Recently, a colleague brought up that she applied to be a parent-volunteer at a primary school that she was eyeing for her daughter. And got rejected.

“Wah! Volunteer also can get rejected ah? How come?” I asked her over the Zoom call.

“I don’t know, I just applied. Then got rejected lor.”

She went on to describe how she didn’t do much on her submission form except to add the detail that her husband could help as a football coach, but the school never got back to her.

The school that she was applying for is a popular one, even making the news when it was reported that parents were queuing up for a chance to volunteer.

“Ah, that’s your mistake,” chimed in another colleague sagely. “You must tell your school about your skillset. When I volunteered, I told them that…”

Listening to him describe how he got his older girl into her primary school, I was aghast at his tenacity and stamina. As it turns out, they lived more than 4km from the school in question and so could only qualify for Phase 2B during the Primary 1 registration process. That was why he and his wife flung themselves into volunteering.

To even qualify as a parent-volunteers, they had to go through a gruelling interview process where they were asked about their jobs, the hours they could commit and what special skill sets they brought to the table.

And this is not your basic morning traffic warden kind of duties. They had to assist in after-school activities and other support modules that the teachers were not doing.

In the end, out of the many many parents who applied to be a volunteer, my colleague was selected to lead an after-school programme inspiring students to read. He also emceed at school events, put up skits for Children’s Day and was involved in planning other events with the school. He, his wife and their daughter even went to Batam to help out at an orphanage that the school had adopted.

Children's day skit performance
A skit put up for Children’s Day by parent-volunteers. Image Source: Karun S’Baram

All this in the two years before his daughter set foot into the school. And it wasn’t even a confirmed place: They still had to compete with other applicants on the Phase 2B ballot.

He said to me later: “I know (my girl) had the potential, and we wanted to give her all the resources and explore all possible avenues for her. As a father, I’m not going to apologise for thinking this way.”

Should volunteering guarantee a place in a school?

Earlier this week, a parent, Rachel Lim, wrote to The Straits Times forum to share her thoughts on the parent-volunteer scheme in primary schools. She was of the opinion that volunteering at a school should guarantee a spot at that school when her child enters Primary 1.

She felt that it was unfair to make parents go through the balloting process after they had invested time and effort in volunteering. And added that it was a disappointment for parents who take time off from work and arrange for alternative childcare so that they can put in the required hours, only to end up unsuccessful in the ballot.

Her opinion didn’t go down too well. Another parent wrote on Facebook: “Volunteer(ing) simply means you offer your resources on your own accord without expectation of any return. If the parent wants a guaranteed spot in the school, the parent has to find a legitimate way to strike a deal with the school – this is deal making, not volunteering.”

Let’s not miss the point about volunteering

I can identify. When my girl was due to go to Primary 1, we too started shopping around for the best schools in our area – visiting open houses and checking our eligibility. While my girl was still tumbling around in kindergarten, we were already wondering if we should sign up to volunteer at a prestigious primary school in Sengkang, where we were living then.

In the end, we decided not to do it. Firstly, because there was no guarantee of a place. And secondly, we liked the emphasis on character development in another school. And thirdly, it just seemed so oxymoronic (emphasis on the second part of the word) to be “forced” to have to volunteer for a chance to get a place.

It just seemed wrong to me. To me, that wasn’t volunteerism.

Let’s call a spade a spade. If you give up your time in exchange for a guaranteed benefit, it’s not volunteering. There is a word for it. It’s called “work”.

In the end, we balloted for a convent school in Serangoon and got in via Phase 2B. My girl is in Primary 4 now, has done well for herself and made loads of friends.

Sol's daughter with a friend
My daughter has made lots of friends at her primary school. Image source: Solomon Lim

I was sharing my thoughts with some friends and one of them added tongue-in-cheek that even before our kids go for their PSLEs, us parents these days have to take our “PSAEs” – Primary School Acceptance Exams!

Yet a part of me empathises with Rachel. It can be frustrating when you put in hours and hours of work (parent-volunteers are required to give a minimum of 40 hours) and someone else just breezes in and gets the place you’ve been wanting so much for your child.

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So I understand why she wrote what she did. And that’s why I’m not bashing parents who do this.

Nor am I taking schools to task. Let’s be clear. Many schools have more programmes that they want to do than the resources to do them.

Parent-volunteering, on paper, is a win-win solution for both school and parents. Schools are clear from the get-go: Volunteering doesn’t guarantee an automatic place. You put in the time and you roll the dice at the ballot. If you don’t like the odds, no one’s forcing you to do so.

So why the unpleasantness? It’s because our Singaporean kiasu-ness crashes headlong into a system not designed to cater to it. Worse, it exacerbates the notion that the “popular” primary schools are better, which feeds into perceived elitism. What happened to #everyschoolagoodschool?

It’s about the lessons we want to teach our kids

So what is the solution? Some have called for parent-volunteer schemes to be abolished, and some schools have already done away with it.

I agree. Not to scrap all parent-volunteering, but to remove the carrot – in other words, don’t link it to Primary 1 registration.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for your child – we all do. My issue is this: When we act as if volunteering is only worthy when there is a quid pro quo, it sends the wrong signal to our children.

Now, our kids, at the tender age of 7, aren’t going to be asking you deep complicated questions on the nature of volunteering. But we are the adults here. We need to ask ourselves why we do what we do. Because that influences who we are and how we behave, and ultimately that trickles down to how we bring up our kids.

asian women and children volunteer help garbage collection charity environment river area. Group of kids school volunteer. Everyone has to help preserve the ecology on earth. (Environment concept)
Image source: Shuttershock / narikan

A friend of mine shared about a project that she is working on to teach kids about volunteering. She spoke passionately about wanting to show kids how integrity, compassion, courage and gratitude come together to inform a positive action.

She told me: “We don’t want our kids to do something ‘good’ because ‘my mummy told me to’, I want them to be able to learn and process why they should do something (like volunteering) to help others so that they can internalise these actions.”

In other words, we show our beliefs through our actions, then we explain those actions to our children: That is a life lesson worth teaching, no matter what school we put them in.

What volunteering at a school should be like

When I asked my colleague whether or not he regretted the time he put into volunteering, he set me straight.

He said: “Volunteering enabled me to understand the school system. Primary school is not a place where parents just send their kids to be educated. It’s a partnership with the teachers.

“We (parents) need to play our part. Many working parents tend to forget and are quick to blame the school, teachers and the system. I don’t blame them – they may not have the understanding I had as a parent-volunteer.”

“(Through volunteering) I got a better insight into the school’s culture and programmes. I had a chance to interact with teachers, staff and parents. The experiences gave me a new level of appreciation and respect for the teachers. We became close friends with other parent-volunteers.”

After he finished his stint as a parent-volunteer and his daughter made the ballot, he continued serving as vice-chairman of the school’s parent support group.

Most importantly, his daughter got to see him in school and was very proud that her teachers knew him.

He said: “Being part of the progress and development of the school and its pupils gave me happiness and satisfaction. And I hope that will inspire my kids to do the same when they are parents themselves.”

And what if he didn’t make the cut?

“I will be disappointed, of course! But I know I tried my best for my daughter. From my group, there were some parents who did not get in. Some became upset. But the others were ‘oh well, we learned a lot and made new friends’.”

“In the end, it shows what kind of parent you want to be.”

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