Mr Muhammad Asyraf Chumino dropped out of school when he was 10 years old to take care of his mother. He was eventually admitted to Northlight School and did well enough to enter the ITE later. He is now a first-year student at Singapore Polytechnic. -- S
FOR Mr Muhammad Asyraf Chumino, Northlight School was the chance for a new beginning.
He was 10 when he dropped out of primary school to take care of his widowed mother, who was then suffering from depression.
When she got better two years later, Mr Asyraf wanted to return to school. But without a Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) certificate, his choices were limited.
He enrolled in a Mendaki programme for out-of-school youths and learnt basic numeracy and literacy skills over the next two years.
A mentor then suggested he apply for Northlight, where he was accepted into Secondary 3 after an entrance exam.
Now he is a first-year hotel and leisure facilities management student at Singapore Polytechnic.
"When people see Northlight, they think it's the end because the students there didn't even pass PSLE," said Mr Asyraf, now 20.
"But it opened many doors for me."
Northlight and Assumption Pathway School - which also caters to those who struggle with mainstream studies - have helped reverse an alarming trend among students like Mr Asyraf.
Before these schools were set up, those who failed their PSLE three times had to choose between two-year programmes at the Geylang Serai Vocational Training Centre (GSVTC) and the Assumption Vocational Institute.
Past statistics, however, show that six in 10 failed to finish.
Now, more than eight in 10 students enrolled in Northlight and Assumption Pathway complete the full course of their secondary education, the Ministry of Education (MOE) revealed last month.
On average, Northlight and Assumption Pathway each take in about 200 students annually.
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat highlighted this in his Budget speech in March, saying that these specialised schools have helped lower the attrition rate of students who fail the PSLE.
While the vocational centres focused on imparting technical skills and preparing students for courses at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), Northlight - which was set up in 2007 and absorbed GSVTC - took on a more holistic approach.
Vocational training, such as retail and hospitality services and mechanical servicing, still features strongly. But students also learn English, mathematics, and information and communications technology.
Basic literacy and numeracy skills are important, said the principals, as some students still struggle with basic writing, telling the time and counting money.
Northlight vice-principal Belinda Yong said lessons often have a hands-on element to appeal to the students, who learn better through physical activity than through lectures or books.
"When we teach them about money, we take them to supermarkets where they buy things with the amount of money given."
Teachers make regular home visits to find out more about students' backgrounds.
Some refuse to attend school due to previous bad experiences.
"If the student enjoys PE lessons, we try to get him to come just for PE lessons, then to attend other lessons slowly," said Ms Yong.
About 30 per cent of Northlight students have special learning needs, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
They are in a class that allows them to learn at a slower pace. When a student needs to move during class, he is taught to walk on crosses on the floor so as not to disrupt his classmates.
Northlight also arranges programmes to help students develop their social and emotional skills, such as learning how to handle and groom horses.
"Horses are very sensitive creatures and the children have to learn how to relate to the animals," said Ms Yong.
"It makes them less impulsive."
About 30 per cent of Northlight's 200 graduates move on to the ITE each year.
Mr Eric Leong, principal of Assumption Pathway, which was set up in 2009 to take over the Assumption Vocational Institute, said that the focus on character development also helps students to manage anger and stress, and learn how to deal with conflicts.
The success of Northlight and Assumption Pathway led to the opening of Crest Secondary last year and then Spectra Secondary this year.
These schools, which draw lessons from Northlight and Assumption Pathway, are the first set up specially for Normal (Technical) students.
At Crest, there is a major focus on making sure students attend class.
Daily attendance rates at Crest hover at about 97 per cent.
"If we don't see you by 10am, we will start to call you," said principal Frederick Yeo.
"Truancy can become a habit... Even if the child is late, we still want him to come because school curriculum ends at 3pm.
"(Coming late) has its consequences, but it is better than not showing up."