Monday, December 31, 2012

High expectations of principals

Kezia Toh

The Straits Times
Sun Dec 30 2012

SINGAPORE - Principals are role models that schools and society at large have high expectations of and regard for, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat last Thursday, at an appointment ceremony for 60 new school heads.

While he made no reference to the ongoing Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau's probe of former River Valley High School principal Steven Koh Yong Chiah, 58, Mr Heng noted how good principals know their position is not "about privilege or power" but a calling to inspire the teaching fraternity and nurture future generations.

"The actions of over 360 principals have a tremendous impact on 33,000 teachers and over half a million students we have in our school system," he said.

The 60 who received letters of appointment last Thursday include Mrs Teo Khin Hiang, 54, who took over last week from Mr Koh, who has been redeployed to the ministry's headquarters as principal (special projects).

Mrs Teo, who was thrust into the hot seat, found herself at the centre of attention at the ceremony on that day.

But she chose not to speak to reporters, leaving early by a back door.

She was deputy director of the programme coordination office at the ministry's headquarters, and was also formerly principal of schools including Chua Chu Kang Secondary.

The 60 principals were given new appointments in the annual rotation.

Some observers noted that some experienced principals from popular schools were assigned to lesser-known ones.

Former Henry Park Primary principal Ng Teng Joo, for instance, will head White Sands Primary in Pasir Ris.

Such moves, say observers, will allow newer schools to tap on the experience of the more senior educators.

Mrs Regina Lee, 43, formerly of CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh), who will head North Vista Secondary School, said: "No two schools are alike. Each carries its own unique cohort of students."

Instead of importing what was used in her previous school, she wants to build on what North Vista already has, she said.

Mr Heng also pointed out on that day that the role of a principal in today's context is not just to boost the standing of his school.

He must understand that his school is part of a larger school system, and he must have the "generosity of spirit" not just to focus on his school's success.

"Our principals' key challenge is more than competing for the most talented students, or showing that (their) school is better than the next school," he said.

As leaders in education, they are expected to share and collaborate with others "to bring our entire education system forward".

Principals also have a role to play beyond the school, said Mr Heng, who also spoke about them taking on a "community leadership role", similar to how principals used to be like village chiefs - reading and writing letters for illiterate migrants.

They should help "the broader community understand the value of education, and explain what can or cannot be done".

For instance, they play an important role as the "interface between HQ and the front line", such as explaining the rationale behind policies, he pointed out.

He cited examples of recent decisions that "may not be fully understood by the public", such as not naming top PSLE scorers, which signals that the exam is not the be-all-and-end-all, rather than it signalling a move away from academic excellence.

"As the interface between HQ and the front line, our principals play a very critical role in leading change... and it is your leadership ability that translates intent to effective change in the schools," he said.

Those given new portfolios on that day include not only veterans, but also new faces, such as Ms Loh Wee Cheng, 33, the youngest of the batch.

Formerly a vice-principal at Rulang Primary, she will now head Townsville Primary in Ang Mo Kio.

Other principals who were rotated to helm new schools include Madam Lim Geok Cheng, 54, who will now head the School of the Arts in its first leadership change since its inception in 2005, taking over from Mrs Rebecca Chew.

Former deputy director of professional development at the Academy of Singapore Teachers, Madam Tham Mun See, 43, will head Raffles Girls' School (Secondary), taking over from Mrs Julie Hoo, 46, who was RGS principal for six years.

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