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IN FOCUS: Should children of alumni get priority for Primary 1 registration?

The announcement that ACS (Primary) would move to Tengah created a furore among former pupils, who worried about alumni priority for their children. CNA delves into the pros and cons of the alumni system.

IN FOCUS: Should children of alumni get priority for Primary 1 registration?

Children whose parents are alumni get some level of priority when registering for primary school. (Illustration: CNA/Rafa Estrada)

SINGAPORE: Some parents start preparing for Primary 1 registration years in advance with research, volunteer work and even moving nearer to the school of their choice.

For Mr Choa Chang Hoong, the process was simple. “I just submitted my registration online,” said the father-of-three whose sons attend St Joseph’s Institution (SJI) Junior.

“It was quite a nice experience in the sense that I do not have to worry about what school to choose for my children. I came from that school so I’m comfortable with it,” said Mr Choa, 48.

“I was informed that we got (a spot in the school), it was quite smooth.”

Mr Choa’s experience was straightforward in part because he is an alumnus of SJI, and children of alumni get priority when registering for any primary school in Singapore.

For another parent who wanted to be known only as Mr Wayne, alumni priority was a double-edged sword. His child got into a popular school because he is an alumnus, but he believes they could not secure a place in Rosyth – another sought-after school near his home – because too many places were taken up by children of alumni.

He tried to register to be a parent volunteer with Rosyth, but was not even able to get an interview. Despite living around 20km away from his former school, he decided to send his child there instead of waiting to see if a spot in Rosyth would be available in a later phase.

"I'm quite 50-50 about (alumni priority)," Mr Wayne, who is in his 40s, said. "I benefited from it, but I didn't get the school of my choice because of it."

The issue of alumni priority came to the fore in February after the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that Anglo-Chinese School (Primary) will move from Barker Road to Tengah in 2030.

At a town hall following the announcement, parents and alumni asked whether their affiliation to ACS (Primary) could be extended to ACS (Junior).

One parent said it was “quite disappointing” that children of alumni would not benefit from the Barker Road campus after renovations to improve it.

An alumnus who moved near the current site asked if he would be able to send his son to the school in Barker Road instead of the Tengah campus, which would be 12km away.

But could giving children of alumni priority for Primary 1 registration be worsening the divide between the haves and the have-nots?

Mr Clarence Ching, the founder of Access Singapore, said a recent survey by the non-profit organisation found that more than six in 10 respondents felt schools were becoming "more unequal".

“A huge part of it has to do with proximity and alumni priority,” he told CNA’s Steven Chia on the Heart of the Matter podcast in February.


MOE said it introduced priority for children of alumni members in the 1999 Primary 1 registration exercise to encourage stronger alumni and community support for schools.

When registering a child for Primary 1, those who have an older sibling in the school are guaranteed a spot under Phase 1. Children of alumni are part of the next group of applicants in Phase 2A.

“This also recognises the contributions of alumni members and the value that they bring in helping to preserve the heritage and ethos of our schools,” MOE said in response to CNA’s queries.

“We also note that there are familial benefits to allowing such priority admission, for instance, being able to share common school experiences may promote greater parent-child bonding.”

Children walk home with their guardians after school in Singapore on May 17, 2021. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

A businessman who only wanted to be known as Mr Ng said some teachers who taught his wife when she was a student in Rosyth are still with the school now and have taught his children.

Parents may also want their children to be taught similar values that they learned as students, Mr Ng said.

“It would partner their efforts in raising the children, their values and perspectives,” he added.

Mr Choa, whose sons attend SJI Junior, said it was “really wonderful” to meet other alumni parents at school events.

“It was a very nice, kind of kampung spirit,” he said. “It brings back good memories.”

He added that his son was put in the same class as his primary school friend’s son.

“We went through life together and our sons both got into SJI, in the same class for the first year,” he said. “We can talk about homework and the challenges we face –  we’re walking the same path again.”

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser said he sees priority for children of alumni as similar to an exclusive club membership scheme, where privileges reinforce attachment to the school or club.

“The affiliation system has benefits in strengthening not only alumni ties and sense of belonging but also support for the school,” said the associate professor with the National University of Singapore's sociology department.


But an “unintended consequence” of the affiliation system is that a school may have proportionally more students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, especially if the school is in a well-to-do neighbourhood, said Assoc Prof Tan.

“This would have implications for social-class diversity and mixing in school,” he said.

Singapore Management University sociology professor Paulin Straughan said: “The worry always is that we grow enclaves, because if too many places go to affiliates, then there is no chance to inject new blood.”

Like Assoc Prof Tan, she said it is “more worrying” when the school is in a private estate and students who enter through proximity priority are from more privileged families.

Parents who spoke to CNA also said the advantage may create exclusivity or be seen as elitist, especially for more prestigious schools.

“It’s unavoidable, unfortunately,” said Madam Jacqueline Lim, 43, a financial consultant with two daughters in Raffles Girls' Primary School (RGPS).

She sees it as a “natural progression” if a school produces good students who grow up to be high achievers and send their children back to the same school.

“Even nations have this problem, the rich-poor gap,” she said.

Ms Eileen Fu, 41, who has two children in Tao Nan School, said students in prestigious schools are likely to be better prepared for their educational journey compared with those in other schools.

“Elitism will breed elitism,” said Ms Fu, who works in biotech.

She initially considered sending her children to Nan Hua Primary School, another popular school and the alma mater of her husband. But Nan Hua was 25km from their home, so the family decided against it.

Mr Ng, the businessman, said it is “absolutely the truth” that alumni priority is exclusive or elitist, but the privileged would always want to keep their privilege.


But others questioned whether other parts of the primary school registration exercise are forms of privilege as well.

“I find it strange that our Primary 1 admissions system has very little to do at all with the individual child,” Associate Professor Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education told CNA.

This is despite Singapore's belief in meritocracy, he said.

“Rather, most of the admission criteria in the various phases have everything to do with the child’s parents.”

Children who attended an MOE kindergarten under the purview of, and located within the primary school, can be registered in Phase 2A. “Apart from that, it’s all about your home background and what your parents bring to the table, which the individual child has little or no control over.”

Phase 2A is also for children of alumni, children of school staff, siblings of alumni and children whose parents are on the school’s advisory or management committee.

If there are more applicants than places, home-school distance and citizenship status are taken into consideration. Singapore citizens living within 1km of the school will be admitted first, followed by citizens living between 1km and 2km of the school, and then those living more than 2km away.

Permanent residents get priority according to the same distance categories.

Popular schools may be oversubscribed at this phase, which will trigger a ballot. For example, if there are 20 places left, and 30 Singaporean children who live within 1km of the school, an electronic ballot will take place.

The remaining 10 students, citizens who live more than 1km away from the school and all PRs will be unsuccessful and will have to gain admission through later phases.

“Oversubscription of schools by phase vary year to year depending on the demand patterns of parents of each batch of Primary 1 registrants,” MOE said.

In 2022, around 98 per cent of registrants were able to secure a place in the primary school of their choice or a school within 2km of their home, the ministry added. “This has remained stable over the past few years.”

Last year, 33 schools were oversubscribed in Phase 2A. Each primary school has 20 places reserved for Phase 2B and 40 places for Phase 2C. In 2022, the number of places reserved for Phase 2C was doubled, reducing the number of spots available for Phase 2A.

Phase 2B is for children whose parents are volunteers at the school, endorsed by a church or clan connected to the school or endorsed as active community leaders. Phase 2C is for children who are not yet registered in any primary school.

Singapore citizens who live within 1km of the school get top priority in all phases.

“While MOE is committed to preserving strong ties to the community and the culture that our schools have established over the years, we also want to ensure that schools remain accessible to children from all backgrounds, including those with no prior links to the primary schools,” the ministry said.

“MOE will continue to monitor the Primary 1 registration exercise outcomes closely to ensure that our schools remain accessible to children from all backgrounds, while preserving valuable school ties,” it said.


A homemaker who wanted to be known only as Sunny, 46, said the system seems to benefit those who have abundant resources and leads to unfair competition.

For example, parents in the average family are unlikely to be able to spend hours volunteering to qualify for Phase 2B, she said.

“(Their children) really are at a disadvantage right from the starting line of the race,” she said.

Assoc Prof Jason Tan said the system seems to want to address different goals at the same time. Those who live near the school get some priority because of convenience, attending the same school as an older sibling is also convenient and can be reassuring to a young child.

It also tries to reward alumni, volunteers and community service.

“For every one of the criteria, you could raise questions about equity,” he said. “Why should this criterion be there in the first place? Secondly, what kind of priority should this criterion enjoy relative to the other criteria?”

Additionally, from a macro level, the government wants to achieve other objectives such as social mixing.

“The various objectives don’t always flow smoothly together,” he said. “The interests of various parties are at play here.”

“What this ACS episode has illustrated for me is that we are dealing with not merely a set of admission criteria, but more importantly, we are dealing here with very real human emotions. We are dealing with human hopes,” Assoc Prof Tan said.

SMU’s Prof Straughan, however, said the “complex layering system” that MOE uses can be seen as safeguards that prevent school communities from becoming too exclusive no matter how strong the alumni ties are.

She pointed out that the school’s alumni should have some form of diversity as well, and will not all be from the same social status.

The system is “carefully designed, with staggered priorities and different phases” which should lead to a good mix, she said.

Parents who spoke to CNA also were in support of MOE’s efforts to create a good mix in each school.

“I think it’s good that the government actually has these allocations where they say how many positions must be given to people who stay nearby,” said Mdm Lim.

Mr Ng said the ministry is trying its best to strike a balance between the interests of alumni and the wider aspirations of education.


Some alumni parents feel strongly about the schools they attended and want their children to enrol in their alma maters, but for others, it is simply a matter of practicality.

“I would think that naturally for every parent who has a great alumni school to fall back on, why would I want to give up this choice?” said Ms Fu.

Parents who do not have alumni priority would need to attend open houses and talk to fellow parents to get a sense of what their options are, she said.

“It’s about convenience,” said Ms Fu.

Mdm Lim, the financial consultant whose daughters are in RGPS, also said it can simplify the decision-making process.

For her, however, distance trumped alumni affiliation. She attended Tao Nan School as a child and wanted to send her daughters there, but decided against it because it was too far away.

“Distance was the most important, and of course, the quality of the school has to be good,” said Mdm Lim. Her elder daughter got into RGPS through Phase 2C, which they have priority in because they live within 1km of the school in Bukit Timah.


Home-school distance is taken into account when a school is oversubscribed at any phase during the primary school registration exercise. It is also the main factor considered for Phase 2C.

“In an ideal world, you would want your child to enter a school that is close to where you live,” said Ms Fu.

Even for prestigious schools located in wealthy neighbourhoods, where children who are admitted based on where they live are likely to be well-off, it is difficult to argue against the policy, said Prof Straughan of SMU.

“We shouldn’t punish a child for living in a private estate and not allow the child to go to a school that is within walking distance,” she said. “That would be counterintuitive and counterproductive.”

Distance is an important consideration for young children, she said.

“You don’t want to stress them out with all these artificial constraints that will force them to walk past the school that is right down the road because of diversity and force them to take a bus to the next town. That doesn’t make sense,” said Prof Straughan.

But if the number of spaces reserved for children who live near the school is increased, it will likely drive parents to rent or buy property.

“Parents are willing to go to great personal lengths, such as buying or renting in the area around the desirable primary school,” said Assoc Prof Jason Tan.

That could be unfair to alumni parents who may end up competing with those who moved closer to the school, Ms Fu added.

Ms Sunny also said it is unfair to other children in general. “Not many families can afford this kind of investment.”


Homemaker Sunny’s daughter got into Rosyth because her husband attended the school as a child, but she told CNA she is not sure if it was the right decision.

The school is very academically driven, she said, adding that she could have prioritised a more balanced education for her daughter.

Especially for primary school which is a child's first formal academic experience, the competitiveness of some schools may be overwhelming, said Mr Wayne.

"If the kid is not very academically strong and if the standards of the school are high, things like confidence of the kid and everything might suffer," he said.

Mr Ng, the businessman, said his friend’s child attended a school that placed a strong emphasis on public speaking, something the child did not enjoy at all.

He added that his brother attended a secondary school that many relatives were alumni of, but ended up hating it.

“Getting the kid in is the first step,” he said. “The culture of the school is paramount.”

MOE said it encourages parents to consider factors such as proximity to the school, the “unique offerings” and how to best cater to the strengths and interests of the child.

Assoc Prof Jason Tan pointed to the government's mantra of “every school a good school” that urges parents to consider a wider range of factors beyond academic outcomes.

He named examples such as whether the environment and teachers are caring towards students.

Ms Sunny also said she thinks parents need to have a broader view of what a good school means and consider emotional intelligence, creative thinking, empathy and communication skills.

“Is it just because the school has the best PSLE score? Or most polished group of parents? We as parents need to look at it differently, think beyond academics,” she said.

Listen: What does the ACS move signal?

Source: CNA/an(cy)


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