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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

Cons of local Singapore schools

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!

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