I was impressed with what I saw this week at a neighbourhood primary school in Pasir Ris. It is a typical neighbourhood school, not the ones that parents would do all sort of things to try to get their children into. In fact, there are only five primary 1 classes this year even though the school was allowed to take in more. In other words, parents could enrol their children into that school at any phase for primary 1 admission.
I was in the canteen with the vice principal when the shutters of a stall just opened. It was around 1130 am. I was curious why the operator would open only at such a late hour. The VP explained to me that the stall is run by parent volunteers. It opens faithfully every week on Friday mornings to teach primary 1 and 2 pupils to prepare some simple food and the parent volunteers would use the facilities to cook / bake / heat the food up for them. It is a programme they started this year on a regular weekly basis to get pupils to understand about food preparation and to eat healthy meals. That day was not a Friday. The school’s volleyball team was about to go out for a competition. The parent volunteers had come specially to prepare special food for the team to take away later. I was told this is regularly being done whenever children go out for competitions.
I have seen different types of parent volunteers, having been involved now for many years in this industry. Popular schools have many of them who join mostly just slightly over a year before their children were due to register for primary 1. They do all sort of things required by the school, but mostly to direct traffic during the busy periods of pupils coming into and leaving school. Volunteers include doctors, lawyers, company directors, managers and professionals who would clock in at least the minimum required hours for their children to qualify for admission at an earlier phase for primary 1 registration. They are not expected to stay as volunteers too long. Once the transaction is done, many would ‘vacate’ their positions for a new batch of parent volunteers to serve their duties.
Of course, that’s generalisation. There are always exceptions. I know of a mother whose two sons went into a popular chinese school and she continued to volunteer to do reading programmes for pupils right till her younger one finished primary 6. Some become active as Parent Support Group (PSG) committee members for several years.
Popular schools never had problems getting enough parent volunteers. A principal once told me she had to interview parents every year to select just about enough because she does not want to disappoint parents if there are more volunteers than sufficient places in primary 1 priority admission phases. She recounted a year where parent volunteers had to ballot and some had to be turned away disappointed after a year of faithful labour of directing traffic. That fate indeed happened to a friend of mine. He was disappointed at being unlucky in balloting in an unusual year of high demand for his choice school. Then at the next registration phase at the nearest school to this popular school, he said it was funny to find fellow ‘volunteer rejects’ there with him. Anyway, his son is now doing very well in this neighbourhood school.
Back to my story about that Pasir Ris-based neighbourhood school. The parent volunteers are everywhere, not just operating the canteen stall. They are also in classrooms for certain special projects that require more hands-on help. And they are regular. The same set of parents come weekly to help in the same programmes so there will be some continuity and familiarity with the pupils and in what they need to do. So I asked the VP if it was difficult to get parent volunteers organised to this level of activism, especially when parents need not volunteer to get their children into his school.
He told me it has been a four-year journey since they started trying to engage parents more. Each year, the commitment level grew and the school became more confident organising parents into more programmes. Some ideas were initiated by the parents themselves, such as wanting to do something to ensure healthy eating for the younger pupils and involving them in food preparation. It requires the volunteers to be regular to ensure the programmes can go on weekly without fail. Of course, these involve those who are full-time homemakers. The VP did say they do engage the working parents to volunteer as well, but on occasional projects.
It is wonderful if parent volunteerism is truly at that level, where the desire is to want to help in children’s holistic education and not to see it as a transaction for priority primary 1 admission. Perhaps the priority system was put there to ensure that schools get a certain number of parent volunteers to get things going. Similarly so for community leaders. I still do not understand why community leaders’ children need to be given priority into primary schools. In their case, the benefits they directly bring to the schools may not even be as much as parent volunteers who would at least have to do something directly involving the school.
Whatever the reasons for giving absolute priority to parent volunteers and community leaders over others, this arrangement would benefit only popular schools. I rather see volunteerism as true volunteerism rather than a business transaction. That way, the effects of what volunteers can do will be more sincere and lasting.