The Big Read: Not for the faint-hearted — parents jump through hoops, go great guns to secure Primary 1 spots
SINGAPORE: When six-year-old Kate Ong recently secured a spot in Anderson Primary School during this year’s Primary 1 registration exercise, she had her father to thank for it.
Mr Ong Jun Da, a self-employed mobile app developer, had spent close to 80 hours last year coding an e-open house website and an art gallery microsite for the school, on top of providing technical know-how to support the live streaming of the school’s National Day celebrations that year.
But even this opportunity to help out at the school did not come easy. Mr Ong, 38, had earlier been rejected by three different schools when he tried to join their parent volunteering programmes.
The great lengths that Mr Ong had gone to, in order to secure a place for his daughter, reflects the experience of many parents in Singapore as they seek to give their children the best start in their formal schooling years — by snagging a coveted spot in the school of their choice.
This year’s annual registration exercise is particularly competitive, as it involves the SG50 cohort starting Primary 1 next year — the bumper crop of 33,725 citizen births in 2015, which was the highest in the 13 years preceding it, helped by the feel-good factor of the enhanced parental perks handed out in conjunction with Singapore’s jubilee celebrations.
Over the decades, particularly in the last 10 years, the registration system has morphed into a complicated scheme comprising seven phases and a multitude of rules.
Indeed, it is a major source of stress and consternation for parents, with some already making preparations and plotting a strategy when their child is yet to be born.
For Mr Ong, he started his research on prospective schools when Kate was just around three years old.
In December 2019, he approached Chongfu School, located just outside the 1km radius from his home in Yishun, but was told that he lives too far away.
Next, he tried to get a spot at Northland Primary School. While he managed to qualify for a ballot, he was not among the 20 applicants – out of a total of 80 – who were selected.
It was only when he was rejected the third time – this time by Anderson Primary located in Yio Chu Kang, that he called and emailed the school to appeal, saying that he could do much more than serving as a traffic warden.
And that was how he finally got accepted as a parent volunteer, as the school assessed that it could use his technical expertise in dealing with the disruptions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under this year’s Primary 1 registration exercise, most children by now would have secured a spot, except for those who had been unsuccessful in the balloting and underwent supplementary registration last week. The latter group would be notified of the outcome on Aug 31.
Mr Ong noted that apart from the time he spent volunteering with Anderson Primary, he also expended many hours reading up about the registration system.
His frustration over the lack of digestible information publicly available eventually prompted him to start a website SGSchooling.com in 2019 that collates all the information and analysis that a parent might need, including every school’s balloting history.
The perennial issues surrounding Primary 1 registration — including whether the system is fair and simple enough for parents with limited means — got a renewed airing in Parliament in March when Members of Parliament (MPs) called for a review during the debate on the budget of the Ministry of Education (MOE).
In response, then Education Minister Lawrence Wong acknowledged that the competition for spaces in more popular schools has intensified in recent years, and so some children do not get to attend a school near their home even with the spots set aside under Phase 2C.
Currently, 20 places are reserved for children with no prior connection to the school, but who live within the school’s vicinity, in Phase 2C — the fifth of the seven phases in the annual registration exercise.
Mr Wong announced that MOE was reviewing how the number of spots under Phase 2C can be increased, even as he pointed out that any increase may make the earlier phases of the registration process even more competitive than they already were.
In response to queries, an MOE spokesperson said that the ministry regularly reviews the Primary 1 registration framework, taking into account public feedback from various sources including appeals, forum letters and the outcomes of each year’s exercise.
Stressing the importance of keeping schools open to students from all backgrounds, the spokesperson said the latest review was undertaken amid intensifying competition for places in more schools.
It was so stiff last year that, in 69 schools, applicants who are citizens living within 1km were subjected to a ballot although they already belong to the group living closest to the school. Such was the situation in 64 schools in this year’s exercise.
While the review aims to let more children attend a school near where they live, the spokesperson stressed that MOE is “mindful that any change to the framework will need to carefully balance the interests of different groups of stakeholders as parents and families have diverse needs and circumstances”.
“We are therefore undertaking this review very carefully,” she added.
PARENTS SPARE NO EFFORT
There are currently at least nine ways by which parents can seek priority entry to a school if their child doesn’t already have siblings who are schooling there or had studied there.
Former students can either join the alumni association of their primary school (Phase 2A1) – which may involve paying a registration fee of up to S$1,000 – or simply state that they are an alumni member (Phase 2A2).
Parents can also become a member of the school’s advisory or management committee (Phase 2A1), a staff member at the school (Phase 2A2), or a member endorsed by the church or clan directly connected to the school (Phase 2B).
Parents with no prior ties with the school can enrol their child in an MOE kindergarten under the purview of, or located within, the school (Phase 2A2), serve as a parent volunteer for at least 40 hours (Phase 2B), or serve as an “active community leader” in a grassroots group (Phase 2B).
Home-school distance would be considered when the number of applications exceeds the number of vacancies available in any phase: Citizens living under a 1km radius will be accepted first, followed by citizens living 1km to 2km away, citizens living more than 2km away, PRs living less than 1km away, and so on, until a ballot is triggered when there are not enough places for everyone in the category.
Rather than sitting back and waiting for the luck of the draw that is Phase 2C, some parents would plan early to come up with a strategy that would help their child to get into the school of their choice.
For banker Hong Heng Jiong, 37, whose eldest child is five, the competition has already started. He could name at least five of his son’s preschool friends who had moved to new houses in the past year, which he believes is related to the cohort’s Pri 1 registration exercise next year.
He had also jumped on the bandwagon and was recently accepted to serve as a parent volunteer at a school 600m away from his home, which happens to be a traditionally oversubscribed Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school.
To stand out, he had listed in the application form all his skill sets, including photography, first aid and experience in running sporting events. He also offered to teach financial literacy if the school needs it.
Some parents even send in their curriculum vitae (CV).
Mrs Ho GL, 41, a freelancer in the financial industry, said that, when she was still pregnant with a boy in 2012, she and her husband paid S$100 to join the alumni association of his school, a well-known boys’ school in Bishan which she declined to name.
And when preparing for her six-year-old daughter’s Phase 2B admission, she had sent in both her and her husband’s CVs to two girls’ schools, when the child was still young, to be considered for parent volunteering.
“We don’t want to be caught in a situation where we wanted to join a phase but missed out because of a cut-off date,” Mrs Ho said.
Earlier this year, public relations manager Rachel Ho, 31, and her lawyer husband attended a Zoom interview so that they could join the alumni association of Nanyang Primary School, to prepare for the primary school admission of their son, who is one year old this year.
To get started, they would have to pay a one-time S$1,000 payment for a lifetime membership with the alumni association, attend a “values talk” and two sessions of volunteer work as a traffic warden.
"LOGISTICALLY DEMANDING, EMOTIONALLY TAXING"
But the alumni route doesn’t mean that the registration journey will be smooth sailing either.
The competition has become so intense that balloting took place even at Phase 2A1 at five schools this year: Catholic High, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’, Nanyang, Pei Hwa Presbyterian and Rosyth.
Marketing manager Alethia Lee, 34, was one of the 102 parents vying for 81 spots at Rosyth under the priority phase.
“I didn’t expect to be stressed about it at Phase 2A1,” she said, adding that she paid S$350 to join the school’s alumni association in 2019.
Then, there are parents like marketing executive Evelyn (not her real name), in her late 30s, who decided to relocate so that her six-year-old son would stand a better chance at the ballot under Phase 2C after failing to find a way to do parent volunteering.
It is logistically taxing as it meant renting out her family home to live in a rented apartment within 1km from St Andrew’s Junior School since November last year, but still having to send her son to his kindergarten in their old neighbourhood.
The gamble did not pay off, however, and she is now waiting for confirmation that her son has gotten into Montfort Junior School through Phase 2C Supplementary.
After this upsetting experience, Evelyn has resolved to do everything she could to ensure that her daughter, who is four, enters a girls’ school through her alumni affiliation.
“If the education system is set up to allow people to game the system, you can’t expect people to not game it,” she said.
Ms Ho agreed, adding: “It is easy to caricature people … as ‘damn freaking kiasu’, but if your forward planning can alleviate stress down the road, why not do it now?”
CAN THE MONSTER EVER BE TAMED?
The jostling for entry into more desirable primary schools is by no means a new development. In fact, it has existed since the late 1960s.
In 1971, then Minister of State for Education Lee Chiaw Meng remarked in Parliament that long queues at some schools registering children for Pri 1 classes was “the most perplexing phenomenon”, and “occurred year after year”.
The year before, parents queued for “many days” to sign their children up at Raffles Girls’, while there were hardly any queues at all at other “established schools”, Mr Lee noted.
At that time, Mr Lee also said that MOE was considering alternatives such as registration by balloting or limiting registration only to children living in the vicinity of the schools.
The need to curb excessive demand for places in popular schools led to the birth of the inaugural version of the national Primary 1 registration system in 1972, as policymakers sought to make the process transparent and orderly.
Despite the acceleration of changes in recent years – at least five tweaks were made in the past decade alone – an academic paper published in May this year criticised the system for being “not transparent” and too convoluted for it to be fair.
The study, by Yale-NUS assistant professor of social sciences (psychology) Cheung Hoi Shan and Yale sociology lecturer Mira Debs, had analysed posts on popular online parenting forum KiasuParents from 2015 and news articles from 2010 to 2020.
They found that even savvier parents who could access the portal were confused and anxious, needing to make a series of complex calculations to exercise preferences, such as proximity to school and ease of entry, before they were able to narrow down “safer” choices.
As a testament to how ballot history has become an essential tool for parents in strategising how to get into their preferred schools, more websites that offer a collation of such data have emerged in recent years.
Other than the ones hosted by KiasuParents and SGSchooling.com, there are also elite.com.sg and snowballdata.com.
(Listen to three working adults reveal how their PSLE results have shaped their life journeys in a no-holds barred conversation on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast.)
Mr Ong said that his SGSchooling website drew 78,000 unique visitors over the past two months when the Pri 1 registration process was ongoing, the highest he has gotten since he started the website two years ago.
Contrary to the portrayal of parents being “kiasu”, or scared to lose and competing among themselves, Asst Prof Cheung and Dr Debs said that they in fact seek to help one another with the process.
Again, the system’s sheer complexity is to blame, they said.
Indeed, even parents who set out not wanting to be caught up in the game said that they could not resist poring over the various schools’ ballot history, just so they could pick the closest school with the highest likelihood of a vacancy.
Mrs Cheryl Grange, whose son started attending Primary 1 at Tanjong Katong Primary School this year, said: “We did a quick back-of-the-napkin kind of calculation just to get a sense of roughly how difficult it might be and what might be the worst-case scenario.”
Even so, she felt like she was making a decision in a vacuum due to the many unknowns, such as how many children in her area are applying.
“In the absence of that data, it kind of feels a little bit like a lucky draw,” said the communications executive in her 30s.
In building a fairer and less overwhelming registration system, Asst Prof Cheung and Dr Debs said the number of preference categories would have to be limited, and parents should be given a smaller set of schools from which to choose.
It would also help parents if they could submit a ranked list of primary schools as they do in the secondary school registration process, where they can choose up to six schools, they said. That way, if vacancies in their first-choice school are completely filled, they do not have to start all over again with the registration.
They added that education research has shown that even if everyone’s ballot is given equal weight, there will still be inequalities in how parents with varying resources navigate a complicated school choice system.
For that reason, some districts in the United States have set aside a certain number of seats for disadvantaged children such as those from low income households, English language learners, and students with disabilities.
Noting that MOE already has a kindergarten programme, which sets aside places for students from low-income families, Asst Prof Cheung and Dr Debs said that expanding such programmes in some of the popular primary schools would be an important way to ensure that the student composition in these schools are more socio-economically diverse.
Pioneer MP Patrick Tay, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, has a simple wish: For more places to be allocated to those living nearby.
He said he had encountered many residents who were given a place in a school much further away because the one just downstairs was already heavily subscribed or had its slots taken up in initial phases.
Mr Tan Kar Hui and wife Katie Lin are among those who had raised the issue with their MP after failing to secure a place for their girl at Kong Hwa School, located about 500m away from their home in Mountbatten, in Phase 2C earlier this month. The couple, both 42, are working as consultants.
“On paper, it looks like we have a lot of choices to fall back on, but they are an illusion,” Mr Tan said, pointing out that this is the first time that the next three schools in their consideration – Geylang Methodist, Tanjong Katong and Haig Girls’ – were filled up by Phase 2C.
“Even balloting historical records did not prepare us for this.”
They ended up signing their girl for Marymount Convent 10km away, which had quite a high number of places up for grabs.
Even so, it is now uncertain if they would get in, as MOE’s update on Wednesday (Aug 25) said that citizens living outside a 2km radius of Marymount Convent will need to undergo balloting for 74 spaces as it had received 92 applications by the end of the exercise.
Ms Lin said she had already tried to assess the situation more accurately by calling the school for an update, but it said to contact MOE instead. She then called MOE but did not get what she asked for.
“It doesn’t allow us to make good decisions based on facts. I know that the Government is always looking at ways to improve the system, but they should have stepped in this year when it concerned the SG50 batch of babies.”
She added: “The Government should give extra support for full-time working adults. They place such heavy emphasis on the alumni and the volunteer work, which makes it challenging for the working-class people who may not have the flexibility to do so.”
Administrative executive Iris Leong, a working mum in her 30s who juggles caring for three children under the age of seven while working from home, said: “Those with ample time to volunteer have ample help at home too. Of course they can afford the 40 or 80 hours. To me, it is unfair.”
MAKING "EVERY SCHOOL A GOOD SCHOOL" — A SOLUTION ONLY IN THEORY?
Dr Vincent Chua, an associate professor in National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Sociology, said it is hard to come up with an ideal Primary 1 registration system given the multiplicity of groups, interests and considerations, especially where solving one problem introduces another.
For example, while allocations based on home-to-school proximity and siblings solve the “practical problem of everyday logistics for parents”, it also reproduces advantages for wealthy families in top school areas, where the “whole family” gets to go to the same school, he said.
In the short term, increasing the number of Phase 2C slots might help, but it still doesn't eliminate the uneven playing field.
To reduce competition for top schools in the long term, the only way would be to “make every school a good school” by putting more resources to the other schools so that the schools are more equally desirable, Dr Chua added.
It is important to solve this issue as the “whole point of schooling is to narrow the variation between families,” he said.
As it stands, the first four phases in the Primary 1 registration system are “network-based”, making it “potentially divisive” as it entrenches a dynamic of “social reproduction” favouring the well-connected and wealthy.
“If not careful, the Primary 1 registration system can evolve into a system of opportunity hoarding,” Dr Chua said. “It widens the gap between elites and non-elites that impact upon social cohesion.”
Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan said that while maintaining alumni relations is desirable, it is crucial for schools to not become “closed circles”.
Hence, he would rather see the number of vacancies available after Phase 1, the sibling phase, be equally divided among Phases 2A (the sub-phases combined), 2B, and 2C, he said. Currently, only 40 places are set aside: 20 for Phase 2B and 20 for Phase 2C.
A no-holds barred review of eligibility for each phase is also due, including a reconsideration of whether a member of the primary school’s school advisory committee should be given priority, he said.
He added that the parent volunteer scheme should be discontinued as the process of who gets selected to be a parent volunteer becomes “controversial” when demand often outstrips supply of volunteering opportunities, featuring CVs or even tacit appeals for donations to the school.
NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that the fairest way may well be to put everyone through a ballot, where every application has statistically a more or less equal chance of being selected.
But parent of three Christopher Gee, 52, believes this would spark an uproar.
“If everyone goes through a random ballot, how would you make a decision? Imagine if that was the scheme tomorrow. There would be confusion. I’d argue that very few people would be for it,” said the academic.
Hence, any alternative system would still end up with some form of preference, which would inevitably favour some people more than others. “How is it different from the current system?” he asked. “What we have could well be the least worst of the systems.”
But he said the mantra of “every school is a good school” needs to be backed up.
“You might need to differentiate them a bit more, or else they are just neighbourhood schools ... They need to be seen as really good schools that parents want to send their children to, not just ‘any other school’,” he said.
TAKING STOCK OF THE SITUATION
The fact that Primary 1 registration has become a high-stakes exercise is a manifestation of the larger societal concerns and anxieties, Mr Gee said.
“We are all in this prisoners’ dilemma together. We are all doing this to each other.
“For what? We end up with more mental stress for parents, more mental stress for the kids, expending more energy on this internal ‘winner takes all’ contest, which only differentiates in minute ways that are ultimately completely unimportant to one's purpose in life,” he said.
Some parents have already decided to stay out of the game, for the sake of their own sanity, as well as their kids’.
One of them is a 35-year-old lawyer who, despite having secured a place for her daughter at Rosyth under Phase 2A1 in July, made the unpopular decision to enrol her child at Marymount Convent instead.
Ms Ang, who declined to give her full name, said that Rosyth, one of the most competitive schools to get in, was a “natural choice” as they live within 1km of it and she was an alumni.
There was also the pressure from family and friends who gushed about how it is a good school and that she would be “foolish to give it up”.
But Ms Ang ultimately withdrew with her child’s interest in mind.
She described her child as a bright and perfectionist girl who had not reacted well to a highly academic environment in preschool. Marymount Convent would be a better fit for her, said Ms Ang.
“She is already very hard on herself. I want an environment where she is not going to focus on one benchmark to measure herself by,” said Ms Ang.
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