“The ministry had looked at similar practices from education systems in Japan and Taiwan. In these places, cleaning the school compound is a daily routine for students” (Daily Cleaning “Cultivates Good Habits For Life”, Calvin Yang).
In addition to plans to get students in Singapore to “spend at least a few minutes each day cleaning classrooms, canteens, and corridors by the year end” (ST, Feb. 26), it would also be useful to give breaks to janitors – which is already happening in schools such as Serangoon Junior College, where the cleaning crew are given a one-day break at the start of the year – to emphasise the importance of ownership and social responsibility. And in fact even in countries such as Japan and Taiwan, where the Ministry of Education (MOE) took reference from, many schools do not employ cleaners or janitors.
Such a move could also strengthen appreciation for these individuals in the school. As it stands, students and their schools have – through initiatives such as thank-you or appreciation events – acknowledged that cleaners or janitors are often taken for granted.
The policy intent of the MOE is to encourage good habits in schools and for students to not take cleanliness for granted, and hopefully even when they are back home they would be involved in household chores too, though there is potential for a gradual mindset shift too. Stigma against blue-collared workers – including cleaners and janitors – appear to have persisted, with perspectives that such “menial labour” is beneath Singaporeans. Look no further than the reservations expressed by parents over this move, concerned that their younger children may get “too tired” or “may not be able to concentrate during the lessons afterwards”, or that “students should be allowed to focus on their studies”.
Teachers will no doubt be tasked to coordinate these endeavours, yet given the importance of role modelling the active participation of the school leadership in these cleaning routines – principals and heads of department, in particular – is crucial. An enduring memory which remains etched, from when I was a primary school student in Pei Chun Public School between 2001 and 2003, is that of former principal Chen Keng Juan not only urging students to take pride in a clean school environment, to clean classrooms and school areas, but also joining us and picking up litter has he made his daily rounds. Beyond mere rhetoric action matters, and leadership in this regard will therefore matter.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.