's society?

These key questions are among the many its principal Tan Teck Hock, barely three months into his job, and his staff will have to ask themselves as they plot the school's future.

The challenge has already been laid down.

At a ceremony to mark the school's 10th anniversary in January, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged the SSP to evolve into a national sports academy of excellence in its next 10 years.

Just last month, Singapore Table Tennis Association president Lee Bee Wah asked in Parliament if the academic load at the SSP could be lightened to let student-athletes focus more on sports.

There have also been calls for the school to raise its academic standards - despite above-average results.

All of the 39 who sat the O-level examinations last year attained passes in three or more subjects, higher than the national average of 95.7 per cent. Also, 94.9 per cent attained passes in five or more subjects, better than the national average of 82.7 per cent.

The SSP's other students opt for the International Baccalaureate Diploma, which begins this year, or the Republic Polytechnic-SSP Diploma programme.

But while tweaks should be introduced to help Singapore's sporting starlets keep up or even stay ahead of their counterparts, in the case of the sports school, perhaps less is more.

For one thing, becoming a national sports academy of excellence should not mean the SSP becomes the only option for the Republic's bright young talents hoping to don national colours.

The SSP, since its first intake in 2004, has always been one of many choices for student-athletes. Unlike mainstream schools, the SSP allows for the academic curriculum to be tailored around a student-athlete's training.

For instance, 48 elite student-athletes are on the School Within A School scheme. This is a customised programme in which students train longer than usual during the day, with schoolwork at night.

A table tennis player on this programme would train on average close to 30 hours a week, while a student on a team in a mainstream school would spend only about a third of that time on court. Those not on elite programmes train about 12 to 16 hours a week, devoting more time to the classroom.

But the SSP is just one of about 180 education institutions that cater to students aged 13 to 18 here. SSP students number just over 500 each year, representing less than 1 per cent of Singapore's student population at that age.

To look only to those who choose the SSP would mean alienating - and missing out - on other talent.

As it is, the most talented youth are not necessarily opting to go to the sports school. Several of the nation's top prospects in table tennis and swimming have chosen to attend mainstream schools and still managed to excel in both sport and academic pursuits.

At last year's SEA Games, for example, Team Singapore athletes took home 34 gold medals. But only 15 gold medals came from SSP student-athletes and alumni.

The SSP does not and should not hold a monopoly on talent. Others have proven that the SSP is not the only place where a budding athlete can excel.

What the SSP could perhaps do to help the student population in general and widen the net for national selectors is to help raise levels at other schools.

"Beyond just wanting all the students to be stationed here, we need to ask ourselves if we could work with people, could we be more inclusive?" Mr Tan told The Straits Times.

For him, the SSP's unique expertise in sports science and nutrition, particularly in dealing with young student-athletes, offers it a way of assisting other institutions.

This is perhaps the area where the school could really add value. Unlike other educational institutions which are unable to afford the same resources, the SSP has dedicated staff who work with elite student-athletes on a daily basis. Over the past decade, they have built up a wealth of experience. Case studies, best practices and know-how are just some examples of knowledge that can be shared with other schools at conferences or symposiums.

To raise its own standards, the sports school could also align itself with the Singapore Sports Institute, the nation's premium centre for training.

The two institutions could run programmes that are complementary to their respective athlete bases.

Such a through-train system from junior sport to the senior stage could eventually sway better athletes to make the switch to the SSP.

The SSP may also want to look at growing its list of academies for various sports if its long-term goal is to nurture future champions for Singapore. Currently, of the 28 Olympic sports, only eight feature in the SSP.

These are areas where it can stand out as it seeks to stay relevant. Parents are now more willing to spend on sports enrichment camps and overseas stints for their children. Mainstream schools are also increasingly pursuing students who can bring their schools sporting success.

As it charts its future, perhaps the SSP should not merely concern itself with how to compete for the best.

Rather, it should also look at the bigger picture, and help raise the overall level in grooming young athletes.

As SSP principal Tan aptly put it in his speech during the school's recent 10th-anniversary celebrations: "It takes a village to raise a child. In our case, it takes a village - or even an entire nation - to raise a champion."

Nurturing Singapore's next- generation world-beaters is something that will take the combined efforts of not just athletes and parents, but also school and sports administrators. The sporting hopes of the nation need not - and should not - be a burden borne only by the SSP.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 6, 2014

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