A little Singaporean magic goes a long way
Strong links are being forged in educational exchanges between schools in Scotland and Singapore.
It is no surprise that Claire Tan likes the open spaces she has seen on her short visit to Scotland. Her home country has a similar population, squeezed into an area about half the size of East Ayrshire.
"Singapore is very crowded and we don't see much green. There are many high buildings," she says.
The environment is different, but the job and the people who do it seem similar. "Teachers talk about students who are causing us problems. We talk about the amount of work we have. Sometimes we just talk about shopping," she smiles. "Most teachers are women in Singapore, just as they are in Scotland."
The relationship between teacher and pupil is perhaps the major difference between teaching in the two countries, she says. "There is more distance between us in Singapore."
This formality of relations and respect for the teacher meant she had no misgivings in bringing a party of 15 senior boys from Hwa Chong Institution halfway around the world to Stewarton Academy.
The expedition originated in contacts made during a study visit to Singapore earlier this year by Stewarton's head, Sandra Leslie. She spent time at Hwa Chong, Singapore's leading independent, but part publicly funded, school.
"It is a very different educational environment," she says. "They have boarding for 1,000 students, which we don't. So the Singapore students are staying in a hotel over here.
"Each has a buddy from our senior pupils and has been following their timetable for a few days. They have also met up with buddies' families and had a meal with them."
Other items on the agenda for the Singapore and Stewarton students include a football match, a staged mini-trial at the sheriff court, a cultural tour of Glasgow and a visit to the Scottish Parliament to sit in on a debate.
That was a high point, says Yvonne Sherry, principal teacher of pupil support. "They liked how the different parties were seated almost in a circle. In their country, politicians face each other during debates, as they do at Westminster. They enjoyed that feeling of debate and discussion, there and in our classrooms. There is more interaction between teacher and pupils here, they say. In their country, it is more didactic."
The Hwa Chong students' stay in Stewarton and Sandra Leslie's visit to Singapore have strengthened her commitment to educational exchanges, she says.
"In East Ayrshire, we have a strong tradition of international links and student visits, which I firmly believe in. A key aspect of preparing our young people for an uncertain future is broadening their experiences and making them aware of other cultures. Student exchanges are an ideal way of doing that."
An event planned for a Friday evening is likely to be another high point. "We are having a ceilidh and we're going to teach them Scottish country dancing," says Alison Young, 17, a student buddy.
As a warm-up, the guests are being treated to a musical afternoon interlude in the school hall, with kilted bagpipers and a hair-tingling rendition of "My love is like a red, red rose". A musician as well as a physics student, Harapan Santoso Ong, 17, is enjoying the show. He likes the people and the food, but is struck by cultural differences: "We are more reserved," he says.
His classmate Wu Shao Zong Sam, 16, agrees: "When you're walking in the corridor, people who don't know you say `Hi'. They are very friendly. In Singapore, we are more formal."
Asked if the confident, smartly dressed lads from Singapore are more mature than Stewarton boys, the girls hesitate. "It's an individual thing - some people are just more mature than others," says Colleen.
Between the Singapore lads and the Scottish girls there seems little difference in terms of social skills or maturity. All are chatty, smiling, thoughtful and relaxed.
Besides being a lot of fun, this past week has confirmed the two Stewarton girls in their plans to study modern languages. "I want to visit other countries and meet people from different cultures," says Alison. "I do French, German and Spanish, and I would love to learn Chinese."
Before the students leave, the girls persuade Harapan to give a little demonstration of the conjuring skills he's been teaching himself since he was 11. A random card is chosen, identified somehow by him, then pushed slowly back into the pack, appearing almost instantaneously held lightly between his lips. The laughing Singapore boys shake hands formally, give a little bow of their heads and depart. It's magic.
Schools are organised into 28 clusters, each with 11 to 14 schools.
There are no rural schools, and even primary schools have upwards of 1,000 pupils.
Every school in Singapore is flattened after 20 years and built anew.
Candidates for headship have to enrol on a six-month, full-time course in educational leadership.
Headteachers are released every six years on a two-month sabbatical, and strongly encouraged to study abroad.
Teachers start work at 7.30am and can still be there at 5pm.
Primary classes can have more than 40 pupils to one teacher.