Class of their Own

Published on 27 September 2016

More than an arts school, the SCHOOL OF THE ARTS is a grow bed for creative thinkers in Singapore.


In the ground-breaking book The Element, Sir Ken Robinson asserts that education doesn’t need to be reformed, but transformed. “The key to this transformation is to personalise it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”


In the last decade or so, Singapore has seen the establishment of the Singapore Sports School (2004), School of the Arts (2008), and School of Science and Technology (2010), catering to the varying aptitudes and interests of students aged 13 and up.


For the artistically inclined, the School of the Arts (SOTA) offers a six-year programme leading to the International Baccalaureate (IB). A place in SOTA is gained purely by Direct School Admission, with applicants needing to undergo a series of interviews and auditions. As such, a common myth is that SOTA is all about the arts and exists only to groom future artists.


“In a sense, it is all about the arts; but it’s not so much learning about the arts as learning through the arts,” says Cheri Wee, a Year 6 dance student. “Two years ago, when I realised I wasn’t going to make it as a professional dancer, I would have wondered if I was wasting six years trying. At this stage, however, I’ve realised that I had six years to try things and figure out more about myself.”


At SOTA’s official opening on 15 July 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his speech that the school’s curriculum — which carefully integrates academic subjects and the arts — is appropriate “because many of the SOTA graduates will go on to professions which are not directly involved with the aesthetics, to be doctors or engineers.”

Addressing the students, PM Lee continued, “I hope whatever you do, your training in the arts will equip you with a more comprehensive perspective and way of thinking, and add an extra touch to the new profession which you will learn.”


So what exactly is an arts education?


As Singapore’s only national pre-tertiary arts school, SOTA prepares students, aged 13 to 18, for the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) through a unique arts-integrated curriculum. In 2014, they pioneered the world’s first IB Career-related Programme (IBCP), a new option for Year 5 and 6 students who demonstrate exceptional artistic ability and potential, and who have indicated strong interest in pursuing a career in the arts.


“You don’t lose anything going into an arts education because in your IB years, you have a choice to relegate your art form to just one of your subjects. No one will judge you!” says Lin Xiangning, a IBCP graduate who is currently reading Piano Performance at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. “In SOTA, we all have different things we want to do in the future.”


The school currently has six faculties: theatre, dance, music, visual arts, film and literary arts. Its latest programme — the literary arts — was officially launched this year and focuses on developing students in poetry, plays, short fiction, non-fiction, young adult novels and graphic novels. “We hope the programme will inspire students to have a greater love for the written word and to understand that books can inspire all other art forms,” says Ivan Ang, the faculty’s subject head. “We make it a point to include up to three Singaporean works for every form we teach as we feel it’s important our students read and appreciate Singapore literature and understand the local literary landscape, which they’ll hopefully be a part of one day.”

SOUND ADVICE Students specialising in music are exposed to voice and instrumental study, music theory and analysis; and discover music from around the world.


While most assume academics take a backseat to the arts at SOTA, the school’s curriculum is as rigorous as any secondary school in Singapore. SOTA students study the sciences, mathematics, humanities, English literature and Mother Tongue languages just like in mainstream schools.


“The difference is that our academic staff are aware that the students they teach are artistically inclined, so their teaching methods draw on the students’ artistic interests,” says SOTA’s principal Lim Geok Cheng, who was formerly principal of Cedar Girls’ Secondary School. “All our teachers have been trained in arts-integrated approaches to teaching and learning.”


For Kit Lee, who teaches mathematics at SOTA, the first challenge is to identify the inherent qualities in mathematics and the arts that allow for integration. “Both disciplines are used in interior design, for example, so I assign them a project to design their dream home,” she shares. “To do that, they have to integrate art design considerations with concepts of map scale and proportion.”


The visual arts teachers are also roped in to impart some basics of architectural design. “We try to be as authentic and intentional as we can be in the holistic curriculum process,” says Lee. “We bear in mind that each class comprises students from different art disciplines. This actually allows for rich exchange of thoughts and ideas in the mathematical problem-solving process.”

RAISE THE BAR Trained in classical and contemporary dance techniques, SOTA’s dance students learn to use the body skilfully and creatively to express ideas.


For Mark Rozells, who teaches English literature at SOTA, helping students see that texts do not exist in a vacuum allows him to draw on various art forms to bring the subject alive. “For instance, a graphic novel like Maus by cartoonist Art Spiegelman engages with the trauma of the Holocaust, and our Year 5 students discuss both the visual and literary aspects of storytelling.”


Literature lessons also involve studying how literary works are adapted for film, and students are encouraged to interrogate the choices made by film-makers. “They also explore the vital role that musicality plays in poetry and language,” he adds. “Our lessons incorporate music and movement to help students feel the rhythm of the words and how this contributes to the meaning of the piece.”


The arts teachers also incorporate academic concepts into their lessons. Phua Sze Ping, subject head of SOTA’s faculty of dance, taps on the principles of cultural anthropology in her teaching of dance. “We invite colleagues from the humanities department who teach anthropology to share basic concepts and skills in participant-observation with the students,” she reveals. “So as they research on dance cultures unfamiliar to them, they’re able to integrate this mind-body sensibility into the field work, which then widens their knowledge and understanding of dance.”

MOVING IMAGES Offered only in Years 5 and 6, SOTA’s film programme lets students explore the history, theory and creative process of film-making.


As it’s believed that art is never practised for art’s sake, the school’s affective programme — which seeks to develop leaders based on humility, integrity, people-centredness and passion — provides opportunities for students to contribute meaningfully to local and overseas communities.


After spending three days at the St Andrew’s Autism Centre, working with persons with autism, Meyer Jacobs Belias, a Year 6 visual arts student, and his team were challenged by their teacher Dr Felicia Low to develop design concepts for a residential and day activity centre currently being developed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development for adults with autism.


“We learnt that having a sense of belonging, ownership, and being able to identify with spaces are very important for people with autism. We took these into account when designing the space,” says Belias. “We also noted that they tend to switch tasks after a few minutes; so being able to move furniture around, and to store items efficiently, inspired us to design furniture that’s modular. The sofa I designed, for instance, can be rotated and opened to reveal storage space. I feel that contributing to the community gives my artistic skills a larger, more meaningful relevance.”

LIVE & LEARN (Top) Meyer Jacobs Belias (centre, in black) and project team learning from community service. (Bottom)  Learning Mother Tongue through culture.

DRAWING INSPIRATION From drawing and painting to ceramics and sculptures, SOTA’s visual arts students experiment with a range of mediums to create visual artworks.


The practical applications of what students learn in the classroom are constantly referenced back to Singapore’s arts industry. Professional artists and practitioners are invited to SOTA to share their insights and best practices through talks, workshops and masterclasses, such as an exclusive one-hour session the Year 3 music students had with singer-songwriter and Cultural Medallion recipient Dick Lee.


“We believe in authentic learning and that happens out there,” says Lim. “Teachers, being nurturing, won’t tell you off in such harsh terms. But if you’re working with professionals and you don’t meet their standards, they won’t let you off. All the artificial, age-specific barriers to what you can do are removed; and you learn to rise up and meet these expectations.”


For Nur Diyana Aqilah Bte Salam, a Year 6 visual arts student, working in the real world was an eye-opener. Last year, she and her friends tried to curate their own art exhibition to promote an urban farming space and realised that curating entailed more than just arranging works on a wall.


“One of the works was damaged and the artist wanted compensation. As it was our first time curating, we didn’t know we should continually check on the artworks throughout the exhibition,” she recounts. “After negotiating with the artist and owner of the space, we eventually found a compromise. This incident taught me how to communicate with people from external organisations; and also, how my work as an artist doesn’t stop at creation.”


SOTA is constantly seeking meaningful partnerships with artists and arts organisations. In particular, they’re looking out for more collaboration with established groups who can work with the school’s schedules and involve the students in major roles.

SETTING THE STAGE SOTA’s theatre programme exposes students to aspects of performing, directing, playwriting, critique, stage management and production design.


Upon graduation, SOTA students have gained admission to reputable tertiary institutions locally and overseas. These include the National University of Singapore, Singapore Management University, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music; as well as prestigious overseas institutions such as the University of Cambridge, Yale University, Stanford University, and Berklee College of Music.


“There is no arts school in Singapore now that’s disentangled from the academic rigour which characterises a Singapore education,” observes Lin, SOTA’s valedictorian for the Class of 2015. “Having gone through so many biology lessons since Year 1, if you want to study medicine, you can because you have a very solid foundation.”


Indeed, SOTA’s graduates have gone on pursue not just arts-related fields, but disciplines as diverse as architecture, engineering, political science, law and medicine.


“The arts are an additional lens through which we understand the world around us,” says Wee, who despite deciding not to pursue dance professionally, is grateful for the many options available to her. “I can go into arts management, movement therapy, psychology or even international diplomacy. Regardless of what I do, I know I’ll always keep the arts close and remain an enthusiastic patron.”


“To me, an arts education develops the mind to see things from a position of diverse possibilities, and SOTA is nurturing individuals who can approach issues from multiple perspectives,” affirms Lim. “Our students are creative and will inject a new dimension to whichever profession they embrace. We’re looking beyond arts education to something bigger. I see SOTA as a bedrock of creativity.”


For more information on the School of the Arts, visit

SOLID FOUNDATION From sciences to humanities, SOTA offers a rigorous, arts-integrated curriculum that prepares students academically for careers in non-arts fields.


Principal Lim Geok Cheng and graduate Lin Xiangning debunk some common myths about SOTA.


Not everyone who comes into SOTA knows for sure they want to pursue the arts professionally. While they’re artistically inclined, many of them just want a different education experience. It’s perfectly fine!


When applicants come for auditions, we actually look out for their potential, passion and talent in the art form. While some formal exposure and achievements in the art form are good, admission to SOTA is through the Talent Academy, a structured selection platform where artistic talent and potential take centre stage.


SOTA has an Experiential Education programme that provides students with opportunities to experience a variety of sports and outdoor activities such as camping, kayaking and rock climbing.

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