Friday, May 26, 2017

Should SOTA churn out graduates for the arts?

Recently, a news article in Strait Times sparked debate when it was revealed that more than 80% of School of the Arts (SOTA)'s 2015 graduating cohort ended up pursuing non-arts degrees. This has triggered some people to complain that these brats are squandering taxpayers' money by going to SOTA when they have no intent of an arts career, or that SOTA is therefore a flop.

When I was in secondary school, I dreamed about playing in an orchestra. I played the piano and I was quite good at it too, so I thought it would be the coolest thing ever, to become a musician. One day, the Singapore Youth Orchestra (SYO) paid a visit to my school and after giving what I thought was a totally awesome performance, they mentioned that they would be holding auditions for members. I don't remember how I found out about the audition date, I must have scoured the newspapers daily for the notice, but I did manage to find out and went for it. It was quite out of character for me, really. I was so shy and retiring back then, it must have been a stomach-churning experience.

I went for the audition, played a few pieces on the piano and sat for some sight-reading and aural tests. The auditioner, a bubbly lady, told me very kindly that she thought I was an accomplished pianist but since I was already 16, there would not be enough time to train me in a new instrument for the SYO.

On my way out, I met another young hopeful in the waiting room, gripping her violin case. She was with her mother and they were both visibly kancheong about the audition. The girl asked me what happened in the room and when I told her I was auditioned by Vivien Goh (she had introduced herself), both mother and daughter gasped "Vivien Goh!" in hushed tones. That's when I had an inkling that Vivien Goh must be somebody of repute in that circle. I had no clue myself, an outsider in this mysterious world of musicians and orchestras. 

Anyway, after finding out that just knowing how to play the piano was not going to get me into any orchestras, I decided to try and pick up a new instrument at JC. I joined the chamber ensemble CCA which opened up a violin class for beginners. There were only five of us, if I recall, and we paid a small fee for a violin teacher to teach us the fundamentals every week. We could only afford cheap $100 violins which made the most horrendous squawks. If you entered the music room when we were having our lessons, you would hear these blood-curdling screeches fit for any horror movie scene.

I think I lasted for about a year. Even when I had improved and the sounds from my instrument bore the semblance of a tune, I came to the realisation that a violinist I would never be. I could never tune my instrument properly and holding it under my chin for a long period gave me a stiff neck. The violin always felt like a foreign object to me, and I was never as excited to learn a new piece on it, the way I was with the piano.

If not a string instrument, then what? Later on, a friend gave me a few lessons on the clarinet. This wasn't for me either. I figured that as a musician, you probably should be able to play for more than half an hour without feeling like you're going to pass out from the lack of oxygen. So that ruled out all wind instruments.

Why am I relating this long, grandmother story? My point is that as kids, many of us have dreams of pursuing a certain career, but being kids, we have very little idea what it takes or whether we're even suited for it. It is also not surprising that many kids' dreams are in the arts and sports, partly because in kids' minds, these areas appear more "fun" and tend to be more visible. For instance, if they enjoy playing soccer, they might think that being a professional soccer player is the best job in world. Or they might look at Taylor Swift and think, "I want to be a singer!" Whereas no young kid will dream of becoming an IT analyst or logistics manager because they won't even know such jobs exist, let alone know what these people do.

It took me most of my youth to figure out that not only did I not have the aptitude to be a musician, that career (which demands exacting standards and passion in a very specialised area) would have made me utterly miserable. Note that I was already into my teenage years when I was harbouring those dreams. Yet, we expect 12-year-olds to have decided on their careers when they enter SOTA?

The point is that for most kids who enter SOTA, they have an interest in the arts, that's for sure. But at 12, it is really premature to say that they will pursue a career in the arts. The value of SOTA is not in grooming careers, otherwise we fall back on the age-old fallacy that education should be purely vocation-driven. Certainly not at the secondary school level. The value of SOTA is providing a place that is conducive to grooming ability and nurturing interest in the arts. In fact, sometimes in the course of studying something, you discover what you DON'T want to do.

One student was quoted as saying "SOTA gave me a safe space to experiment", and that, I feel, is more valuable than people understand. It's a delicate balancing act when it comes to the arts because for some art forms which have a short shelf life, you definitely do need to cultivate talent early. Think ballerinas who traditionally retire at around 40. However, the discovery of passion can take time so we need to groom talent without forcing it into a mould.

Side track: The only people I have an issue with are the parents who encourage their kids to enter SOTA simply to bypass the dreaded PSLE and have a through train education to IB. They know full well there is little chance their kids will pursue the arts, yet will put their kids through special DSA coaching classes in theatre, singing, dancing, music, etc. I know this practice is prevalent in certain schools, especially  a particular girls' school in the east. I'm quite certain if you do a check on which primary schools SOTA kids come from, a few schools will be over-represented. In these cases, the parents are doing their kids more harm than good and it's baffling that they're too myopic to see that.

Back to the criticism that SOTA has failed in its purpose or that these kids are brats. My question is: why then don't we go after people who go to law school and don't become lawyers? Or go to medical school and eventually change their minds mid-career? Many, many students sign up for law and medicine not because they have the elusive "passion" but simply out of prestige and the illusion that you can do anything with these degrees. After getting their degrees, they promptly pursue careers in other areas (law more than medicine, partly because of the long bond attached to medicine). Why don't we take them to task for wasting taxpayers' money? By the way, these are undergraduate degrees, so the students are much older than the ones in SOTA when they made their choice. Shouldn't they know better?

My suspicion in this: the arts is traditionally perceived as the poorer cousin in our society. Whether in school or in careers, it's always considered the second (or last) choice. Because of this, there is a prevalent mentality that the arts is undeserving of help and therefore arts folks should be eternally grateful for any form of support. In fact, it's a given that people should suffer for their art, so to have the chance to attend a fancy school like SOTA and not do arts after? What ungrateful brats!

I wouldn't be surprised if the people who expect a direct return on the support they perceive to have provided ("taxpayer dollars!") are the ones most unsupportive of the local arts scene. I bet they are unable to tell you when they last went to a local concert, play or read a book by a local author. These are also the people like to pigeon-hole others - you belong to the arts! You sports! You stay in those lanes. As if individuals are digitally programmed to have only singular interests and pathways in life.

Of course I hope that the SOTA graduates who decide not to pursue arts-related degrees are doing so for genuine reasons and not because they think they won't earn enough moolah as an artist. That would just be tragic and contrary to the spirit of the arts.  Anyway, what the ST article says is that SOTA graduates go on to pursue non-arts degrees (how many arts degrees are there anyway, especially locally?), not that they won't still end up being involved in the arts later on. The optimistic part of me keeps hoping. Look at me - I ditched my dreams of becoming a musician but I embraced another - to be an author. (I also worked at the SSO, not as a musician but in marketing, which was fulfilling in a different way).

People who love the arts usually find their way back to it somehow. And if SOTA's purpose is to nurture more people who can create and appreciate all forms of art, then regardless of whether the graduates pursue the arts as a career, the role of SOTA remains an important one.


Singaporia said...

I think you make some good points. The issue is- is SOTA an institution for children with special aptitude in the arts and who are intending to pursue the arts professionally? I don't mean they have to but is that the overarching goal?

If yes - SOTA do not make many allowances for students to focus on their art in the curriculum but rather in addition to the curriculum. For example, specialized performing arts schools elsewhere will allow substitution of subjects and an emphasis on good grades in a manageable way []. At SOTA the kids do the IB programme which is extremely rigorous PLUS their chosen art. So it seems they are not being fully immersed but working toward a backup plan of going into the arts. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with this but it should be made clearer to the parents/public upfront.

If not- This should be made clearer tot the parents/public upfront as well. That SOTA is more like a final playground for high-achieving kids who love to perform/draw whatever but it does not mean professionalization like Idyllwild Arts Academy, Interlochen Arts Academy etc.

All this to say, I'm on your side- the arts should not be pigeon-holed nor should young people who have interest and aptitude. But, the system of SOTA is also only a gesture to the arts. The Straits Times article just shows the attitude towards the arts and confuses the matter with how it made people respond.

monlim said...

Singaporia: I've been speaking to other parents and I agree with you that a big part of the problem is the non-clarity of what kind of school SOTA is supposed to be. If it's supposed to be a specialised school for the arts, then grades for other exams should not be the main focus. Unfortunately, anecdotally, it seems like grades in the IB are the priority of the current Principal, which means you there has to be a tradeoff somewhere, and that will be your arts subjects. As you've rightly mentioned, IB is a challenging programme and except for a few, it's very difficult to balance the rigours of IB + the rigours of your art.

I find this sad. If SOTA ends up focusing on IB, this makes it no different from any other mainstream school in Singapore. The only difference is that you allocate some curriculum time to the arts. The downside to this is more than the fact that the arts will invariably suffer. It's also the part that SOTA will then attract kiasu parents who don't see their kids going down the arts route, and are simply looking for an easier route to IB than schools like ACSI. These parents will love SOTA but for all the wrong reasons.

The difference and beauty about SOTA is that it provides an environment for kids to explore and expand their love and ability in the arts. If this becomes secondary to the mainstream goals of scoring at IB, then SOTA has lost its role. From what I understand, there are many disgruntled parents who feel that only the identified top performers were groomed and supported, while the others were pretty much ignored.

Ironically, the kids who came to SOTA to have their passion in the arts validated, are being sidelined. If that's the real reason why so many kids are rejecting the arts as careers, because they didn't receive encouragement and nurturing in the very place they were supposed to, then I feel the management of SOTA has a lot to answer to.

Sharon Low said...

Understand what is the educational aims of SOTA here:

Also interesting to read LHL's speech at the opening of the SOTA campus back in 2011, it will tell you what the aim of SOTA is.

The educational journey is a process and not a means to an end. As a parent with a child at SOTA, it was clear from the start from attending Open Houses and SOTA students need to juggle the rigour of the IB curriculum as well as the art form. SOTA is an IB school but I don't agree that the school just "allocates curriculum time to the arts" as if the art form is second cousin to academics. The school places equal emphasis on both academics and the arts and I see it in the hours my daughter has to put in at school. SOTA students have to offer their art form as an IB subject. Literature is also a compulsory subject throughout the 6 years. She is given opportunities to craft her art far beyond what I am able to provide if she is not in SOTA.

Top students in their art forms are given the opportunity to be part of the Art Excellence Programme (akin somewhat to GEP program??) and some could go on to take the IBCP (IB Career-related programme) to prepare them for specialised arts education at tertiary levels. IBCP is less focused on the academics compared to the IB Diploma. So I would say SOTA does do its best to nurture students who want to take arts, but prepares the students well even if they wish to pursue other options after graduation.

monlim said...

Sharon: Glad to hear that your dd is thriving in SOTA and yes, the educational journey is not a means to an end. I've said that SOTA shouldn't be judged based on the statistics of how many pursue arts careers. I wonder though if every child enjoyed the same level of nurturing that yours did? It's just that I've heard from parents whose children were not as academically inclined and felt that they were neglected. Not judging, just wondering. My kids didn't attend SOTA so I wouldn't presume to know. What I do know is that the IB is a very tough programme and it would be difficult for a student mediocre in academics to be able to juggle both. In which case, they might feel like they had to sacrifice one or the other.

Sharon Low said...

It is important for parents and children who are considering SOTA to take into account that the child has to be able to cope with the IB curriculum. Unfortunately just being very talented in an art form is not enough. SOTA requires that students entering SOTA qualify for Express stream at a minimum. I believe in its early years, they realise some in the early batches do struggle with the academics and subsequently included written/ cognitive tests during the DSA process. Students also have to submit their P5 and P6 academic results during DSA. In the process, could some children with immense talent but not academically included be turned away? Perhaps. Do some others who made it through the DSA process but subsequently cannot cope academically and have to leave? Perhaps. I do not know what to make of this honestly, but at the end of the day parents and child need to make an informed choice when choosing schools after P6. However, I believe a vast majority of SOTA students benefit immensely from their years at the school and I am glad this option is available for them today.

monlim said...

Sharon: If what you say is correct, then SOTA is essentially just another pathway only for the academically bright. I find it very difficult to agree with that principle. In our already grades-obsessed society, what we need is to open up more alternative pathways for a greater range of students, not create narrow ones for yet the top group. That's just perpetuating the elitist mindset.

The IB is tough but it's only impossible to cope if the school is focused on achieving top scores. The Sports School offers IB too but they're less score-focused. I suspect this allows for the inclusion of more students. I suppose it's popular with parents when they school can talk about its academic achievements but it seems like there's a huge tradeoff as a result.

Sharon Low said...

If the definition of academically bright is qualifying for the express steam then I suppose you are right. What are the options for those who talented but can only qualify for NA or NT?

I do want to point out those that qualify come in with a large range of PSLE scores from about 190 to 260.

monlim said...

No, I don't mean those who qualify for express stream. Sure, applicants can come from a wide range of students. But from what you described (and confirmed by other parents), SOTA seems to be setting itself up as having high academic standards, no different from your elite mainstream schools. If they want to gun for top scores at IB as a main priority, only some kids will be able to cope, even if they did qualify for entry. Then those who fall on the sidelines may be quietly asked to leave or not sit for IB so as not to pull standards down, even if they're talented in the arts. In other words, no different from your top mainstream schools. That's what I mean by creating more opportunities only for the academically bright.

Singaporia said...

I'm with monlim here. It's one thing to be aware of what you're signing up your kid for. But it's actually a worse deal for the kid because they have to perform the same level of academics as those IP schools but also excel at their art. That's not a formula for success for the majority, no matter how talented they are either at academics or at the arts. Parents are in essence being asked to waive the right to complain because they've been informed ahead of time? I'm not buying it and I'm surprised so many parents are.

Rachel Tan said...

I wouldn't be so hard on SOTA. This is a VUCA world and not every organisation or individual person has absolute clarity on what one wishes to achieve or the precise steps it must take. It would be so easy on SOTA if it decides to follow one prescribed path narrowly, for example, top IB scores, or producing world class artists. But here we are, dealing with students, each of whom is different. Can any institution cater perfectly to maximise every individual's potential? I don't think so.

None of my kids are in SOTA. But I think as a whole, Singapore is better off with SOTA than without. Many kids who did not have the opportunity to learn instruments from famous instrument teachers, have received instrumental tutorship from tutors they or their parents do not know of. They are given many opportunities for exposure to Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and their students and faculty, as well as links to other overseas institutions. I don't think the opportunities for musicians could be curated by parents. I have to say I am not as familiar with the other art forms, and I can only speak for Music.

Just as with every other school, there is competition within SOTA. The best and most talented are seen to, and probably do get more attention and opportunities, not unlike in mainstream schools. Some kids will feel neglected. But every child is given exposure and tutelege (at a pretty decent level) in his or her chosen art form.

A career in arts is also competitive if you are aspiring to be top in the game, and there is a hierarchy. It is not unlike the corporate world. But it does not mean there is no space for a range of art abilities to coexist and to contribute meaningfully to society. Some may go into teaching young children for example, but is there any wrong with that?

Can SOTA do better? I am sure. Unlike mainstream schools who have clearer academic KPIs, SOTA has to cater to a variety of students with varying academic and art inclination and interests. Not every student has benefited equally from SOTA. I certainly hope the Government doesn't close SOTA down or scale it down with all these complaints. SOTA still offers a substantially different path from a regular JC with AEP or MEP or Theatre Studies.

monlim said...

Rachel: Oh, most definitely SOTA is definitely needed, no doubt about that. We've been talking about having differentiated pathways for so long, one for the arts is surely good. But that's why some parents are dismayed that the direction taken by SOTA seems to be more and more towards academics rather than arts (because that's how to increase appeal of a school, in SG at least), making it no different from other mainstream schools.

I'm not so sure about the "every child is given exposure and tutelage at a pretty decent level in his or her chosen art form". Some parents of SOTA kids don't feel this is true. I hope moving ahead, the management can see their value as a school that's different, and not strive to be yet another one of the same.

Rachel Tan said...

Whether or not a child feels he or she is given exposure and tutelege at SOTA depends on his starting point. There are a good number of SOTA kids who did not learn music or art from any famous teacher, and they are exposed to much better teaching and learning in their art form at SOTA. Yet there are others who do not think much of SOTA's art teaching because they already had prior exposure to very very good teachers prior to attending SOTA.

There are students in SOTA who do not complete the IB because they have gained advance placement or some placement in a university for their art form. That is also fine and good for the kids.

I don't think SOTA's KPI should be how many artists they churn out.

Prior to SOTA, there is no alternative in Singapore for students to pursue their art interests in a government funded school to this level, and to allow for them to explore whether they would like to pursue it as a career.

I'm not sure why SOTA is heading towards a more academic focus. The system needs to carve out space and time for art. I don't think each child in SOTA is pushed towards the academic route, perhaps I am wrong on that, but more to maintain a certain base minimum level in academics. Those who are academically inclined may be pushed hard to bring glory to the school? Not sure. But given the diverse intake that SOTA has, it will be difficult for them to push the whole cohort towards academic excellence. Perhaps parents in Singapore would only acquiesce to their kids opting for SOTA if there is some assurance that their child's academics would not be neglected.

Rachel Tan said...

I must also add that the quality of expertise and teaching at SOTA for various art form differs. Some disciplines are probably stronger than others.

monlim said...

I suspect the push towards academics comes about simply because to attract applicants, showing top grades is always a big factor. But as mentioned in the post, this is a shame because you might end up attracting the wrong sorts of parents (hence students), those who are looking for an easier route to IB and not because of a passion in the arts.

I also don't have kids in SOTA so I can only guess but it seems like the outcry over good teachers leaving hint at internal disagreement about the management of SOTA. Hopefully they can sort this out, otherwise nobody gains, least of all the kids.

Rachel Tan said...

wahaha looking for an easier route towards IB.....hmm but the IB is not exactly academically easy leh :p SOTA isn't the easy path to a high IB score.
SOTA is a unique experience for 13 to 17 year olds.... not everyone is cut out for it. I guess it would help to attend the Open House and speak to as many current students and recent graduates as possible before deciding whether it is a path you and your child want to take.

monlim said...

Easier as in easier entry, vs your ACSI, etc where it's notoriously hard to get in (and for girls, it's only at 17). So once SOTA starts boasting about perfect IB scores, some people's eyes light up. Don't you know kiasu Singaporeans by now? Any way to game the system, they will go for it!

Sharon Low said...

I can't speak for every parent, but for myself and my child, the biggest draw for SOTA was support for her art form rather than if SOTA churns out high or perfect scores in IB. Having said that, I was concerned about her options at tertiary level because we (including my child) are not sure if she will want to continue to pursue her art from at a tertiary level after graduation from SOTA at the point of selecting schools. I think we were adequately assured that she had the opportunity to have a differentiated education (with strong support for cultivating her passion in her art form) whilst having the academic foundation to have options when she graduates.

Honestly I personally think it is very difficult to use SOTA as an easy way out for just the IB programme. Students have to spend so much time and effort on their art form that if they do not have the passion they will burn out very very fast. It would be foolish to do that.

And yes, I am very concerned about the recent spike in the number of teachers leaving and also that there is a large number of senior teachers including HODs leaving. And these are both teachers teaching academic and art form subjects. I hope things get sorted out soon otherwise the students will suffer.

Rachel Tan said...

I agree that it is difficult to use SOTA out as an easy way to get into an IB programme, without significant interest in the art form. The PSLE COP may be lower than other IB schools (apart from the Sports School).

There are other private school options offering the IB now (some of the international schools for example) and some parents do shell out the fees to support their children for two years to read the IBDP post O levels.

It is not possible to expect any child to make a definitive career decision at 12 years old. Hence, I see why it is important for Sports School or SOTA to offer parents and children some assurance that they are able to assimilate back into mainstream education somehow or other should they decide they do not wish to pursue sports or arts for their tertiary education. Of course the curriculum and pace should not be pegged at what the top mainstream kids are achieving.

I certainly hope kids are not bonded to SOTA or SSP in the way that DSA Sports or Arts are obligated to honour their commitments to mainstream schools. If kids do not like SSP or SOTA, I hope they are able to transfer out?

monlim said...

Aiyah, think you both still don't understand what I mean about SOTA being an easier way into IB. I'm not saying the course is easy. It's the same as those parents who ngeh ngeh push their kids into DSA to RI, RGS, etc via sports or whatever means, without considering if their kids can cope with the high standards. Somehow in their minds, getting in is the end goal. That's what I'm worried about SOTA if it starts to boast about their high IB scores instead of prioritiing the arts, that it will attract these parents ("just coach them in an arts, then later tell them to focus on IB!"). Of course the IB route is not easy but try telling that to these parents. And there are A LOT of them. They wouldn't be interested in private IB schools precisely because they want the promise of high grades.

SOTA and Sports School kids all have to take regular subjects on top of their specialties so there's no issue about being able to assimilate back into mainstream education. And yes, I've heard of kids transferring out. The issue is one of balance, how not to skew too much to either end and yet not end up with masters of none.

Rachel Tan said...

SOTA will never be able to compete with ACS Independent or SJI on IB scores and I would imagine it would be silly for them to aspire to do so. There may be some who will do exceptional well and there may the occasional 45 pointer here and there, but the average IB score at SOTA, I reckon, would not be that high.
SOTA offers a different educational experience from that of mainstream schools - the question now is how far different should it go. As far as admissions go, i do see they are fairly open to a diverse range of academic performers. As far as the actual educational journey, I can't speak for whether they are too academically geared (I've no personal experience.)

monlim said...

We all know it's silly and counter-intuitive, but based on the news they've put out in the past two years, it sounds like they want to head in that direction. I hope not because it will mean cutting out all the kids from IB who are less likely to score well. I think SOTA is still relatively young, and is still in flux. So hopefully they DON'T go down this route and find their footing in what is a good balance.

Rachel Tan said...

I won't worry too much about SOTA going too far in that direction. Birth cohort has declined and many schools are having trouble attracting sufficient students. At the current birth cohort levels, SOTA will have to continue to take in students from a diverse range of academic abilities. We are ultimately a small country and there won't be hundreds of super kids who are both academic and artistic, and willing to go to SOTA. And if SOTA manages to attract a couple more students who would have made it to the traditional top schools, I don't see it as a bad thing :)

Notwithstanding, it's a nice discussion.

Unknown said...

I am a student who was turned away by SOTA 4 years ago when I applied as a PSLE student. Right now, applying as an IBDP DSA dance student, I just received a confirmed offer from the school. I guess we could consider this as sidelining students who are passionate about their art form? After being rejected by SOTA I worked harder than ever to prove myself, and along the way I decided that what I really wanted was to dance professionally. However, I applied for IBDP instead of IBCP as my parents are concerned about me not having a back-up plan (if I chose the IBCP track).

Now I am in a dilemma, and unsure of whether SOTA is really the right place for me. These are some of the reasons:

1. Doing A levels may give me a better chance as compared to IB, if I eventually decide not to pursue the Arts, go to a local University instead.

2. The IBDP curriculum is such that I will be taking Dance as a subject, so in a way, dance is the back-up, not academics.

3. I will be dancing more if I stay in my current dance school and do A level JC at the same time, than if I do SOTA's IBDP dance, which only involves once a week dance lessons (and SOTA's hectic schedule means I will have to leave my current dance school).

4. I aspire to be a professional ballet dancer. I understand that SOTA equips their dance students with performance, choreography and dance essay writing skills, but I am skeptical if this will make me a better dancer, as opposed to staying in my dance school and dancing almost 5 times more (per week) than SOTA's curriculum allows.

What do you think about my situation?

monlim said...

Tamie: I think you need to speak to dance professionals to get their opinion. You're at a crossroads here and I'm not familiar enough with SOTA and the curriculum to give you any good advice. Since you're very clear about your end goal, speak to people who are aware of SOTA and the different pathways to help you get to where you want to do. All the best!

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