Singaporean mother sets up online high school for gifted children

Singaporean entrepreneur and mother Pamela Lim has set up an online high schoolfor gifted children, writes Clara Chow

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 9:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 9:37am

A few years ago, a Facebook note posted by Pamela Lim went viral in Singapore.

In the post, the businesswoman turned stay-at-home mum recounted her struggles with Singapore's mainstream education system after a principal and teachers branded her son a troublemaker, and school therapists misdiagnosed him with autism. He was suspended from school for almost two years for misbehaviour.

It turned out there was nothing wrong with him: he was merely gifted. When she took him out of the conventional school system, he thrived intellectually and emotionally, she wrote in the post.

Once a high-flying entrepreneur, Lim became a symbol of hope for those frustrated with an education system that comes across as too strict, too unyielding and uncomprehending of individual needs and talents. Her Facebook community page has more than 11,400 likes.

Last July, Lim set up an online All Gifted High School, which is self-paced and regionally accredited. Its US High School Diploma programmes take in students who are usually about 15 years old and take three years to complete The school's website says it also admits students "as young as 10, [who can] finish the diploma in a year and make it to top universities at 12 years old".

Since the school was launched, it has enrolled "a few hundred students" from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the US, Lim says. "The response has been overwhelming on two levels. First, more students have enrolled than expected. Second, the students are progressing much faster [three times faster] than we anticipated," she wrote in an e-mail interview last week.

Lim, who a decade ago founded and ran a number of software companies, decided to set up the online school to forge a new approach to education.

Schools today are probably not very suitable for most children
Pamela Lim

"Schools today are still very much designed for the industrialisation age, and probably not very suitable for most children," says the 47-year-old. "I don't believe all children of the same age have the same capabilities in every area, which is the foundation of schools. Because of the need to mass educate during the Industrial Revolution, schools needed to educate people quickly, so the only way to do this is with a standard curriculum for a large group of people.

"But now that the technology is ready, we don't need to follow this template and standard any more. We need to move ahead."

While Lim does not run the school on a day-to-day basis, she is behind its electronic infrastructure, building systems and processes: "I'm more the innovator or inventor."

In between coding software, filing patents and encouraging her children, she is also working on an e-book about how she tailored her young one's education. "I have little time to write, but I should be able to finish it this year."

Of her five children, the eldest, 19, is halfway through a master's degree, having disrupted his studies for mandatory National Service. Her second child, 17, graduated with a psychology degree from an Australian university and is moving into postgraduate studies. Her third child, 15, will soon graduate from music and maths studies at an Australian university. Her fourth child, 14, started studying at a Boston university at 12, and is also enrolled in a high school. Her youngest, 10, went up two years in his school and Lim now does maths and reading with him at home.

The family - her husband is Lim Kang Song, a senior executive in the IT industry - divides their time between Singapore, Australia and the US.

"One of the things I've learned is that parents are the best educators, and we need to make good decisions for our children," Lim says. "We must let our children learn at a pace they are most comfortable in.

"As a parent, I must know my child more than anyone else, so no 'expert' should decide what is best for any of my children. I may consult and take counsel, but the final decision is mine as a mother.

"Lastly, I believe never to clamp a child down for the sake of blending into schools. For all you know, when it is time for him or her to fly free, the wings can no longer spread."

Recent changes to Singapore's education system include no longer grading pupils in the nationwide Primary School Leaving Examination as thoroughly (only letter grades for subjects are released now, as opposed to numerical aggregate scores).

Lim is not sure she has seen many changes to the education system in recent years. "The only change I can detect is the efforts in trying to reduce competitiveness."

But she still hopes improvements will be made, such as reducing class sizes; hiring more qualified and passionate teachers; offering higher pay to attract more qualified educators; and offering better support for educators, some of whom are not well equipped to handle today's children, "who are different and no longer passive and submissive".

"I hope there is less dependence on tuition," she adds, citing one of the most frequently debated aspects of Singapore's schooling system. "Children should go out to play more, and should be allowed to voice their views freely without being afraid of a backlash."

She believes that every child has a talent. "Unfortunately, most people don't know or believe their children are gifted in an area. So, very often, children grow up thinking they are just like everyone else.

"As parents, our job is to find that talent and expand on it, regardless of the milestones set up by experts and educators … We need to listen intently and look carefully. Unfortunately, most people in the first world are so busy with the rat race that they fail to look at their children."

Yet, if you're a parent, how does that translate into practical terms?

"It's simpler than most think. You just need to put aside your standards, your judgment and ambitions for the child. Listen and watch carefully. When you find that, you have found gold, then help - and not push - the child to achieve his or her wildest ambitions."