Being an expat at local school in Singapore

The decision to go to local school as an expat in Singapore

Once people get to know our family, they generally end up asking “What it is like as an expat in a local school?” and “Why did you choose a neighbourhood school?”. I can tell it’s a question on people’s minds from the moment they meet us! There aren’t many Singapore expats in local school.

Deciding to send our non-Singaporean child to a local school in Singapore was a deliberate and well-researched choice.  We thought long and hard on whether an international school or local school was best fit for our situation:  we love Singapore, are actively involved in the local community, and knew we’d be here for a long time.  We wanted an environment for stability of learning, empowering self-confidence and humility, and creating lifelong friendships.  Being able to learn a foreign language – in our case we chose Mandarin Chinese – up to level of fluency (or so we thought) was certainly a lure.

Singapore’s education system is taught largely in English, and it is globally known have a strong academic focus.  This was something else which attracted us, but also created a warning light.  My first, and main question, was how pressurised is this system?  I had heard stories from colleagues of children who are up until midnight with homework, and parents who ferry around their children to jam-packed schedules of tuition classes every weekend.  So, I spent a good two years researching this, visiting schools, and talking to anyone I knew in the teaching profession, to determine whether this was an illusory myth, or a hard, brutal fact about the local school system. 

Given that we:
(i) chose to enrol our first daughter, and
(ii) her siblings are following her in the system,

it is hopefully evidence enough to you that our experience (so far) has been a positive and enriching one.   Ultimately, every child is different, and it won’t suit everyone, and there are also limited spaces for non-Singaporean in local schools.  Parents need to make a choice that best suits their child’s temperament and learning needs, and then actively support that decision. 

Has local school life been stressful?

For us, being in a local no-brand neighbourhood school, with little-to-no homework most days, and the school staff actively discouraging external tuition, we’ve largely had a stress-free and joyful experience.  And when I say this, I mean stress free for both child and parent.   I can see it turning out very differently,  depending on school selection and location (for example …. Our neighbours’ son gets on a school bus each morning at 5.55am to go to an elite school on the other side of the island ….. it’s hard for me to envisage a more stressful start to the daily routine as a parent! ). Perhaps more experienced parents will read this and smile, because I don’t yet know what horrors lie in upper primary when the PSLE is upon us…  watch out for an update!

The things which have brought us stress have been surprising – for me, I still find it mentally tough standing at the school gate for pick-up, and being the only ang moh in the crowd, and knowing absolutely everyone remembers me and I don’t recognise anyone!   Or it’s the stress of trying to understand what-on-earth I’m signing when the Mother Tongue teacher asks me to put signature on the school report, fully hand-written Chinese characters, which cannot be translated on Google (that’s when my Youdao dictionary pen has become a saviour, by the way)!

Pros of Singapore local school

  • Focus on academics:  Singapore local education system is known for being extremely rigorous in maths and science, and producing very high scores in the PISA tests (which is the Programme for International Student Assessment, a worldwide study by the OECD, so nothing to laugh at!).  As an engineer myself, I value having a solid early understanding of numbers and science concepts. Surely the system has more rote-learning than an international school equivalent, but I think there’s a place for knowing off by heart your times tables, and getting the traditional ‘3 R’s (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic) down pat.
  • Structured environment:   Yes, it’s highly structured environment, with fixed class scheduling every day, a huge backpack of books and sheets, and no space for non-sense.  For us, I think this structure has helped to cultivate discipline and responsibility in our children: they learn to pack their own books, be on time for class, be a self-directed learner, etc.  And, remember, they are only in school until 1.30pm, so for us, the rest of the afternoon is totally unstructured!
  • Cost:  this is a hard one –  yes it’s a certain benefit, as many expats pour out tens of thousands of dollars a year to enrol their children in international school.   We would have gladly spent the money on the best school solution for our children.  Local schools are  not free either (in 2020 for a foreign student, it’s SG$9000 per year for primary school, and $16800 for secondary school), but they are notably cheaper than the cheapest international school options.  We are well aware that with the money saved from not sending three children to an international school, we can use this for other fulfilling family activities, fun summer camps, holidays, oh and let’s not forget, the investment in learning Chinese!
  • Great facilities– most schools will be equipped with dental surgeries, dance studios, science laboratories, modern sports halls, canteens which look like hawker centres, wonderful technologies, and access to world-class curriculums and programmes.   There’s after school learning support for those who need a little extra help, and some fun after school extra-curricular activities (environmental club, cooking club, robotic clubs, sports and drama) and overseas trips.  There’s not the big grand spacious campus which some of the international schools boast, but it’s way beyond what we would expect if we were back in our home country.

Cons of local Singapore schools

  • Class size:  At P1 & P2 there are 30 in a class.  It’s big, but you’d get that at some government schools in Australia or UK.  At P3 and beyond, it increases to 40!  Overall, I think a child learns better in a smaller environment, so this is a constant bug bear. The teachers have good coping strategies and technologies on how to manage large class sizes, but this comes at the cost of individual attention or creativity.  For example, the “creative writing”, be-it in English or Chinese, is really a highly structured process of rote learning how to make a sample opening paragraph, then template questions to tick off, with a penultimate paragraph, and a conclusion.  It’s a great framework to build upon though! 

    For a family who wants the child to converse more in Chinese, a large class doesn’t allow the direct discourse with a teacher to practice speaking (or hearing) the language.  Another aspect of large classes is that the children in upper primary are streamed by academic ability – to me this makes for better learning, but anther view, is that it is a stress factor and unnecessarily label on a young child.
  • Free play and socialising:  There isn’t a “lunch hour” at local school – timing is generally 7.30am to 1.30pm, with a half hour recess break.  So, there’s a whole aspect of playtime antics and friendship making which I feel is absent from the local school experience.  We consciously make this up outside of school, by maintaining regular playdates with sets of friends, and encouraging bonding with school friends (believe me, this really does take encouragement!).  Thankfully, mine have three siblings to joust with after-school, but I do really feel for the single-children in this respect.
  • Stress:  I put this here, because I bet any reader was expecting to see that.   Singapore Ministry of Education has actively been making changes to make the schooling experience less-stressful, including removing particular assessment and exams.   We haven’t felt the academic pressure (yet……perhaps it’s still coming).  I think this largely depends on the child’s attitude and aptitude, as well as parents’ expectations.  I do feel it’s not conducive to a happy childhood for children to spend most of their free time after school taking private lessons and enrichment classes.  We haven’t done this yet, and I hope never to be in that situation.  From the class Whatsapp chats, I can tell that there are some children who already are experiencing this, and I’m sure it could be stressful.  

    I’ve read some awfully sad articles about the poor mental health of older primary school students and the pressure they feel to achieve well in their PSLE – equally so, I’ve heard such stories at brandname International Schools too.  Particularly for a local Singaporean child, where university places are limited, which means scoring well in O-levels, hence needing to get into a good secondary  school, etc etc, you work backwards, and the pressure to perform well hits at a young age.  I feel as non-Singaporeans, we’re lucky to not have this burden, as there are other channels to get into university, should my kids wish to go down that route.
  • Catering for unique different learning needs:  It’s hard in this environment.  Thankfully I have girls, who are scientifically better suited at a younger age to classroom-based learning.  And, we have no specific learning difficulties to cater for.

How you can find out more about what happens in local schools as a Singapore expat

Open Days: Most schools have open days, so we went to a lot of them to get a sense for the facilities, teaching staff and vibe from the school.  They’re all really different, so it was well worth it.  The other thing I did was to visit the schools around pick-up time, and get a sense for the parent/helper/bus crowd hanging around at the gates, and the looks on the children’s faces as they left the premises. 

Visit the school: I don’t mean contact the school for a viewing, or attempting to go inside it ….. that’s a no no. However, why not walk around the outside of the school, and see what the vibe is like. Do you see any play equipment? A field? Hear sounds of joyful singing? See happy children running around? Visit the school at pick-up time, and just stand in the crowd of parents (and helpers, and grandparents!). See what they’re like, and what the children do as they run out of the school. Do they cross the roads politely? Greet their parents and road traffic assistant with a smile? Are they laden with text books and heavy bags?

Online Resources: The Ministry of Education (MOE) puts a lot of their syllabus online, which gives a great perspective.

Kiasu Parents Forum: I decided not to spend too much time here researching here-say online, because I didn’t want to waste time following threads and googling to find wrong answers written by bias anonymous parents to questions which are best solved in person. But that’s just me! Some people swear by online forums, and if that’s you, you’ll find plenty at Kiasu Parents!  

Singapore Expats in Local Schools Facebook group: a good group to connect to, once you get into a local school as an expat.

How it feels day-to-day in local Singapore school

Our school runs from 7:45 to 1:30pm.  It’s a 3 minute walk from our front door, which enables plenty of time for a good sleep and healthy breakfast beforehand.  Every day we feel grateful that we avoid the 5.55AM school bus!   From Primary 1, the day is fully timetabled and structured, with English, Mother Tongue, Maths, Social Science, PE, etc and corresponding books for each subject.  There’s a 30 minutes recess break, for children to eat at the canteen, play, or borrow books from the library. 

The school year runs from January through to mid-November, with a full month of school holidays in June and 6 weeks at year-end. 

I recall my one lingering concern after enrolling our first daughter, which was would feel like the odd-on-out (I mean, curly brown hair amid a sea of black?).  Well,  thankfully no. I think all kids are naturally colour-blind.  None of them would know the difference.  She’s made good friends,  become a class monitor, and is in a very happy learning environment.  She is proud of how well she is doing, and we are proud too! 

Words of advice as a Singapore expat in local school

Choosing a school: Not all foreigners have the option to choose which school they want to go to – it’s only Singapore Permanent Residents. If this is you, location and logistics is a large part of what I feel makes-or-break the experience.   The ability to walk to school really is a pleasure – it’s avoided the need to research car rental, the cost of taxis, timing of school buses, etc. Given schools starts somewhere between 7.15am to 7.45am, often school buses arrive 6am. We were fortunate enough to be in a position of having the option to go to our closest local school, and it has really worked for us. 

Pressure: Sometimes I wonder whether going to a neighbourhood school as opposed to a brand-name local school perhaps meant less homework and pressure?  Not sure, but we’ve certainly had friends at different schools who have had underwhelming experiences (in so far as being overwhelmed by the entire system).  Whilst Singapore has a motto “Every school a good school” (which I believe!), I have seen there are fundamentally different between approaches to homework and assessment across schools, and my hypothesis is that much of this could be parent cohort-driven too.  It’s probably worth thinking about.

Mother tongue language: All students in Singapore’s local school system need to study a mother-tongue language. This is a great opportunity for a child to become bilingual, but the standards are high, as it’s assumed this language is also spoken at home. To understand whether you should consider choosing Chinese as a mother-tongue, please see my earlier post. Then, if you do choose Chinese, I would recommend that you start as soon as possible to ensure your child has a strong foundation in the language – there are simple things you can do to expose your child to Chinese, even as a non heritage Chinese family.

Ultimately. there is no such thing as a perfect school system, nor perfect solution for parenting.  Much of it is what you make of it.  I’m naturally an optimist, and hope my children will be like that too. I love the quote “If you believe you can, or if you believe you cannot, you are right”. A lot of the journey is the story or perspective you put around it. For us, we do love being part of the Singapore expats in local school tribe.

Is it the best option for learning Mandarin?

If you’re reading this, because you’re interested in your child learning Chinese, and therefore thinking a Singapore local school could be your best option….. I really don’t know if it’s best, as there are also amazing bilingual Chinese international school options available, which are fully immersive! However, I do have a few other blog posts on teaching children Chinese as a non-Chinese literate family, which may be of interest:

  1. Best books for teaching a preschooler how to read Chinese
  2. Is reaching fluency in Chinese a realistic expectation for non Chinese families?
  3. Great books to read to encourage literacy
  4. Surviving Primary 1 Chinese as a clueless parent
  5. Luka Reading Companion

I would love to hear from you!

Part of the joy in blogging, is building up a community of like-minded parents who can support each other. So, I welcome you to comment below, email me, or join in discussions on Facebook or Instagram. Through supporting each other, and sharing tips, the load is lighter!

Singapore expats in local schools

4 thoughts on “Being an expat at local school in Singapore

  1. Very informative blog ! It’s really interesting to hear about the differences in local schools.
    My best friend’s son is in P1 at a no brand neighbourhood school. They have about 1-2 hrs of homework every day, double that on Fridays. During the May holiday (not HBL but vacation time) they had about the same homework every day, it was sent weekly by the teachers. The kid was born in SG and went to local kindergarten so is used to academic learning and he is doing fine at school but it’s still a lot of work (they believe in ‘no tuition’, too). Afternoon and weekend activities in their family are arranged around that workload.
    I hope it will continue to be more relaxed at you daughter’s school.

    1. Hi MaKo, thank you for your comment! I agree it differs a lot from school-to-school. I noticed some schools (either on their website, or in the front page of the school record books) had a statement about how much homework they expected from their students. This included neighbourhood schools too, so they’re not immune from homework, and it certainly increases as it goes upwards towards PSLE. I can happily say we didn’t have any homework during the month-long vacation, although many of the teachers (music, art, PE, form teacher) made beautiful “care packs” to keep the students smiling and active through the Circuit Breaker, whilst stuck at home.

  2. Hi, thank you for popping by my blog to drop your encouraging words! I am very heartened to know you have chosen to embrace our Singaporean way of life and have such passion to grow together with your children in your family! It is really an amazing attitude and kudos to a growth mindset. Welcome to the blogging community! I look forward to read more of your posts and learn together in this primary school age phase! I also have 3 kids. : ) You have started a great thing in this blog!

    1. Thanks Angie for visiting my blog! I just love your blog by the way, and have learnt a lot from it. Your passion for educating the children, and also giving them a grounding in faith, is to be admired. I love it that your children have also done some blog posts and reviews for you!

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