SINGAPORE: I read with interest the finding that most parents (77 per cent) do not do anything actively to secure a good primary school for their child, according to a survey of 1,500 parents of school-going kids.
To me and to many readers, this finding seems to suggest that Singaporean parents are less kiasu today when it comes to getting their child into a preferred school.
Yet, the survey results strike me as somewhat contradictory, as it also states that “70 per cent said their children went to a school of their choice that is considered a good school by most people”.
So if more than three quarters of parents did nothing actively to secure a good primary school place for their kids, then how did so many of them land a place in a school of their choice?
Rather than dive into the technicalities of the study, I think the truth is closer to this: That Singaporean parents remain highly selective and proactive when it comes to their kids’ primary school, but what qualifies as a good school is more about fit than it is about how a school ranks on traditional metrics like academic achievements and sporting excellence.
A TALE OF TWO SCHOOLS
Before our eldest daughter was due to enter primary school, we heard of a school near us that was highly sought after, offered higher Chinese, and seemed to have high standards for achieving academic excellence, with a penchant for lots of homework and extra classes. School A was ranked among the top schools in Singapore, based on unofficial rankings.
Choosing School A also meant that we wouldn’t have to worry about primary school placement for our two younger boys, since it’s a co-ed school and they will likely gain easier entry into the school as siblings under a priority scheme under the primary school registration phase 1.
Then there was School B, an all-girls school that was also close by. School B was an established mission school with Christian values. We felt that this could help our child in her spiritual growth and build her character.
To be safe, we thought we’d include both in our basket of options, so my husband volunteered at the Residents’ Committee in our district. This allowed us to apply to the schools within our constituency under registration phase 2B, for children whose parent is an active community leader (among other qualifying criteria).
After months of debating, we eventually went for School B.
WEIGHING THE OPTIONS
School B seemed to have a more holistic approach to education, offering a balance between the social-emotional development of a child and academic growth. Their school website emphasised the building of virtues like humility, kindness and integrity, and also organised community events for their girls to exercise these values.
We also spoke to parents whose kids attend the school, and a friend who is an alumnus. We heard that School B gave their students ample speaking practice in class and at school events. Someone even mentioned that the girls there tend to have pretty polished social and public relations skills.
Sending my daughter to a school that taught such valuable life-long skills resonated with me, as a professional in the media and communications industry.
We also heard that the homework load and overall stress level that kids in School B experienced seemed more manageable, compared to School A.
What also swayed the decision was that School B had an affiliated secondary school, meaning that the cut-off PSLE score for affiliated pupils would be lower. So sending my daughter to School B could alleviate some of the stress from PSLE examinations, and free her to explore other areas of interest.
My daughter has an artist’s streak: She likes to draw, sing and create stories. Her interests and personality tell me that she’d thrive in a school that offers room for creativity and self-expression, more than in a school that drives her to perform academically. So School B offered a better fit.
School A is a good school, but it simply doesn’t match the profile of my child. Putting her there would be squeezing a square peg into a round hole – frustrating for the school, the child and possibly her parents.
MORE CHARACTER, LESS PERFORMANCE
As parents, I think we struggle with the choice of whether to put our child in a school that does well on academic rankings – the natural question is why wouldn’t we do all we can to encourage our kids to achieve academic excellence?
Yet, as a family, we have made a conscious choice to tip the scales towards character growth and social-emotional development.
We may have been proactive in volunteering to carve out more options for our children, but we also had to make the unconventional decision of choosing the path of “more character, less performance”.
Taking extra precautions to ensure that your kid gets into a school of choice is commonplace. We know many parents who gain entry into schools through church affiliation or parent volunteer work. We also have friends who are alumni of reputable schools, and who paid the required fees to join as alumni members.
But it doesn’t necessarily translate into greater competition for top-ranking “brand name” schools.
We also hear more stories of parents who have relinquished their alumni links with top schools in favour of less popular neighbourhood schools.
The decision-making process is highly complex and takes into consideration factors such as distance, logistics, tradition, capability, quality, values and focus. But the final choice is highly personal – and less about what we do as parents, than it is about understanding who our child is, and selecting the best environment that will allow him or her to thrive.
We all desire for our children to do well in life. For my husband and I, this goes beyond PSLE scores and secondary school choice.
There is a growing number of parents like us who value social-emotional skills above grades.
We don’t want to raise children who view one another as competitors for a limited resource; we want our children to be self-aware, to collaborate with others, to innovate to solve problems, and be unafraid of challenge and failure.
Today, my daughter has the time to read, draw, swim, practise violin, and carry out simple household chores. She loves school and enjoys playing with her friends. She is a curious and confident learner, and she was absolutely over the moon the day she came home with a character badge with the word “Graciousness” imprinted.
As far as possible, I let her take charge of her own learning; if she forgets to learn her Chinese spelling, I let it be. Through little mistakes like these, I hope she hones a sense of responsibility and motivation.
My husband and I still have a long way to go in supporting our children’s educational journey, but so far this “more character, less performance” approach is working out for us. We hope it will be key to raising happy, healthy and motivated children, who will be in a better position to adapt to an uncertain and changing world.
So it turns out that every school can indeed be a good school, but it depends on what a child needs, and what a parent wants.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.
This is the fourth commentary in Channel NewsAsia’s series on learning and education.