Establishment of NorthLight School
NorthLight School

The Problem

World Economic Forum, in its annual Global Competitiveness Report (2010), rated Singapore as the “world’s best education system which meets the needs of a competitive economy”. Many other international accolades received also affirmed Singapore as a global leader in education, renowned for achieving quality education However, regardless of how sophisticated an education system is, there will always be a small number in every student cohort who fall through the “cracks” every year and require assistance to complete a basic education so that they do not become liabilities to the society.

In Singapore, six years of primary school education is compulsory for children between ages 7 and 12, after which they take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) for admission to secondary school education.

Students who failed the PSLE had to repeat and if they still failed at the third attempt they could opt to go either of the two vocational training centres (VTCs) in Singapore – Geylang Serai Vocational Training Centres (GSVTC) or Assumption Vocational Institute (AVI). These VTCs offered a 2-year programme and their minimum enrolment age was 15 years. 60% of these students chose to go to the VTCs and the remaining 40% dropped out of the system. The attrition for VTC was 60%, that is, students who failed to complete the programme. Of those who completed the VTC, only 20% progressed to the Institute of Technical Institution (ITE), an institution offering pre-employment training for secondary school leavers to equip them with technical knowledge and relevant industrial skills.

Further analysis of the students’ profiles revealed that 65% of them were boys and 35% were girls. About 70% of the students received some form of financial assistance and over 50% of their parents had primary education or less; many also belonged to the low-wage workers category. In addition, many of the students had low literacy and numeracy skills, and struggled with low self-esteem and confidence. The students also felt vexed that the mainstream education did not seem to understand their needs. Their collective sentiment and frustrations were best summed up by one student who questioned why he had to repeat the PSLE several times even though the classes each year did not help him.

His question, relayed by his teacher to then Second Permanent Secretary (2PS) for Education Mr Lim Chuan Poh became the catalyst for a renewed effort to review how the education system could better meet these students’ needs and prevent them from prematurely leaving the school system.

While these students form only a small percentage – five to ten students in each of the primary schools, or the lowest 0.5% of each year’s student cohort – it is still the case of one too many, especially given Singapore’s limited human resources and the government’s emphasis on education as the key enabler for social mobility. Driven by its philosophy that every child matters and no child be left behind, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to work on a social innovation - the setting up of NorthLight School.

Solution and Key Benefits

 What is the initiative about? (the solution)
NorthLight School took in its first batch of students in January 2007. It is a first of its kind in Singapore and a unique social innovation in the global education landscape. Before its establishment, there was no model or school elsewhere in the world with a customised programme that catered to academically weak students at post-primary level with a mass school population of more than 800.

NorthLight offers a career-oriented, values-focused education through a curriculum and teaching approach radically different from mainstream schools. The three pillars of its curriculum are Character Education, Foundation Education and Vocational, as opposed to the subject-based approach in mainstream schools. Content, pedagogy and assessment are aligned to the students’ learning style (majority being kinesthetic learners) –70% experiential learning, 30% theory.

Many students struggled with low self-esteem due to repeated failures in the past. Hence improving students’ confidence and developing their socio-emotional competencies is one of NorthLight’s priorities. The students also undergo 700 hours of training in a specialised skill, and another 250 hours of industrial attachment. At the end of the three-year programme, students are awarded with an ITE Skills Certificate (ISC) in Mechanical services, Electrical services, Food preparation Services or Retail Operations.
So far, NorthLight’s achievements have surpassed the expectations. The school used a number of innovative pedagogies to teach Mathematics and Languages. The percentage of students who enjoyed Mathematics had doubled from 40% to 80%. In addition more than 70% of the pioneer batch of graduands passed all their modules (71% in 2009, 72.9% in 2010, 75.7% in 2011) and more than 40% progressed to some form of full-time education and traineeship as compared to the previous rate of only 20% from the former VTCs. Despite the low entry level of literacy, 90% and 50% of the graduating students achieved a level 4, for their workplace literacy on listening and reading respectively, a level that is adequate for the workplace.

The efficacy of NorthLight’s programme is also evident through its relatively low attrition rate of 10% in 2011, as compared to a high of 60% for VTCs previously.

These results surpassed the School’s short-term target of 20%, a figure already regarded as ambitious due to the students’ academic and socio-economic status.

Through unique pedagogy and teachers’ commitment, many students came to enjoy school. As one parent observed, “My son’s enthusiasm in preparing for school every day now shows how teachers have made him enjoy school and allowed him to discover his potential.”

More than 65% of the graduands are equipped with a higher qualification than at least one of their parents. Through NorthLight’s success, more students are now staying in the education system long enough to not only be equipped with the skills and qualifications, but also improve their employability and enhance social mobility. From being unmotivated and feeling hopeless, these students now see new possibilities and get a second chance at achieving their aspirations.

Actors and Stakeholders

 Who proposed the solution, who implemented it and who were the stakeholders?
When MOE reviewed the education system and explored new pathways to prevent less academically-inclined students from leaving the school system prematurely, they found that a customised, learner-centric curriculum catering to the students’ learning styles and socio-emotional needs is required. However, there were limitations to incorporating a customised programme under the existing system as the number of such students in each school is very small – about five to ten in each of the primary schools. Hence MOE decided to set up a new school to offer a specialised programme.

A special project team led by Mrs Chua Yen Ching, a school principal known for her capability to turnaround delinquent youths was formed. They conducted study trips to Hong Kong, United States, Australia and New Zealand, but found only decentralised post-primary vocational schools with small student population; none matched NorthLight’s intended scale. Undaunted, they decided to innovate and design a programme best suited for the students.

Mrs Chua was subsequently appointed the Principal of NorthLight School. There was a need for a team of dedicated teachers who could resonate with the mission. Teachers were required to apply to join the school instead of being posted by MOE. At the recruitment briefing in 2006, 150 teachers responded for the 20 places. Among the pioneer team of teachers, some came prepared to sacrifice their leadership position and be re-designated as classroom teachers so that they could teach there; others were award-winning teachers recognised for their contributions and excellence as educators.

NorthLight adopted a whole school approach where everyone - stakeholders and partners comprising national agencies and organisations, corporate businesses, parents and society at large, has a part to play.

For example, MOE’s curriculum experts from different HQ divisions helped in the development of NorthLight’s curriculum, the Workforce Development Agency assisted to validate and certify NorthLight’s programmes, and ITE worked with the teachers to design instructional programmes that cater to specific groups of students, be it those with special needs or in areas of special interest. Local big enterprises like NTUC FairPrice, Home Fix DIY Pte Ltd, Pastamania , offered education grants and industrial attachment places to support teaching and learning. A bakery shop delivers free buns every morning for students who do not have enough money for breakfast since 2007 while a doctor in the neighbourhood offers free consultation to needy students.

Meanwhile, from the initial worry that there might not be sufficient industrial attachment places, NorthLight met with a happy problem of having more attachment places than number of students available in 2011.

NorthLight also believes that the family is a child’s primary influence and established the Parent Support Group to strengthen the home-school link. Parents are encouraged to build relationships with their children and activities like family camps to facilitate bonding between parents and their children were organised.

Through the strong involvement of partners and stakeholders, the School was able to achieve much within a short period of time.

(a) Strategies

 Describe how and when the initiative was implemented by answering these questions
 a.      What were the strategies used to implement the initiative? In no more than 500 words, provide a summary of the main objectives and strategies of the initiative, how they were established and by whom.
The main objective of NorthLight is to provide a customised, student-centric curriculum that can effectively cater to the less academically-inclined students’ learning styles and leverage on education to help the students break the poverty cycle. The school has the full support from MOE and there is clarity in the sense of mission.

Being a social innovation, and first of its kind in Singapore, MOE provided all the resources and support it needed to succeed, including freedom to make improvements at the ground level. The strong “top-down support” for “bottom-up improvements” is part of MOE’s continuous quest for excellence in providing quality teaching and learning for students and build robust education system that is responsive to changing needs of the society and economy.

At the start, the right people had to be found to run the school. Mrs Chua believed in the principle of “First Who then What”. She wanted the teachers to apply to join the school instead of being posted by MOE. The element of choice is essential. The attributes she looked out for at the interview sessions were calling, character and competence.

The NorthLight leadership also gave teachers much room and support to innovate and teach out of the box – they could use any materials to teach, as long as the students could connect with it. One teacher shared, “The leadership here gives us empowerment. They also believe in the teacher… there’s no control over our pedagogy as long as we meet the learning objectives.” The trust that Mrs Chua had placed in her teachers helped create a supportive environment where teachers freely share their knowledge and learn from one another.

Given the unique profile of its student population, tried and tested methods of mainstream schools would not work here. Instead, a hands-on, experiential approach to learning was adopted to suit students who learn better in non-traditional classroom settings. Often, unconventional methodologies were used. For example, instead of having report books that mainstream schools used and which reminded students of their past failures, ‘Achievement Files’ containing each student’s best achievements and certificates were used. As a result, students began to look forward to share their achievements with their parents.

Students were also taught right values and behaviours through positive reinforcement. Acts of honesty and kindness were always highlighted and praised in public to encourage repeat behaviour. Surveillance cameras would catch students doing right and posters around the school read “Our CCTV records honesty 24 hours daily”.

Harnessing the capabilities of partners through proactive partner-collaboration was another of the School’s strategy. To sustain meaningful long-term partnerships, it actively sought the buy-in and support of partners and stakeholders, through sharing its mission and vision and showing how their contributions made direct, positive impacts on the students and helped the School achieved its mission. As a result, the number of community partners increased rapidly from 31 in 2008 to 100 in 2011.

(b) Implementation

 b.      What were the key development and implementation steps and the chronology? No more than 500 words
In 2005, the question by a student posed to the former 2PS (Education) on why he had to keep repeating PSLE when it did not benefit him became the catalyst for reviewing the idea of establishing a school for less academically-inclined students. Spotlight in local media about the widening income gap and struggles of lower-income families where most of these students belonged also contributed to the urgency of looking into their education.

A joint MOE-ITE steering committee chaired by the former 2PS (Education) to set up the School was formed in October. This was supported by three sub-committees: Governance sub-committee chaired by Director Planning, Resource sub-committee chaired by Director of Schools and Curriculum sub-committee chaired by Director Curriculum Planning and Development Division. Focus groups with main stakeholders such as the less academically-inclined students, parents, teachers and industry partners provided more insights.

Meanwhile, study trips were made to Hong Kong, United States, Australia and New Zealand but the team could not find an equivalent of a post-primary vocational school with a big enrolment. They decided they would innovate and design Singapore’s own programme.

A former secondary school at Dunman Road was chosen by MOE as temporary premise for the new school.

In March 2006, the Education Minister officially announced the establishment of NorthLight School and Mrs Chua was appointed principal-designate.

As NorthLight has its own human resources structure, a recruitment briefing was conducted in March 2006. Though the school only needed 20 teachers, 150 potential applicants turned up and packed the venue to its brim. Of these, 96 applied, 60 were shortlisted for interview and 20 were eventually selected.

On 19 June, Principal and Vice-Principals for NorthLight were officially appointed. The two-year vocational programme offered by GSVTC was subsumed under NorthLight in 2007 and it was phased out in Dec 2008. The school operated at two premises i.e. the old GSVTC and NorthLight at Dunman Road till June 2008.

In September, a two-day open house was organised – the first day was for MOE staff, teachers and partners; the second day for the public. The event created awareness for NorthLight’s mission, its programme and methodologies. There was great coverage by the media and favourable comments were received by the parents and the public.

In November, after students received their PSLE results, those who failed twice were invited to attend the ‘NorthLight Experience’, an event to give students a feel of what a typical day at NorthLight. This would help the students make an informed decision if they would want to join NLS or to repeat their PSLE.

In January 2007, NorthLight School opened its doors to welcome its pioneer batch of 220 students.

(c) Overcoming Obstacles

 c.      What were the main obstacles encountered? How were they overcome? No more than 500 words
It was difficult to create the concept for NorthLight as the problems were very challenging at the self, family and society level. There was no model to adapt from and the staff had to design their programme from baseline zero. The staff also had just less than 15 months to get the school ready for the new school term, as compared with the normal two years it takes for most institutions.

However, the team’s main challenge was in transforming Singaporeans’ perception of NorthLight as a place for failures to seeing the school as place that provides opportunities and hope. This was achieved by building a core belief that students must learn to redefine success on their own terms. Mindsets were changed by demonstrating that life can be just as fulfilling by having modest, achievable goals, with the School creating ample opportunities for students to experience small successes.

When NorthLight began in January 2007, teachers quickly discovered that the first batch of students did not take well to the lessons they meticulously prepared. It was found that 55% of them had poor language skills and encountered great difficulty in reading and 96% had a ‘U’ grade for Mathematics. An EQ test administered when the students first joined the school showed they were very weak in their interpersonal skills and general mood. The teachers had to recreate the curriculum, ensuring the teaching style matched students’ learning style with a consistent application of 30% theory and 70% experiential learning across the content, pedagogy and assessment. Through these efforts, students found meaning and joy in their learning. The EQ test was re-administered at graduation. The 2009 and 2010 cohorts’ total EQ scores improved by two points whereas the 2011 cohort showed greater improvement with an increase of four points.

At the staff level, the school leadership had the challenge of managing three groups of staff: ITE-seconded staff, MOE-seconded staff and direct recruits. Mrs Chua worked on focusing them on the School’s mission and the common passion they shared for the students. By placing importance on mutual trust and creating safe environments for communication, tension was turned into a creative force and many innovative practices emerged because of the team’s ability to positively harness these creative tensions. An external organisational climate survey by AON Hewitt in 2011 also showed a high staff engagement rate of 89% - an achievement matching “Best Employers” organisations globally.

The School strongly believed that the family plays an important role in a child’s life but it was challenging as many parents had only primary education or less and most work long hours with little time left for their children. The School helped parents to foster stronger bonds with their children and to play a role in motivating them through organising termly family activities like family camp and encouraging parents to help out in various school functions. Workshops were organized where the students could teach their parents new skills like learning how to use computers.

(d) Use of Resources

 d.      What resources were used for the initiative and what were its key benefits? In no more than 500 words, specify what were the financial, technical and human resources’ costs associated with this initiative. Describe how resources were mobilized
Though the NorthLight School was a new initiative, it has effectively utilised many existing resources to bring about the successes it has achieved. Fully funded by MOE, NorthLight was set up in a refurbished old secondary school building instead of having a brand new school building.

When MOE appointed Mrs Chua to helm the School, she was then the Principal of a local secondary school. Mrs Chua is recognised by many as one with the capability to turnaround delinquent youths and was among those who first proposed the setting up of a separate school for the less academically-inclined students. The rest of the teaching staff were from the existing pool of MOE teachers who applied to teach at NorthLight, as well as staff from GSVTC which was to be subsumed into NorthLight. This pioneer group of teachers were involved in the development of the teaching packages and resources.

In order to ensure that NorthLight School could be a sustainable innovation, MOE tasked senior educational figures to spearhead sub-committees that looked into the technical aspects of resources, governance and curriculum. At the same time, NorthLight was allowed a greater amount of freedom over staff movement and posting. The School was also not bound by the traditional curriculum and could implement features like Character Education, Foundation Education and Vocational Education to make up the core building blocks of the school curriculum, as opposed to the subject-based approach in mainstream schools.

NorthLight also actively engaged stakeholders and community partners in the process of implementing its programme. Shortly after the setting up of NorthLight School was announced, government agencies, corporate companies, friends and former students of Mrs Chua and even members of the public offered to lend a hand in areas like development of the school logo, provision of training programmes for staff and students, IT consultancy projects and even composing the school song.

Through the years, NorthLight has benefited from the generous support of its many partners. They provided funding for facilities, equipment and service enhancements to support teaching and learning, such as the provision of ICT equipment and the setting up of special facilities and special rooms for free or for a nominal fee. They also provided bursaries and education grants for students. In addition, donors stepped forward to provide food, transport and basic healthcare for these students. In one of the latest collaborations, a group of 42 cab drivers volunteered to ferry students home for free if they are too ill to continue with lessons. This is a great help to the teachers, who in the past would send students home and rush back for the next lesson.

From 2008 to 2011, the number of community partners rose quickly from 31 to 100 as they saw how their contributions directly impacted the lives of the students and helped the School fulfill its mission. A Partners Appreciation Day is thus held annually to thank these partners for their support and contributions.

Sustainability and Transferability

  Is the initiative sustainable and transferable?
The success of the NorthLight model subsequently led to the remodelling of the only remaining vocational institute, AVI which was subsequently transformed into Assumption Pathway School (APS) in 2009. This school offers a customised programme similar to that of NorthLight. The two schools are located in East and West of the island thus offering more choices to this group of students.

Valuable lessons learnt in setting up NorthLight and APS has also helped in establishing two new specialised secondary schools for Normal (Technical) students (another level of students with weak academic capabilities) by 2014. These schools will offer a four-year customised programme that teaches both the current ITE curriculum alongside usable industrial skills. These schools will model after the NorthLight and APS systems of running unique programmes to address students’ socio-emotional needs and the learning of life skills.

NorthLight has garnered accolades and recognition from both local and international organizations as an inspiration for social innovation. From 2007 to 2011, more than 400 groups including companies like Changi Airport, Starbucks and Microsoft embarked on learning journeys to the School (conducted once a term) to learn how educational goals can be achieved through fun and creative ways in a nurturing, positive environment.

Every year, 500 mainstream school teachers participated in NorthLight learning journeys and 40 teachers are attached for a period of one to ten weeks. Many of them were able to adapt the innovative teaching approaches and good practices back in their schools to help the weaker students way before they sit for the PSLE.

In 2011, more than 80 groups of local and overseas visitors have participated in NorthLight’s learning journeys. Many of the visitors were experts and consultants in various fields hoping to learn from NorthLight’s strong mission-driven organisational culture and effective leadership and gain insights to its approach to social innovation. Several ministries of education from countries in Southeast Asia, East Asia and the United States also organized study trips to NorthLight.

NorthLight was also featured in a World Bank documentary “When Children Learn, Nations Prosper” that showcased how three countries, Singapore, South Africa and Colombia are prioritising learning for all students to ensure that students are placed on the path to growth and success. The World Bank highlighted “how Singapore uses examinations to measure learning, and how it uses the information from those exams to help even students who do not pass.” NorthLight was also featured in a book “A New Synthesis for Public Administration, serving the 21st Century” by Canadian author Jocelyne Bourgon.

In 2011, MOE won two major national awards for the NorthLight project - the prestigious Singapore Public Service Division’s Innovation Spotlight Award that recognises a strategic-level innovation with substantial national socio-economic impacts and the Public Service’s Best Practice Award (Stakeholder Engagement). Both these awards regard transferability of learning to other government agencies as a key criterion. For both awards, MOE was one of only two government agencies to have received them.

Lessons Learned

 What are the impact of your initiative and the lessons learned?
NorthLight empowers students by inculcating resilience, confidence, essential life skills, and work-related competencies. Like a beacon of light, it provides the direction for students who were accustomed to repeated failures and felt lost in the mainstream. NorthLight has given them hope and a new lease of life. By constantly creating opportunities for small successes, NorthLight enabled students to rebuild their self-image and discover their talents. Students realised that being able to make a difference to others or being the best they can also be forms of success.

Since its establishment, students at NorthLight have been producing better results each year. From 2009 to 2011, students who completed their education in NorthLight increased from 86% to 90% with an education level equivalent to secondary school. About 30% of them have progressed to ITE for post secondary education. Compared to most of their parents who have only primary education or less, this is a laudable achievement. The students have also made a significant improvement in their EQ from the time they joined the school to the time they leave. More than 80% of the employers who participated in the industrial attachment gave favourable feedback on the students and the programmes. Undoubtedly, the students are in a better position compared to their parents to achieve greater social mobility.

This is exemplified by a student who graduated in 2009. Being the sole bread winner, she worked at a local supermarket and her good performance helped her attain a sponsorship from the company to continue her studies at ITE. She shared that she now understands why education is a great equalizer and meritocracy is a mountain range and not a mountain peak. Education has helped her jumped out of the poverty cycle. She will be graduating in 2012.

By helping the less academically-inclined students stay longer in the school system, NorthLight keeps them out of trouble while equipping them with skills that improves their employability and socio-economic status. This addresses issues of widening income gap and social problems, reduces social costs and maximises the potential of the nation’s limited human resources.

NorthLight’s success has impacted Singapore’s education system. The experience from NorthLight has proven to be very useful in the establishment of APS and two new schools of technical education to be opened by 2014. These schools cater to students who are academically weak but are admitted into the mainstream post-primary education.

The mission of NorthLight has also rallied the community to come together to help this group of students. In addition, many of the overseas visitors were inspired after their visit to the School that they shared in their reflections that they would do their part to help the academically weak students back in their own country.

The success of NorthLight is a lesson in how encouraging social innovation, building strong stakeholder collaborations and adopting a truly student-centric approach can greatly enhance outcomes in educating and turning around academically weak students.

Contact Information

Institution Name:   NorthLight School
Institution Type:   Government Agency  
Contact Person:   Yen Ching Lim
Title:   Founding Principal  
Telephone/ Fax:   +65 6879 6650 /+65 6775 3720
Institution's / Project's Website:
Address:   2 Dunman Road
Postal Code:   439188
City:   Singapore
Country:   Singapore

          Go Back

Print friendly Page