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The lowdown on sending your kid to school in Singapore

December 7, 2017

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Thanks to Judy Shei for this helpful overview. A former San Francisco public school Mandarin immersion parent who’s now living in Singapore, her  perspective is great because she knows both what a U.S. school looks like but is now also an expert on the Singapore school system.

By Judy Shei

As an immigrant child, I was always annoyed by my parents’ constant questioning of how schools work in America. Now that we have been living and an attending school in Singapore for the past four years, the roles have been reversed and now I understand that the questioning doesn’t come from trying to be intrusive, but true bewilderment. Growing up in the US, one takes for granted certain rules of school – it starts in August or September and ends around June, anyone resident can enroll regardless of citizenship status, middle school starts in sixth or seventh grade, but school doesn’t really get hard and grades don’t really matter until high school.

Moving here, I had to upend all these mental rules. I moved here for work but also so kids could experience a different way of life. For me it was important our kids attended public school – called here “local school” – instead of intending private international school. I wanted them to continue studying Mandarin and to have Singaporean classmates and learn Singapore history and social studies. In addition, Singapore students has topped or near the top on PISA tests for the last several years. The local school system must be doing something right!

Enrolling in School

Before everyone rushes to Singapore to enroll into local schools note that only citizens and permanent resident (PR) children are guaranteed a place.

As there are limited vacancies after citizens and PRs are allocated spots, the Ministry of Education (MOE) will only grant admission to only enough international students for which there are places left. In other words, at best, you will not be able to choose the school your child will attend and at worst, you may not be granted a place at a school at all.

To receive a spot in Primary 1, you must register in August the year before and if you miss the date, you are out of luck. Even if you manage to register, one survey shows the chance of getting a spot to be only about 30-40%. The Singapore government doesn’t release any official figures.

Since 2014, to receive a spot after Primary 1, you must take an entrance exam that tests math, science and English. These exams take place twice a year in Singapore. Your child, as young as seven or eight, will sit in a great hall with hundreds of students from all over the world to compete for a few open spots.

Just the Facts

Singapore follows a Southern Hemisphere schedule like Australia and S. Africa. The school year starts in January and ends mid-November. My eldest child finished 2nd grade in San Francisco and then did another half year of Primary 2 in Singapore.

School also starts much earlier and ends much earlier than schools in the US. With few exceptions, most student must be at school around 7:15 AM and it ends around 1:30 PM. As many international students get assigned far from their home address, that means a commute that can start as early as 6 AM.

Unlike some school systems in North America and Europe, school is not free. Even citizens need to pay school fees and there is a tiered fee structure dependent on residency status. As of 2017, primary school costs $600 Singapore dollars/month for International students. Secondary school is $950 Singapore dollars/month for international students. In addition, families must pay for textbooks, uniforms and occasional learning journeys (field trips). International students do not have access to scholarships or any form of tuition assistance. That said, schools are well funded so there is no need for PTA drives to buy basic supplies or fund an extra teacher.

Primary 1 (P1) (the Singapore equivalent of first grade) starts the year a child turns 7, so all kids start at age 6 and turn 7. In P1 and P2, classes are typically 25-30 kids. And most schools have six to eight P1 Classes. Starting in P3, classes grow to 40 students per class. There are more kids in each grade of my sons’ school than their entire elementary school in California.

Many schools also start tracking children in P3 into higher ability and regular classes, although there are some exceptions. In P5, children are further tracked into regular and foundation classes so that children who struggle with a particular subject can opt to take the foundation stream (track) for that subject only.

In P6, all children take the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE). Although children study a comprehensive curriculum at school, including arts, music, physical education, health, history, social studies, they are only tested on English, Math, Science and Mother Tongue (Chinese, Malay, Tamil or non-Tamil Indian language).

PSLE is a big deal in Singapore as it determines which Secondary School stream is available to your child and which Secondary School your child will be able to attend. It is not uncommon for parents to take leave from work to help their child prepare for this exam.

Secondary Schools are streamed into IP or Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical. IP is the most rigorous and attempts to mimic some IB educational methods. Normal Technical is reserved for students who score near the bottom of PSLE curve.

Secondary school ends after 4, 5 or 6 years depending on your stream with either General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCE) O (Ordinary) levels, N (Normal) levels or A (Academic) levels (IP Only). After which a student can opt for Junior College and then take A levels (if not in IP program), or proceed directly in Polytechnic or an Institute of Technical Education (ITE). Of course, all this depends on how well the student does on the exams. It is very confusing!

The great thing about Singapore schools is there is no one-size-fits-all as in the U.S., where it is K-12 for everyone. The government invests a lot in their Institute of Technical Education and Polytechnics which provide a high-quality education for those who are not academically inclined. The not so great thing about Singapore is if you end up on one track, it’s hard to move to another. For some families, there is tremendous stigma if your child does poorly in PSLE and ends up in Normal Academic or Normal Technical.

That’s interesting, but what is school like?

Singapore schools have a reputation for being academically challenging but also reliant on rote learning. The truth is a more nuanced than that.

Due to large class sizes and the importance of exams in streaming at a very young age all the way to university, parents in Singapore tend to care about grades… a lot. Children as young 6 regularly attend tuition (the Singapore term for private tutoring , either one-on-one or in a class) after school and/or weekends. Also, exams are written to be difficult enough to ensure a curve, even in primary school, so it’s not uncommon for half the class to get less than 50% and only one child to get an A. For parents bent on getting their child in the most elite IP program in the most elite secondary school and then on to National University of Singapore (Singapore’s Harvard), tuition is a must to beat the curve.

The classwork is not just rote learning, though. In Maths, kids start tackling word problems in P1 and by P3 the word problems are difficult! Here is an actual P3 (i.e. third grade) math problem:

“Devi had 56 curry puffs. She had 8 times as many curry puffs as sardine puffs. She sold all her sardine puffs and 12 more curry puffs than sardine puffs. How many curry puffs did she sell?”

In science, they start doing laboratory experiments in P3 and have a practical exam based on what they do in the lab. Schools may also take children out on learning journeys to the zoo or local parks to enforce what they learn in class.

In English, they learn both situational writing (e.g. writing emails, thank you notes) and continuous writing (basically a story from picture prompts). Depending on the school, they also write and perform plays and have opportunities to write short research papers.

Almost all students also study what’s known as their Mother Tongue. This is actually based on the native language of their father, at least theoretically, though many families actually speak English at home but are historically or culturally a part of a given ethnic group and so choose that language. The Mother Tongue’s offered are Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Students are marked on listening skills, conversation skills as well as reading and writing in both English and their Mother Tongue classes.

In Secondary school, students are introduced to more project work and group work.

Children come out of the Singapore system with solid academic and analytical skills. However, this is what you will not find in Singapore primary schools: school wide science fairs, semester-long student led research projects, book reports or student centered learning.

What you will also not find in neighborhood schools is an instant community. Many neighborhood schools have limited Parent Support Groups (although there are exceptions) and few activities outside of school to meet other families. It’s not impossible, but it is not as easy or expected as in America.

If you want to go to Singapore so your kids can learn Mandarin – think again

There is a reason why Singapore is called “Asia Lite” or “Asian 101.” Everyone speaks English! That’s great for parents who don’t speak Chinese, but to be honest, it’s terrible if you want your kids to learn Mandarin. The only time my children interact in Mandarin outside of Mother Tongue class at school, sessions with the tutor or their mom’s request to speak one sentence… only ONE sentence a day… is when they order watermelon juice at the hawker stand. And deep down they know the hawker auntie or uncle speaks enough English that they can probably still just order in English. Sigh!

At school, all subjects are taught in English other than Mother Tongue and “Citizenship and Moral Education” class, so only an hour to 1.5 hours a day. There is no overlap in subject matter between Mother Tongue and what they are studying in other subjects. In other words, if they are learning the digestive system in science, they are NOT learning the parts of the digestive system in Mandarin in Mother Tongue class.

The Mother Tongue curriculum assumes it is a mother tongue, it’s spoken at home and children are already familiar with the language. Therefore, the focus is reading and writing and passing exams, not developing daily conversation. The 听写 (Chinese spelling, or dictation) would make most immersion kids cry because it’s so hard.

So, if you don’t speak/read Mandarin at home, chances are your child will fail without the help of an excellent, dedicated (and expensive!) tutor outside of school, especially if your child is not naturally talented with languages. Even if your child passes, he/she will be able to read very well but not necessarily be able to hold a conversation at any great length. My youngest son has a classmate who does very well on the written exam but does not understand the teacher at all.

That said, the Ministry of Education understands more and more children are being raised in households where English is the primary language and has revamped the curriculum to focus on more daily conversation and uses more video and technology. However, it’s only been rolled out through P2 at this stage, with an additional level every new year. It remains to be seen whether there will be the same expectation for reading and writing in higher grades like there is now.

Conclusion

Every school system has it merits and shortcoming and Singapore Local Schools are no different. Local schools have an expertly developed curriculum that is not afraid to challenge children from a very young age. In general, teachers and administrators are approachable, and the school facilities are excellent. In addition to academics, children get exposed to art, music, PE. Every year schools celebrate Racial Harmony Day, International Friendship Day, Civil Defense Day, and Sports Day. Children can develop close friendships as fewer students come and go than in international school. For children who are struggling, the large school sizes ensure that every school has additional counselors and student support staff to help…. And despite what you may hear, many, many teachers do out of their way to make classes interesting and fun.

However, the academic pressure can be intense starting in upper primary and secondary school. The last year of primary and the last year of secondary is devoted to preparing for exams. Exams matters as they either open or close certain educational pathways. This makes the system mediocratic – all students across Singapore take the same exam and the exams undergo a rigorous double-blind scoring process. However, there is a fear that students become risk adverse, wanting to get to the right answer for the sake of a test and eliminates any joy of learning, inhibiting creativity and critical thinking.

Overall, some students thrive in this environment and some do not. After reading all this, if you are interested in learning more about the local school system or if you have specific questions that aren’t answered below are a few resources:

Ministry of Education page for International Students: https://www.moe.gov.sg/admissions/international-students

Financial Times Article with a good overview of Singapore Local Schools: https://www.ft.com/content/2e4c61f2-4ec8-11e6-8172-e39ecd3b86fc

Kiasuparents https://www.kiasuparents.com/kiasu/

Singapore Expats in Local Schools Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/438205052966017/

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