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How My Neighbourhood School Changed the Lives of 300 Students with a Leadership Programme

Streamed from Young

The education system in Singapore was designed to maximise the potential of our small population, in hopes that the talents will contribute significantly to the country when they step into the working world.

Because of this, students as young as Primary 5 were defined by their academic abilities through EM1, EM2 and EM3 streams. This has inevitably brought about the labels of the gifted and the bad apples.

Later in 2008, this system was refined to become a subject-based banding where students could take each subject at the Standard or Foundation level based on their grades. It was made to allow students to work on their weaker subjects at a comfortable pace while continuing to excel in their stronger ones.

Removing the Streaming System in Secondary Schools

A study done by the National Institute of Education concluded that students in the Normal streams tended to be less confident in their abilities.

As an attempt to eliminate prejudice across streams, the Ministry of Education will be introducing a subject-based banding in 25 pilot schools in 2020. By 2024, streaming in secondary schools will be fully replaced by this system and this batch of students will be the first to sit for one common national examination.

However, the question remains –
Will the introduction of subject-based banding strike a balance between customisation and diminishing stigmatisation?

In a recent video done by The Smart Local, Fauzi Aziz mentioned that even though he and his colleagues were from different streams, they all ended up working in the same company with different skills to offer. “At the end of the day, it’s about what you want to do in the future and how well you excel in it.”

Focus on Holistic Education

In a society that places so much emphasis on academic achievements, two dedicated Physical Education teachers in a neighbourhood school saw the potential in every single student.

In 2005, Mr. David Vaithilingam and Mr. Lee Seck Kwoon adapted a student leadership programme – the Red Shirts Student Leaders – from Victoria School to fit the then 6-year old Coral Secondary School.

Who are the Red Shirts?

The Red Shirts are a group of student leaders in Coral Secondary School (now known as Meridian Secondary School).

They organise school events, camps for various primary schools and the Secondary 1 Orientation Camp and take on leadership positions in their Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) and in the school.

How Do You Become a Red Shirt Student Leader?

To become a Red Shirt Student Leader, a student has to voluntarily enrol in a preparatory course, titled “Leadership by Choice (LBC)”. This course is organised by teachers, senior Red Shirts (Secondary 3-5 students) and the Red Shirt Alumni. The course seeks to introduce basic leadership concepts and is a platform for seniors and the alumni to share their experiences and takeaways.

At the end of LBC, a select few will be invited to a four-day camp known as the “Student Leaders Training Camp (SLTC)”. This camp is designed to provide an avenue for students to practice what they have learned and to challenge their mettle and fortitude. Those who complete the camp will then be given the iconic Red Shirt and will be recognised as part of the group. These junior Red Shirts (Secondary 2 students) will then slowly take over appointments and roles held by their seniors.

What is the Difference Between a Student Councillor and a Red Shirt?

Red Shirts was created to build a sense of belonging in the school and to boost school spirit. A Student Councillor, on the other hand, acts as the voice of the students to promote changes in the school and its policies. The roles of these two leadership groups complement each other to encourage a positive learning environment for all students.

Opportunities as a Red Shirt Student Leader

Aside from organising and facilitating school camps (with minimal to no aid from the teachers), we were also exposed to the following activities:

  • Level 1 Kayaking Certification
  • Level 1 Rock Climbing Certification
  • Outward Bound School
  • Basic Social Etiquette Course

The social etiquette course is conducted by the teachers and alumni to share tips and their fine dining experiences. During the second half of the theory course, the Red Shirts will split into two groups where the males and females would go through something tailored for them (chivalry and grooming for guys and grooming for ladies).

Lastly, they would get to experience a fine dining dinner at a restaurant to apply the skills they have learnt.

  • Overseas Expedition

In Secondary 3, each batch (starting from Batch 5) had the opportunity to go for an overseas expedition.

Mount Kinabalu in Sabah (2010-2013)
Great Wall of China in Beijing (2014-2016)
Snow Mountain in Taiwan (2017-2018)

Notice how the image resolution gets better over the years ?

Prior to the trip, there would be intensive training sessions to ensure that everyone was ready to take on the expedition.

I’m grateful that I’ve had the privilege of going for the Mount Kinabalu expedition in 2010. For my batch (Batch 5), I remember training at 40-storey HDB staircases with a full bag of water bottles and snacks to simulate the actual climb.

Reaching the peak of a mountain was an achievement that we, as Secondary 3s then, probably never thought we’d be able to conquer but we did.

This could probably be attributed to the reflection session we had the night prior to the start of the climb. We were tasked to think about our motivation to reach the peak, which all tied back to our loved ones who encouraged us to go for the trip in the first place.

Looking back, these were definitely rare and highly sought-after opportunities and we were really fortunate to be exposed to such activities at such a young age.

Don’t give me the problem. Give me the solution.

These are words that I have held close to my heart since Secondary 2.

A Reflection on my Red Shirts Journey

Joining Red Shirts Student Leaders is easily one of the best decisions I have ever made. It is clear that the opportunities that we had have taught us invaluable lessons about respect, resilience, sportsmanship and teamwork.

One thing that has stuck with me through the years is the phrase “don’t give me the problem, give me the solution”. While it is pretty funny looking back, it has greatly shaped the way I think about and approach many things in life and it has undoubtedly made me a better team player.

Throughout my time as a Red Shirt, I’ve seen Mr. David’s countless attempts to speak up for those who have committed a momentary mistake that was a false reflection of their true potential. It was because of him, Mr. Leong and the other dedicated teachers that we had the chance to prove that we are not the bad apples that some of us were perceived to be.

Under their guidance, we have carried out so many events from camps to inter-house events such as Cross Country and Track and Field Meet. These events have not only honed our event organisation and management skills, they have also equipped us with the ability to think on our feet to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

As a result of gaining these vital hard and soft skills, I was never afraid to take on leadership roles even after I graduated from Coral. I went on to become the Captain of my CCA in Junior College and the Chairperson of my hall’s Dinner and Dance Committee in University.

But my biggest takeaway from this experience is definitely the lifelong friendships I have built along the way.

I strongly believe every secondary school in Singapore should consider implementing this leadership programme to inculcate students with the right values from young.

Today, Red Shirts includes students from both Coral and Meridian Secondary School and is 15 batches strong.

Bringing Holistic Education to the Next Level

Singaporeans should move away from a narrow focus on grades to embrace a broader meritocracy of skills and give more support to those who lag behind.
– Education Minister Ong Ye Kung

The Red Shirts Student Leadership Programme provided the perfect platform for students to better themselves, regardless of their stream. In fact, the teachers-in-charge often looked into bringing students from the Normal streams on board and that allowed them to develop purposefully beyond academic pursuits.

With such a leadership programme put into place, it further manifests the importance of inculcating values in students. By empowering them to recognise their strengths and weaknesses early, it will undoubtedly propel them for greater things in the future.

Streaming or not, holistic education should be kept as a key priority.

Thank you, to all the teachers who have changed our lives:
Mr. David Vaithilingam
Mr. Lee Seck Kwoon
Mr. Jason Leong
Mr. Chen Zhang Jin
Mr. Fong Wei Liang
Mrs. Corrin Kwok
Mr. Muhammed Khairil

Special thanks to:
Tan Si Hui, Batch 4
Nicole Tan, Batch 5
Orlandes Goh, Batch 9
Regina Ong, Batch 11
Yuan Sheng, Batch 11

Here’s What The Red Shirts Alumni Has To Say:

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