The yearly rush for popular primary schools

Every year in July, there will be letters to newspaper forum pages asking for changes to the Primary 1 registration system. Parents are anxious that their children enter the most popular primary schools. There will always be a group disadvantaged by the rules and wants it changed or the enrolment of popular schools enlarged to give their children a better chance of enrolment. 

Here are 2 letters in today’s Straits Times:

  1. Enlarge popular primary schools
  2. Trimming the alumni advantage

Being actively involved in the school education field for the past 11 years, I am acquainted with many educationalists. I have helped friends enter popular schools as volunteers (some schools are so popular that there are limited vacancies for parent volunteers). Some succeeded eventually to get their children into their choice schools while some were disappointedly turned away after a year of volunteering when they missed out in balloting due to limited vacancies.

My wife and I had decided we need not put our children into the ‘best’ primary schools. We chose to put our children into our alma matar, neighbourhood schools within minutes of our home.

Forum writer Chong Foo Sin suggested that enlarging popular primary schools will allow more to benefit from holistic education system.  Being active in the education field, I have seen neighbourhood schools with good holistic programmes as well. Students in popular primary schools may seem to do better for a variety of reasons, including having parents who could afford to send children for more tuition, the streaming policy that put in additional top students into schools with gifted programmes or the schools subjecting students to a lot more examination drill-and-practice to produce better PSLE results.

I have reached a personal conviction that a good set of academic results does not conclusively determine the eventual success of a person. I have also decided to redefine success to be a variety of other achievements beyond academic success. The self-worth of a person should be beyond academic and monetary success.

A true holistic education should not just focus on examination results. Many schools do try to provide holistic education, including popular schools and neighbourhood schools. However, parents tend to measure schools by the PSLE results. Schools know this and have nice banners on their fences announcing the top PLSE scores of their best achievers. Schools that do not achieve outstanding PSLE results are shunned at primary 1 selection.

We complain about Singapore’s education system being stressful but we are unable to let go of an overdependence on using performance at high-stake examinations as the sole measure of success. Parents will say that’s the way society measures success. We glorify scholars and fast-track them in their careers. It is the best way for success as our society knows it. Schools therefore push students hard academically as they currently do.

The debate will go on each year. There will be more forum writers expressing views over primary school enrolment. In October, there will be parents writing to the forum pages upset over unfair difficult examination papers. Each year, there will be anxious parents looking for every bit of advantage for their precious little ones.

Change is a process. Hopefully over time, we can understand success beyond academics. Over time, our society can accept different routes of education and different forms of assessments beyond high-stake standardised tests.


8 comments on “The yearly rush for popular primary schools

  1. I’m an old student of Rosyth and Seraya School (now part of Tanjong Katong Primary School) and I live in Telok Kurau. Everyone kept thinking I’d send my kids to Rosyth as it’s deemed a prize catch. However, the important thing for me is to have more contact time with my kids instead of travel time for them. With the lifestyle we have now, I don’t think we need to make parenting more difficult than it need be. I still remember my mum driving me 14 KM to Rosyth when I was younger each way and I appreciate what she did but I wish she hadn’t. I’m totally happy with our decision to place my kids nearby because most primary schools have similar systems in place. That alone means that it’s the parents who make the difference for the kids, and we intend to have that impact while our kids can still be influenced by us. Kids are getting more sophisticated earlier as years go by. Let’s not reduce the opportunities we have to spend time with them.

    • Well said! I wish more parents are like you. It’s actually parents that have to play a big role in whether the child succeed. We can’t just outsource to school and feel putting in a branded school is the solution. We also need to ask ourselves if we want to subject our children to endless drill-and-practice which some top schools are known to do to get the results. I decided personally for myself it wasn’t necessary, so I used none of my connections with schools to put them into top primary schools. Any decent neighbourhood school would do. There’s more to life than good grades.

  2. I agree with yeejj that there are neighbourhood schools that are comparable if not better than some of the more established and popular schools. I have personally worked in a neighbourhood school for several years and found that the Principal and teachers there were not inferior in standard, enthusiasm and compassion compared to their counterparts in the established schools. There is really no reason why there should be significant difference between the 180 primary schools in Spore bcos all of them are funded wholly in the case of govt schools and substantially for govt aided ones by MOE using taxpayers money. Principals and teachers are also trained and posted to schools centrally by MOE. They are even paid under the same salary scale regardless of their schools. Unfortunately the school I used to work in has now merged with another school due to dwindling enrolment. It is such a waste to spend taxpayer’s money to set up schools only to merge or close them later due to falling enrolment. Why is it not possible to have popular school like RGPS or ACPS open up more campuses in Spore to cater to demand? It takes many decades and plenty of effort and resources to build up a school’s tradition, identity, academic standing and spirit. Why not build on the success of the popular schools, some with much longer history than our nation, instead of trying so hard to build up another school from scratch. Why should any Singaporean be denied of a chance to study in a public school of their choice? Right now unless your sibling or parent used to study in say Nanyang Primary you can forget about ever experiencing what it is like to be a part of the school.

    Pre-schools like Kinderland, Etonhouse, My First Skool have branches of their schools all over Spore. Why not have Rosynth or Ai Tong open up another branch in another location in Spore to cater to demand for them? I don’t mean just taking the name but the school system, the environment, tradition, and the spirit. MOE can tap on technology advancement, handholding from staff and Principal from existing schools and even retired teachers and Principals to try and replicate the successful schools. By building on the success of the popular and established schools we can make them not only top schools in Spore, they may even emerge as top primary schools globally in time to come. We should not be wasting time reinventing the wheel but try to build on the success of the wheel which have been invented and perhaps build an automobile out from it in time to come.

    My point is not to undermine neighbourhood schools. On the contrary I feel that they have the potential to be another Red Swastika, Henry Park or CHIJ St Nicholas. After all all schools started out as neighbourhood schools. But we all know that is easier said than done today bcos most parents are just unwilling to enrol their children in a brand new school if they have an alternative of doing so in an established school with a better track record. I am not suggesting to close all neighbourhood schools. Parents who prefer to do so can continue to do so and register their children in them. But for parents who prefer to enrol their children in a popular and established school for family tradition or other reasons, they should also be able to do so without too much of a hassle.

    Registration for P1 in Spore nowadays is like going to war, requiring strategies and manoeuvres, if you follow what parents are doing and saying on online forums. There is no quick and easy solution. What I have suggested may or may not work. But what is certain is the present system needs to be examined and revamped as most parents are just not satisfied with it.

    • Some schools already have ‘branches’. These are the aided schools under a consistent branding. Hokkien Huey Kuan schools, Methodist school (ACS, MGS, etc), CHIJs, De lasalle schools, etc.

      It’s interesting idea to have top Govt schools run branches though it will take some persuading and change in mindset and organisation within MOE. They probably would not want to do this because MOE itself is like a big franchise (same syllabus, same pool of teachers and principals, reporting to Schools Division, etc). Setting up branches for elite schools will be encouraging more elitism and also not easy to enforce consistency across branches. Even within a current aided school group now, e.g. you mentioned St Nicholas, there’s difference in perceived value and branding by parents for various CHIJ schools. So having several Henry Parks will probably not solve the problem because people will know which Henry Park is preferred. Standards within the ‘franchise’ will vary with principals and principals are now rotated every 5-7 years anyway.

      Ultimately, parents are the ones who make the biggest difference to how well their children do.

  3. Popular schools may not be elite schools – just schools that have track record and proven system. So parents are more receptive to enroling their children in them knowing they have the basic system of a school in place. New school are perceived by many to be messy so enrolment numbers will be low.

    Having another Henry Park will benefit those who is staying far away from Bt Timah. Right now for alumnus of HP staying in Pasir Ris for example. It is either Henry Park or break tie with alma mater. But if there is a branch of Henry Park in the east, then an old boy or girl from HP can send their children to the school rather than to Bukit Timah. Standards may vary even among the branches but then it should not be too stark. Preschools like Kinderland and My First Skool are able to do it. Of cos not all branches of the same school will have the same standard or become its clone. But isn’t that what many parents want to begin with? Diversity? Even within a school not every student that graduate from RGPS will be identical or a clone.

    Acs founded is in 1886, 125 yrs ago. Different generations of teachers and principals hv served in the school over the last 1.25 century. However the standard, perceived or real, is still there. Every year demand for vacancies still exceeds supply by a lot.

    MOE is there to serve the citizens. Parents are demanding vacancies in schools of their choice. MOE is supplying vacancies in new schools and asking parents to compromise and register in a school that is not their 1st or even 2nd or 3rd choice sometimes.

  4. Hi Mr Yee, many parents pushed children more because of the stigma of failures than success. For example, our system labels children as TECHNICAL, NORMAL and EXPRESS at an age when they are still finding their self-esteem…many did not come out of this shock when they reached there. I stand to correct your view that we are pushing a narrow view of success through academic results but many like me, are sucked into this system fearing failures of our children more than success it may bring. It has became a jinx in Singapore, like some 4 D addicts, they don’t buy because they want to win, they keep buying because the fear the number will come out. In the same way, we keep investing in our children not so much we wanted so much success for them rather we fear that they have no future or being labelled as failures in this society if they don’t get the reasonable grades. I have reached a point to let it be, and focus on the gift of the child even if they cannot performed academically. This has helped my children alot, atleast taken the pressure off them that they must performed academically.

    • Hi Tommy. I know what you mean that we push our children because academic failure in Singapore is an unimaginable and bad option. The problem is not going away anytime soon. Over the years, we had entrenched it through streaming, labelling, glorifying academic successful people, competitive KPIs for schooks, etc. We are increasingly becoming a more elitist society. It’s a vicious cycle. Our system glorifies academically successful people, parents become kiasu, MOE has to go along with what society wants, society pushes the system further.

      When I was a student, we just went to neighbourhood primary schools. At secondary, those who qualified for Raffles didn’t bother to go because it was far. We just moved on with everyone else to the most convenient nearby affiliated secondary school. My cohort in what is today considered a neighbourhood school produced many doctors, lawyers, engineers and successful professionals. Some topped their cohort in college and university. Today, the best will not go to a neighbourhood sec school. If we want MOE to change system, parents must change mindset of what’s success first, and government must also change its elitist mindset. Who will change first?

  5. JJ,

    You’re correct. School result is not everything and it will not determine how well you do in working life. Besides imparting some basic knowledge (Science, Maths, English, Chinese), the education should prepare the young to cope with life after they leave school. Therefore, schools should come out with those ‘survival skill’ courses such as training each one how to communicate, how to market oneself, how to get along with others, have some financial literacy so that they won’t get cheated. Besides imparting knowledge, emphasis should be also on training each one on how to make derive meaning and making use of the knowledge, in other words training them in how to apply knowledge and information, instead of rote learning.

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