Commentary: Primary School registration has gone online and is more straightforward. So why is it still stressful?
Although the application process has shifted online, that process has its new challenges for parents familiar with the old system, says Celine Koh.
SINGAPORE: The advent of the Internet has been something generally celebrated where the electronic means to apply for a flat, a job and more promised greater convenience and accessibility.
In theory, the Ministry of Education’s move towards online registration for Primary School should also be a laudable step that takes the chore of having to take leave from work, head down to a school and wait around for your kid’s ballot to be called – assuming you’re applying in the later phases of a popular school.
Although that high-stakes bingo game was a rite of passage for parents eager to get their child into a desired school, it was admittedly troublesome.
So how’s that new arrangement working in practice?
MOVE TO ONLINE REGISTRATION
Since 2018, this physical Primary School application process and balloting exercise has shifted online.
Yet, this doesn’t mean that the process has become less frenzied or fraught with anxiety. If anything, the process has become more clinical and feels less stingy if only because you cannot gauge the other players involved in this race.
Instead of the drama unfolding in one packed day, the application period has been dragged out to between one to three days. Schools have more time to verify submitted information or obtain further supporting documents from parents.
Yet, this also allows anxious parents to call the Ministry of Education (MOE) or the schools to badger the harried school or MOE staff for updates on application numbers and other details.
Though moving this process online should have made this Primary School exercise feel more like an administrative exercise, it seems you can take the parents out of competitive physical school registration exercises but you can’t take the competition out of some.
Other than relying on the schools for information, some resourceful parents even band together in chat groups and forums to exchange information on admission numbers or commiserate with other parents stuck in the same boat.
Once the appropriate school is decided upon after some nail-biting deliberation and a hard look at the probability of getting in, the application is submitted online and deposited into the abyss of MOE’s database with only an automated email message to confirm a successful submission of the application.
BALLOT BINGO REPLACED
The cutthroat race doesn’t end there. After submission, parents wait to hear if a ballot needs to be conducted.
If a ballot is required, the visceral joy or anguish of physically witnessing your child’s fate being sealed on the spot within the school ballot hall being replaced by an excruciating wait lasting several days while the school staff and MOE tally the information and numbers.
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Ballot bingo is replaced with a faceless computerised ballot and a disembodied SMS text from an MOE number which arrives several days after the close of applications.
On the one hand, moving the application process online means that parents no longer witness the back and forth verification and exchange of information between school and parent and among parents on the school premises.
Still, that means parents have to take the initiative and play a more active role in seeking answers to their admission queries from MOE, the school or other parents.
And it would seem parents haven’t quite found their equilibrium. As the online application system is relatively new in the scheme of school admissions, many are still in the process of adjusting and navigating their way around the application maze.
You can be sure future cohorts of tiger parents will do all they can to get first-hand information on how to navigate the system.
REAL-TIME UPDATES WILL BE HELPFUL
Moving the application process online, however, looks prescient because applications can be processed smoothly even during a COVID-19 pandemic.
There is little disruption to the application process due to COVID-19 as eligibility for priority admissions is dependent on factors which have to be planned in advance, many parents would already have ensured that they met the criteria for priority admissions a year or more prior to admissions applications, before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our shores.
But improvements to the system for parents who are digital natives that appreciate and are used to real-time data is something MOE might want to look into.
While MOE provides a daily update on the number of spaces vs applicants on its website, the lack of real-time updates on the rapidly changing number of parents submitting and withdrawing their applications seems like an archaic remnant of Singapore’s pre-Smart Nation days.
Parents applying in two of the most hotly contested phases - Phase 2B, which prioritises those with religious or community links to the school or who have volunteered at the school, and Phase 2C for those with no links to the school - would not only need to know the number of vacancies vs applicants in that phase but also the number of applicants who live less than 1km or between 1km to 2km or beyond 2km of their school of choice in order to calculate their odds of getting into that school.
Maybe the better analogy is that the bingo parlour has been swapped out for the blackjack table as parents must make a judgement call without knowing what cards the dealer and other players hold.
Since applications are now submitted digitally, collating and processing the data required to assess the veracity of the applicant’s information to provide near real-time updates on the numbers.
MOE may even consider displaying the odds of getting in, and save the hard-pressed school or MOE staff from manually answering calls to field the same queries from parents throughout the application period.
This might have unintended consequences as parents might shift away from some popular schools thinking their chances are low, but that shouldn’t be an overriding factor.
Enhancing admissions application data processing and making the application numbers accessible to the public simultaneously however, are only cosmetic changes to the online admissions system.
Ultimately the gripe many parents have concerns the criterion for priority admission to schools, where many do not have alumni links nor live in close proximity to some of the most popular, prestigious schools in high-income neighbourhoods.
MOE’s move in 2014 to reserve 20 per cent of places for families with no affiliation - 40 places for Phase 2B and Phase 2C applicants - is a step in the right direction that has aided and helped many Phase 2B and 2C applicants get into popular primary schools.
Compulsory primary education in Singapore has become a great social leveller and indeed, we should fight to ensure that priority admissions does not exclude certain pockets of children from being left behind in the educations arms race.
And maybe that’s why parents may fret about primary school admissions. It is after all one of most important foundations of their children’s educational journey, which could have a deep impact on the rest of their lives – regardless of whether the admissions process takes place physically or online.
Beyond admission, it is up to the child to prove their mettle.
Celine Koh is a professional in the finance industry and a mother of three children.