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Choices, Not Last Resorts

There's been <a href="http://tomorrow.sg/archives/2008/01/18/a_load_of_crap_from_the_educatio.html">quite a bit of buzz</a> regarding a <a href="http://mrwangsaysso.blogspot.com/2008/01/27-hapless-girls-and-one-unhappy.html">school Principal telling some 27 students to go to <abbr title="Institute of Technical Education">ITE</abbr></a>, instead of taking their 'O' Levels.
<strong>Standard disclaimers</strong>. I work at the Ministry of Education as resident codemonkey, but am writing this out of a personal capacity because it reflects my personal journey.
I'm not in a position to say what the Principal did was right or wrong – I've read enough of our newspapers to know that their writing is sometimes meant to evoke emotion. We do not know what "detailed N-Level grades" the Principal showed. The more tempestuous among us would like to imagine the Principal flashed individual names and grades, which I too feel might be over the top. The alternative is that the Principal gave a breakdown of the collective grades of the 27 by subject. That would be offering "detailed N-Level grades", but I doubt many would insist that it would have been as hurting as the former.
I think I'm the only executive in my division who didn't go to a junior college. Much as I'd like to change history, it wasn't because I chose to go to a polytechnic. It was a <em>last resort</em>.The game plan was to do barely enough to scrape through to a junior college to read English Literature, which I absolutely adored. The reality was that I scored a nice blackjack on my best six subjects, while the lowest possible score for entry into any junior college was 20. Ironically Literature, for which I've never scored less than an A, dashed my hopes with a C.
I spent the next few days mourning the death of my dreams. It didn't matter what I chose now, I just had to go somewhere I wouldn't totally suck. Excellence had eluded me this lifetime and it seemed I only had mediocrity to look forward to. You have to remember that back in those days, Polytechnics were the <a href="http://www.ite.edu.sg/">ITE</a> – basically because there weren't ITEs back then. ITEs were known as <abbr title="Vocational and Industrial Training Board">VITB</a>, and VITBs were for school dropouts who wanted back in. Polytechnics provided the blue-collar labour for Singapore. It seemed utterly unfair that my life was made up for me at 16. I enrolled in <a href="http://www.nyp.edu.sg/">Nanyang Polytechnic</a>, studying for a diploma in International Business.
It was different from everything I've ever experienced in my years of education. The things we studied had real life applications which I could identify with. The mode of learning was no longer rote learning from thick textbooks, but numerous group projects would consume day and night. My "last resort" turned out better than what I'd have chosen for myself. I still question what life'd have been if I read English Literature at Oxford, but those questions remain better unanswered. Life's too short to dwell on the what-could-have-beens.
<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/annegirl/2197279348/" title="IMG_0040 by Lucian Teo, on Flickr"><img src="http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2058/2197279348_ff40f3ae3d_m.jpg" width="240" height="180" alt="IMG_0040" class="img-right" /></a>The one mistake many of these bloggers made is that they thought of ITE is the last resort, and that the Principal was intentionally condemning these 27 students to an academic blackhole. ITEs are not what they used to be. Having just come from a visit to ITE's East campus, I had my own biases overwhelmingly reversed. The spanking new campus was cutting edge in every area, from the facilities, even down to the architecture of the campus itself. I had imagined ITEs to be dingy workshops with greasy floors. I was ashamed that I, who viewed myself a failure so many years ago, harboured these prejudices.
I'm going to be a little bolder here and say that I'm proud of what <abbr title="Ministry of Education">MOE</abbr> has done with and for the ITEs. I just wish the public mindset would change; that it's rather pointless to think of different avenues for education as better or worse than the next, but that the system is trying its best to cater to a diverse group of young people with different talents and ways of learning.

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