Defining Values of a Great School

My daughters studied in St Nicholas and my family was invited to watch the documentary film, “From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio” on 07 July 2019 (Sunday). The film clearly brought up defining values that make St Nicholas to be one of the topmost schools in Singapore.  After watching the film, I cannot but give my utmost respect and admiration to the pioneers of St Nicholas.  I think there are three values that stand out in the film.

1.      Education with genuine love and concern

The film began by portraying Sister Francoise Lee as a very strict and stern disciplinarian, almost to the point of being unreasonable (shouting at the girls for making a ruckus while climbing the stairs, getting them to climb down and then to climb up again, shouting at a student for retrieving a ball, threatening to expel girls who sympathise with Communist China, etc).

As the film developed, one cannot help realising that Sister Francoise Lee was a genuinely kind and gentle soul beneath her tough and no-nonsensical exterior.  She admitted a China-born student without birth certificate into the school, even when the school was already full.  She exempted a poor student from paying school fees, as well as giving cans of food to the student so that her family would not go hungry. She attempted to make best of her limited resources to give a good education to the students, including teaching them along corridors when the roofs leaked during raining days, while swallowing her utmost disappointment at the unfair treatment of allocating the new campus to an English school while St Nicholas would be assigned to the old campus of the English school.

Being a principal is only a job and there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of principals overseeing various schools in Singapore over the years.  It is her genuine love and concern for the students that distinguish Sister Francoise Lee above many other principals in Singapore and she propelled St Nicholas far higher than other “academically strong” schools whose main achievements were merely good grades that melt into nothingness once the students entered the universities.

The relevance of this culture cannot be understated in today’s society, whereby young teenagers idolise singers and film stars, and sometimes totally neglect the true heroes or heroines who play more defining roles in their lives.

2.      Excellence through dedication and hard work

St Nicholas is known as one of the academically top school in Singapore today.

However, as narrated by the film, that was not the case in the past.  St Nicholas started from a severely under-privileged position of a Chinese school that saw her students being marginalised by students the more privileged English schools (Five St Nicholas students had to squeeze into the back of a car to allow a single student from an English school to sit in front, St Nicholas students being asked to make way for English school students to play at the basketball court, St Nicholas students having to go to Raffles Girls Secondary School to take additional English lessons, etc).

While the St Nicholas students naturally complained a bit here and there, they took things in their own strides.  When students from other Chinese schools went on strikes to protest against the unfair treatments, St Nicholas students kept their heads down and worked even harder under the leadership of Madam Lee Poh See. In an amazing turn of fate, the film revealed that St Nicholas aced out every single school in Singapore, including the “prestigious” English schools, to achieve the best results in the “O”-level examinations!

Through sheer dedication and hard work, St Nicholas rose from a Mandarin-only school that every parent wanted to shun from to an academically excellent school that parents queued up to volunteer social work to attempt secure a position for their daughters to study.  This long path to success was not easy.  It is basically impossible to comprehend the sweat, the agony, the frustration and the pain the school had to endure through over the turbulent years from 1960s to 1970s to reach its excellence today.  Indeed, one only needs to look at the number of Chinese schools that had closed down and lost in obsolete history to appreciate that the path to survival must have been punishing, never mind about the path to excellence.

This value is particularly relevant among students who are quick to attribute their lacklustre performances to external factors, oftentimes citing stronger performers to be more intelligent, have better opportunities, enrol in better schools, are from richer families and have better tuitions, etc.  And they inevitably give up even without trying.  With a single swept of the hand, St Nicholas proved beyond all doubts that resilience and inner strength are the critical and essential factors to achieve excellence, not external factors.  These resilience, inner strength, dedication and hard work are qualities that are usually lacking in most Singapore students, something that they have to learn if they want to achieve excellence in their own lives.  These are precisely the qualities that transform St Nicholas from an under-privileged school to one of the academically top school in Singapore today.

3.      Staying true to oneself

After attaining academic excellence, the film revealed that St Nicholas was invited to develop into an independent school in the 1990s.  While many schools clamoured to distinguish themselves on the ranking system, one of the Sisters in St Nicholas held her ground and refused to let St Nicholas be developed into an independent schoolfor the gifted students.  If you think about it, this was truly amazing.  Many lesser schools would have yelped out in delights if offered the chance to develop into independent schools for the gifted students, but St Nicholas refused to accept the offer.

Her reason was both simple and beautiful.  St Nicholas started with the mission to provide good education to girls from all walks of life, regardless of family background.  It was never meant to be elitist and it was never meant to cater only to the rich and famous.  So the Sister made the decision so that St Nicholas would always stay true to herself.  And with that, St Nicholas held true to her lofty missionto provide good education to girls from all walks of life and not lost her spirit and soul in the rat race for fame and glory.

Of course, there was a small cost to this decision of remaining true to one’s own mission and not lost one’s soul in the relentlessly mad rat race to pursue fame and glory on the ranking system.  St Nicholas students will naturally underperform students from the more aggressive elitist schools for placings in national and international competitions.  Students from elitist schools will outnumber students from St Nicholas for such events.  This is only to be expected.

However, in the grand scheme of things, this is a small price to pay.  In the pursuit of fame and glory, some of these elitist schools have lost their souls.  Some elitist students attend back-to-back tuitions to ensure good grades and have so little free time that some families pay tuition teachers to do homework for them.  Indeed, some of these students merely regurgitate and rote-learn to achieve high grades during examinations.  In hindsight, the courage to stand firm to stay true to oneself is a most excellent decision.

This value is particularly relevant and important in today’s society.  Too often, schools have lost the purpose of their missions to provide education (to teach, to educate and to develop thinking skills) and, instead, focus on getting students to produce good grades.  In the process, students developed this great divide into the elitists and the commoners.  (See and  Ironically, Singapore students are not highly regarded when they enter the workforce, as they are usually perceived to be good at following instructions but lack critical and creative thinking skills.

I am sure that the director of the film, Ms Eva Tang, had imbedded other sublime themes and values in the film that I have failed to pick up.  And I believe she will be able to explain the above three values much better and deeper than what I have written here.  After all, I only watched the film for 70 minutes and she spent months thinking through the themes and values in the film.  Nevertheless, I was extremely impressed by the film, to say the least.

As of today, St Nicholas also has an Integrated Programme and a Through-Train Programme to Eunoia Junior College.  I am sure somebody will point out this fact in the comments later and will start to debate whether the third value in the film is or is not  valid in today’s setting.  I am not in a position and I will not comment on whether St Nicholas has already embraced the concept of Elitist Education.  In any case, this issue is not relevant to the fact that the Sister made a conscious effort stay true to the mission to provide good education to girls from all walks of life and she rejected the offer to develop St Nicholas into an independent school in the 1990s, as narrated in the film.

Nevertheless, regardless whether St Nicholas has already embraced the concept of Elitist Education or not, one thing is for sure.  “From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio” is a definite must-see film for anybody who wants to know what makes a great school.  I definitely recommend all educators and parents to watch this film to appreciate the defining values of a great school.


Ngiao Teng Ngan




14 Responses to “Defining Values of a Great School”

  • oxygen:

    STAYING TRUE TO ONESELF? In LEE-jiapore, you expire to evaporation. INDEPENDENT THINKING is viewed as ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT. Immorality sue moral thinking/behavior and there is no franchise for challenging the status quo – very lonely for daring to be different.

    SUCH IS THIS PAVLOV’S DOGGIE CLASSICAL CONDITIONING EMBEDDED of generations of brainwashed education.

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  • navigating the maze of society:

    //Her reason was both simple and beautiful. St Nicholas started with the mission to provide good education to girls from all walks of life, regardless of family background. It was never meant to be elitist and it was never meant to cater only to the rich and famous.//

    remarkable credo.

    the rich and famous do not need much help – they are already masters and have the necessary resources in navigating the maze of society.

    it is those in the lower rung of society that with a little help (the chance of being in the right supportive educational environment), their paths may turn out tremendously different in a positive way in the future.

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  • patriot of TUMASIK:

    A Great School is Great as the Teachers and STUDENTS are…and “NOT Elite” as CLAIMED by SNOBS and self-acclaim AristoCRAPS…

    Many NeighbourHood schools are Great with Great Teachers & Students who excel in later years

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  • 阿华田:



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  • DavidNeo&IreneVanessa:Bastards:

    I also must make use of students to harass people who don’t agree with me. My pride and ego take precedence above everything else.

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  • TruBlu:

    Ya,good to have such educators still unlike the other *film* titled FROM RAFFLES TO PAP.
    That *film* shows how seemingly clever students turned into $mart $cholar-gahmen who $crew their benefactors,sg taxpayers,TILL THEY DROP DEAD.


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  • YouNun:

    Bullocks. How much do they know about their neighbors? How much have they done for their neighbors? Can they stand up to the powers and die for their neighbors? Can they speak to the mountain and move it?

    Passion, hard work and true to one’s interest fit very well into any bureaucratic or autocratic society who profit by misleading souls. Those qualities do not make a better world. If it does, we would not see wide spread inequality(oppressive and damning) and divisive hatred/bitterness/war, demanding one’s rights/benefits, hypocritical or uncaring people every where.

    These sisters don’t make a better world. They make good nuns who pray in the closet for changes.

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  • Rabble-rouser:

    Nostalgia & Sentimentality has no place in today’s take-no-prisoners (disruptive) eco-system. You either have to forge ahead or keep pace with the front runners; otherwise, risk being left behind.
    Academic excellence without a precision sharp focus towards applied industrial innovation or incubate knowledge-driven industries doesn’t create enough rice-bowls to feed people nor bring home the bacon.
    S’pore schools are not developing the right kind of mentality nor educating the requisite skills sets to confront the future.
    Our educational culture is a conformist, docile & obedient type of mechanism which is at odds with the current world. It is keeping minds locked within a box without ambitions for pushing boundaries or towards breaking them – something which you don’t see in Hong Kong with their recent protestations! S’poreans’ fears were always insecurities upon rocking the boat (protests, agitation) inspite of clear evidence that their rice bowls were slowly dissolving or that they were incapable of bring back bacon. It is a Mind puzzle which the PAP cleverly imposed & locked onto S’porean minds; & they threw away the key! The only way is to break that lock by venturing into the unknown!
    This fear overwhelms & paralyzes logic & capable thinking! At the end, S’poreans settled for the Status Quo inspite the clear signs of failure in the greater context.
    St Nicholas, to me, is a failure-in-progress. They are just status quo practitioners, not disrupters in education. Frankly, S’pore schools needs to have more tinkerers & hands-on learning, need more coding classes & industry-school integration & industrial Apprenticeship. The focus on textbooks, teacher instruction & passive learning just doesn’t cut it in today’s era.
    Frankly speaking, S’pore is incapable of doing what it takes through sticking to the old ways which doesn’t really work anymore. Reading this article confirms old minds that are still driving in the rear view mirror type of syndrome. S’poreans are grave dancing on the precipice of a failing mechanism constructed on false foundations. Yet no one had noticed the structural cracks yet.

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  • Meditation on Perennial Values:

    “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline…
    Love is the movement within life that carries us, that enables us, that causes us to break out of what Alan Watts calls the “skin-encapsulated ego.” Without love, we are self-centered, but love enables us to move the center of our lives outside our ego. Therefore it expands our lives and, needless to say, enriches it. Any human being would give anything to love or be loved. When it really happens, it is like heaven on earth …
    With a mind distracted, never thinking: “Death is coming”; to slave away on the pointless business of mundane life, and then to come out empty – that is a tragic error.”
    - Prof. Huston Smith; The World’s Religions.

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  • Hsiam Loong Loong:

    Because St Nicks WAS not an IP school, it has lost many of its good students both in sports and academic to RGS and Nanyang Girls over the years. Quite a number of my daughter’s friends were sad at having to part with their friends and leave the St Nicks they love after PSLE because of their parents’ expectation and preference for IP schools.

    Perhaps it’s good choice for St Nicks to have the Integrated Programme now so that their girls can stay on and continue their education in such a great school.

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  • Ignorant:

    Quote: “In any case, this issue is not relevant to the fact that the Sister made a conscious effort stay true to the mission to provide good education to girls from all walks of life” Unquote.

    Is this still the case? In other words, every girl who lives near the school will be able to find a place there regardless of race, religion, ability, income and family background? My children are adults and completed their education long time ago and do not live in Singapore – so this is an honest question out of ignorance.

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  • Harder Truths:

    There are no great schools anymore. They are all money-making rackets full of FT getting subsidised education, who will then get all the jobs.

    At one time maybe – the poor could get into them through merit.

    Now you need connections or money – or both to get into these elitist doghouses. Then they become MP’s and f*ck $G citizens.

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  • Dedication to Chivalry:

    Oh Teacher! Like a breath of fresh air!

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  • Sinking SG Larger Than Schools:

    SNG or not, all in the same sinking sampan.
    70% chosen the status quo, this is the problem, as the greedy pigs rightly said, all schools are the same, under the same system, all schools are pap good schools, incapable of independent thinking, same indoctrination, same servile lemmings.

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