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As every kiasu parent can tell you, education for the kids is a big stress factor in Singapore.

Parents worry about sending their children for enrichment classes, or for extra tuition to catch up, regardless of #everyschoolagoodschool.

And the costs add up.

But what happens to families who are unable to afford more than the bare minimum?

Education may be the big leveller, but access to education resources more often than not determine how well a child does in their academic journey, and subsequently how much of a headstart they get in life.

In this way, children from lower socio-economic status families tend to lose out in the race to the top.

Yes, there are study programmes for the less privileged, usually pro-bono and run by volunteers. But charities have their own challenges too.

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Lydia Lok, 38, recalls when she was a volunteer teacher for arts and crafts for a shelter for abused women and children in 2015 when she noticed that the volunteer teachers for the academic tutor programmes seemed to always be missing.

The ex-civil servant says: “When I asked the beneficiaries who come for my lessons about their tuition sessions, they always said ‘Oh yeah, I haven’t seen my tutor in a long time. I think they’re busy.”

Because these volunteers aren’t paid, their hearts are often “bigger” than their wallets, so when they run into personal challenges, they can’t afford to continue their charitable efforts.

That’s where Lydia got her inspiration.

She tells The Pride that when she was volunteering for a survivor’s helpline in 2008, she noticed when there were no volunteers available for the hotlines, the charity would have paid staff members stand in during the shifts.

She explains: “That model made sure that the helpline was always working and that was when I realised I could make literacy programmes sustainable without relying on volunteers.”

One of the children completing a workbook activity. Image source: CTG

So in 2016, Lydia set up Curious Thoughts Academy (CTA), a social enterprise that focuses on phonics education and dyslexia intervention for young children.

But that was not enough.

Soon after, Lydia set up a non-profit arm of CTA called Curious Thoughts Giving, which gives free regular, professional phonics classes and literacy programmes for less privileged children in Singapore. CTG currently has 107 students and employs eight teachers from CTA.

Main programmes at CTG

A teacher conducting a lesson at a social service agency in March 2022. Image source: CTG

CTG runs four major programmes.

The first, CuriousTime@SSAs, is a literacy programme to help children from three to eight learn to read and write. Students under this programme attend free weekly phonic lessons at social service agencies and preschools across Singapore. Lessons conducted by full-time CTA teachers have helped more than 100 students since 2018.

Another initiative, StoryTime, brings public volunteers to read stories to and play games with seniors at Senior Activities Centres at void decks around Singapore. The programme aims to increase multi-generational bonding between seniors and volunteers.

Explains Lydia: “Many of these old folks do not have much family support and being able to spend some time talking, playing and interacting with children means the world to them.”

Over 830 seniors have connected with 140 children and 150 adults since the programme was started in 2018.

A third programme is called SmallTalk, which is a four-week session for parents of special-needs children or less privileged children aged four to six. Parents are equipped with the necessary phonics skills and parenting strategies to create a learning environment to teach their children English at home.

The families attend interactive storytelling sessions conducted by tutors from CTA where parents learn the basics of storytelling and children learn phonics. So far, 30 families have benefited from SmallTalk.

From SmallTalk came a fourth programme in 2022, called Jom Belajar English. This parent-accompanied programme is a four-week phonics programme targeted at Malay families with children aged four to six years old.

Lydia explains: “We realised that in most literacy programmes, the teaching resources are very foreign and less relatable for our students. In Jom Belajar, we use classics from the Malay cultures, like Sang Nila Utama and Badang, to teach phonics.”

Similar to SmallTalk, this programme aims to equip parents with the knowledge to teach basic phonics at home, alongside skills to improve the learning environment at home. The programme is run twice a year and has helped 53 families so far.

Funding issues

Teacher Jun Wei holding up a handmade rose with detachable thorns during an interactive activity. Image source: Ashley Tan

Lydia tells the Pride that these programmes cost money to run, as the beneficiaries need trained teachers, which come from CTA.

Her biggest struggle is financial support, which comes in dribs and drabs.

She says: “Most sponsors fund the pilot programmes and that’s it. The rest of our funding comes from our paying students at the academy (CTA) and public donations.”

Despite that, the team perseveres. Lydia says: “Seeing the kids learn to read and knowing that you are making a difference helps our team to keep going.”

Meeting the kids firsthand

Teacher Jun Wei using engaging examples to go through a quick recap before the main lesson. Image Source: Ashley Tan

To better understand the work CTG does, The Pride sat in for two CuriousTime sessions at a preschool in Ang Mo Kio.

When the session started, I saw the excited children run towards their teacher, Wong Jun Wei, 32, who was dressed in a yellow CTG t-shirt. They were also joined by volunteers, David and Pradeep, J1 students from Raffles Institution.

Said Lydia: “We rarely get regular volunteers but these two have been quite enthusiastic in helping out the past few months.”

Despite their inexperience, the boys try their best to help Jun Wei by looking out for the students and helping them keep up and stay engaged throughout the session.

For the first session, five students (three were ill, said Lydia) sat in a semicircle around Wong on the floor in the far end of the preschool. The session started with a recap on the phonics taught the previous week. After the recap, Jun Wei went straight into the main lesson with a story that uses different phonics.

A teacher using physical activity to conduct a phonics lesson at a preschool in Ang Mo Kio in May 2022. Image source: CTG

Throughout the session, Jun Wei uses different handmade props and items for interactive activities to engage the students. For example, one of the words they learnt was ‘towel’ and he gave each student a dry towel that they used to mop up water that he had sprayed on the floor.

The 45-minutes session with the five children ended with a worksheet activity and I followed Jun Wei, David and Pradeep to another school to conduct the second session of that evening.

The second session was with a group of seven children in K2, who had been with the programme for about a year.

Pointing out the progress of the different students, Lydia shared: “For example, this student could not read at all when she first came to us. Now, she can read simple sentences and she is a lot more confident in her language ability.”

Staying true to the mission

It’s stories like these that keep Lydia going despite the difficulty in providing quality education with limited resources. Even then, she is mindful of pushing herself and her trainers too much.

She says: “As educators, we tend to give a lot so it’s important to be mindful of our rest time and avoid burnout. If we are well rested, we can go for a longer journey.”

Aside from supporting the teachers, she also hopes to support the families of the students.

CTG is organising a Mother’s Day donation drive that ends on May 31.

Says Lydia: “We want to stay true to our goal, to provide underprivileged children in Singapore with additional support in their education.”

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