SINGAPORE: When Mr Leo Liao first enrolled his 11-year-old daughter, Lea, in the Lycee Francais de Singapour (LFS) last year, he was concerned that Lea, who did not speak French, would be isolated from her peers or struggle to catch up in class.
“I think my daughter is the only one in her class where both her parents have no French blood,” said Mr Liao, who relocated to Singapore from Beijing last year. “Most of her classmates have either a mother or father with French blood.
“But my wife and I used to study in France, and we thought it would be good to let her learn another language apart from Mandarin and English.”
Despite his initial hesitation, Lea has coped thanks to a programme called the French Passerelle, a formal integration programme designed specifically to help students from a non-French background learn the language and better assimilate into the school.
SPECIAL PROGRAMMES TO HELP STUDENTS ASSIMILATE
While LFS has mostly French-speaking students, chairman of the school’s board Axel Foucault noted that it has always accepted non-French speaking students, particularly at the kindergarten and primary levels. To ensure these students integrate, the school has organised dedicated French classes with a qualified teacher, to help students quickly learn the basics required to follow the French curriculum.
However, the French Passerelle programme, which was first launched in September 2017, offers personalised support for each child throughout his or her time in the school.
For example, kindergarten and elementary students in the programme are integrated in standard classes and follow the French curriculum, while receiving French language lessons in small groups with a qualified teacher.
“We accompany the students to ensure they make progress quickly in French, through full immersion,” explained Christian Soulard, principal of the LFS. “Children participate in most activities of the class during the week.
“Their progress in French is spectacular and we progressively diminish the tuition as their learning and fluency improve.”
Through a partnership with the Alliance Francaise de Singapour, the school offers older children intensive classes and holiday camps during school holidays. There is also a buddy system for all students to help them with their social integration into the school.
“We also expect a commitment from the parents,” added Mr Soulard. This includes the promotion of French at home through films, television, books and lessons. “We also ask them to attend regular Meet-The-Teacher sessions.”
There are similar programmes in other international schools, particularly those which are traditionally associated with a language other than English.
The Swiss School in Singapore (SSiS), which is a German-speaking school, offers language support in German through qualified support teachers within all its classes. “All students who are not able to follow regular classes in German receive additional encouragement in small groups beyond regular school lessons,” said a school spokesperson.
Last year, the school also launched an Afternoon Extension Programme that offers non-German speaking children language preparation for kindergarten and primary school, through optional afternoon classes.
“Through a variety of activities such as reading and storytelling, singing, painting, excursions and more, qualified teachers promote the children’s German language skills specifically and give them individual support,” said SSiS. “The interest in these classes and the success in terms of children’s language acquisition skills have been overwhelming.”
ENROLMENT INTO MAINSTREAM SCHOOLS A CHALLENGING PROCESS
These new programmes come on the back of growing interest in sending children to such schools. SSiS estimates that about 60 per cent of its children speak German as their first language. These children are mainly from Swiss or German families. The other 40 per cent of its students either do not speak German as their first language, or speak multiple languages at home, one of which might be German.
“The trend shows that we have “more and more registrations from families with international backgrounds who do not speak German at home,” it added.
While LFS does not track its enrollment by nationality, Mr Soulard noted that after the launch of the French Passerelle programme, there was a “significant increase” in the number of non-French speaking students joining the school. He estimated that between 2016 and 2017, the increase in such students was about 140 per cent, which is “significantly higher” than the overall increase in net registrations.
One other possible reason for the increase is the challenge international students face in enrolling in local schools.
Mr Liao was initially looking forward to placing Lea in a local school, and had enrolled her in a preparatory programme for the Admissions Exercise for International Students (AEIS). This exercise, conducted by the Ministry of Education (MOE), is a centralised admissions exercise that takes place in September or October each year, for students who wish to join mainstream primary and secondary schools in January of the following year.
International students in MOE schools form about 5 per cent of the total student population in primary and secondary schools, said MOE in response to Channel NewsAsia’s queries. “The proportion has remained fairly constant over the past few years, and the majority of international students are from countries in ASEAN and Asia.”
“Admission to MOE’s mainstream schools via the AEIS is dependent on the applicant’s performance in a test and available vacancies,” it added.
But Mr Liao pointed out that for parents like himself, getting a child into a mainstream school can appear to be a challenging process.
“Every parent trusts the Singapore school system,” he said. “And we have no concerns about the quality or anything like that. But we know that competition to get in is tough.”
He explained that while the environment of the preparatory school his daughter attended was good and she was happy to go to school every day, he had noticed that some of her classmates had been there for as long as two years.
“They had repeatedly tried the AEIS, and they repeatedly failed,” he said. “The school was good, but it’s not meant for children to stay there long-term.”
Mr Liao added that the results of the AEIS are also not transparent, explaining that the results only indicate whether the child is admitted, or not. Furthermore, should his daughter be successfully admitted, he pointed out that she would be held back at least one or two years.
He noted that most of his daughter’s classmates at the AEIS preparatory programme would have opted for schools like the Australian International School, or Singapore American School, where the teaching language is English. But he decided to go for the LFS, and he is pleased with his daughter's progress.
“She doesn’t understand everything that is in the textbooks yet, but she understands the teachers and can follow what is happening,” he said. “The teachers are also very kind, and they don’t mind repeating themselves if my daughter doesn’t understand.”