Friday, May 22, 2009

Choosing a school for your child

Recently, I went to attend a DSA briefing at a secondary school which has a great reputation. This was a school that we had initially thought would be a good choice for one of Lesley-Anne's DSA applications. To my own utter surprise, after the briefing and having walked around the school, I returned from the session with a 180 degree change of heart. In fact, I was pretty sure that I did not want my daughter to study there because its values were not quite in sync with ours.

Choosing a school is serious business. Whether it's a primary school, secondary school or higher, our kids will spend a good part of their waking hours there - it will influence their thoughts, their behaviour, greatly. Some parents think the school with the best academic results is automatically the best. Not true! You need to select a school that's best for your child.

A mum whose child will be entering p1 soon had written to me asking my views on choosing schools. Since it's time for p1 registration soon, I thought I'd share some of the thoughts I shared with her. These are based on my own experiences in choosing a primary school.

To me, there are three important aspects to consider: 1) distance 2) coed or single sex 3) culture.

No 1) is a practical reason. You really don’t want your kids spending so much time travelling. In lower primary, they’re entering the formal school system for the first time - it can be very tiring. If they have to spend an hour on the road travelling home, lunch (or dinner, depending on whether morning or afternoon session) will be very late and they’ll be ravenous by then. This can really wreak havoc to their systems. I know some parents resort to getting their kids to eat in the car.

In upper primary, the kids will usually have to stay back at school quite often, for remedial, extra lessons, CCAs etc. Again, it's not conducive to spend a lot of time travelling. This can really take a toll on the energy levels of the kids in the long run.

No 2) for me was also a practical reason. I chose a coed school to cut the hassle of registration for Andre since he would be a shoo-in following his sister's school. But pragmatics aside, I've come to notice that there are other pros and cons of coed vs single sex schools. I have relatives and friends with kids in single sex schools and the advantage is that the teachers tend to be more adept at catering to the learning styles of boys/girls (since boys and girls tend to learn and socialise differently). In a coed school, if the teacher is more suited to teach boys, the girls in the class will be disadvantaged and vice versa. I also find that if you have a very quiet girl content to be a wallflower, she might end up being overshadowed by her noisier, attention-seeking male classmates, so she might thrive better in a girls' school.

But what I like about a coed school is that being around boys has helped Lesley-Anne learn not to be so siao jie and being around girls has toned down Andre's boisterousness. Basically they balance each other out. Whereas I find that boys learn to be more aggressive and rowdy when they enter a boys' school (to keep up with the raging testosterone, I guess!) And some girls, when they go to a girls' school end up very "girly", if you know what I mean.

No 3) is very important. Eg if you are a very English educated family with questionable Chinese standards, doesn't take a genius to figure out that your child will probably be miserable in a SAP school where most of his classmates will be chattering away in Mandarin! If your child loves dance, for instance, it might make sense to join a school with dance as a niche activity.

Personally, we wanted a mission school as we’re Christians and we feel that mission schools place more focus on values. Since the Singapore system is already so academically-focused, we wanted a good balance. One of Lesley-Anne's teachers, during a DSA briefing, encouraged us to visit the schools we're interested in and walk around to get a feel of the school. I didn't realise how important this was until I visited the school I mentioned earlier. From walking around, reading the notice-boards, looking at the kids, you can actually get quite a good sense of the school's culture. If you can, visit the school you're interested in (some of them have open houses) before you decide. Trust your instincts - will you child fit in here? Or will she be like a fish out of water?

Notice that among my three criteria, I didn't include academic performance. Many parents want their kids to be in schools with top academic ratings because they think that their kids will perform better there. I don't subscribe to that. To me, it's cyclical - schools with high focus on academics attract high ability kids. These kids are bright to begin with, so they're more likely to do well in national exams, contributing to the high academic scores of the school.

If your child is not academically inclined to begin with, he might not thrive in an environment where everyone is a top scorer. In fact, I've heard that some of these so-called "top" schools do less teaching because they expect the kids to learn on their own and supplement with tuition at home. In contrast, neighbourhood schools tend to "teach" more, which benefits kids who need such nurturing. When you look at the national exams, you'll find that kids from neighbourhood schools can also churn out top scorers and there will be kids from "top" schools who don't do so well.

But having said that, I prefer my kids to go to schools with a reasonable academic standard (though not necessarily the top), not because I believe the teaching is superior in any way, but because my experience tells me that these schools tend to have fewer “pai kias” or kids who don’t like studying, and I don’t want my kids to be influenced or make wrong friends at this impressionable age. Of course this is a generalisation but when you're in a school/class where the kids are motivated to study, there's a higher chance you will be the same. Similarly, if your classmates treat school as a chore and are trying to play truant half the time, you might be influenced. Never underestimate peer pressure at this age.

I've been very, very pleased with Lesley-Anne and Andre's primary school - it has played an integral part in shaping their characters. I hope and pray that we can make an equally wise decision for their secondary schools.


Lilian said...

I think the most important thing is the alignment of the school's ethos/values/direction to that of the home where the child comes from. I like a relatively laid-back school where there's more play than work, where life-long friendships can be formed and built, and where kids are allowed to be kids, so a strict school with a very punitive environment and which piles kids with tonnes of supplementary (note: different from remedial) classes will not be right. Even if my kids can cope, I'd be rolling my eyes all day in exasperation.

Academics is important but if a kid is smart, any school in Singapore will be able to cater to him, that's how good (at least academically) Sg schools are. Proof of this is the many kids from China who are placed in obscure neighbourhood schools but still manage to score outstanding results.

monlim said...

Lilian: I agree schools that focus too single-mindedly on academics with only the cursory lip service to values do more harm than good. Some of those kids end up having a very unhealthy competitive spirit with little development in other non-academic areas.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica

Totally agree with you that the school's culture and value system are important factors to consider, but alas, many parents tend to overlook this and were anxious to get kids into 'branded' schools, thinking that only these schools are worth considering. That's something I don't agree.

These days, I notice that some parents also take into consideration the affiliation to secondary schools, when choosing primary schools for their children. It can be very advantageous, but I personally can't plan so far ahead.

As far as academic performance is concerned, I believe 99% of schools in Singapore are highly concerned with producing good academic results and will give lots of homework by P3 (trust me!). Parents shouldn't worry too much about this aspect.

Monica, I'm curious to know which secondary school you were referring to. Give us a clue! :-) But hey, no worries if you don't feel comfortable sharing it openly on your blog.


monlim said...

LL: I know some parents actually transfer their kids at p3 to a school with affiliation. I would have thought that's rather traumatic for the kids!

Sorry lah, cannot reveal the school here, don't want to offend anyone! But if you're really keen to know, you can email me :)

Anonymous said...

haha Mon,...I am curious as a cat like LL. Perhaps you can let us know if it is a Christian or non-Christian school, co-ed or non co-ed, distance from the school, exactly the criterias you have shared for school selection. :P

monlim said...

Curiosity killed the cat, remember? LOL! Cannot lah, not politically correct to reveal even hints, haha.

Anonymous said...

ok already dead...LOL..

sorry that was me.


Puzzled by Puzzles! said...

As usual, very wise comments. So have u found the ideal school? I agree with looking past the academics (but must still be of a certain std lah... if not will get bad influence). I plan to look at the niche of the schools and see if they are of a good match for my kids.

Sue said...

Hi! I stumbled upon your blog and enjoy reading it because my child is in GEP P6 too so I can identify with a lot you say. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I too am curious to know the secondary school and will email you separately. :)

monlim said...

Haha, the mums here are so, so kaypoh LOL!! Aiyah QX, if you cannot tahan then email me :)

S: We've identified a couple of schools Lesley-Anne will be applying to for DSA. I like the culture/ethos of these two. Praying very hard she'll get either of them!

Anonymous said...

How about you tell us which are the schools you have shortlisted for LA. Then we should be able to figure the school you are not considering. That should b quite easy :-) Ha Ha!


monlim said...

LL: LMAO that's as good as telling you what school it is, right!! Nope, my lips are sealed, L-A is undergoing DSA process now, don't know who will be lurking on this blog ;)

Lilian said...

This is getting to be so funny! I know I wouldn't find it that funny if I didn't already know which school it is :) My lips are sealed...

It'll be more fun if some readers start guessing which school Monica would find her values at odds with and the reason for their choice *evil*

I'm inclined to think most readers would never be able to guess...oops, is that a hint? Or maybe I'm just throwing you guys off the scent. *double evil*

monlim said...

Veronica: I hope you read this, sorry I couldn't publish your comment for security reasons but the answer to your question is yes, there are :)

Thanks for your good wishes!

monlim said...

Bwahahaha Lilian, this has unintentionally turned out to be a very entertaining post! But I know if I hadn't told you, you would be BADGERING me about it ROFL!!

Sorry lah ladies, I didn't intend to keep you all in suspense like that...

Alcovelet said...

Tks for the article, Mon. I should consider it seriously, except that if I really do send the son to school, he'll be in the alma mater situation. So no thinking required, thank goodness!

And aiyo, so funny, the comments that have come about!

monlim said...

Ad: I think in your case, you have other special considerations since RK is such a special kid :) But hey, the alma mater situation is so convenient - save you lots of hassle!

Ladybird said...

Hi. It's really enlightening to read about DSA matters. Could you please share more on it *winks*. Btw, if I want to email you, is it to hedgehog? Have a nice weekends.

Yve said...

This is really amusing. Given that so many mothers are curious about the school in question only reflects how anxious we are about our children's education! That's not necessarily bad, though.

For us it was easy - just send the kids to our alma mater.

It's the secondary school that's going to be a problem - religion versus academic standards. But we'll see how they do at PSLE. That'll probably be the deciding factor.

monlim said...

Yve: I think sec schools have a different set of criteria but in general, yup. If no DSA, then PSLE is the deciding factor.

Chris: Yes, I think you can get my email from my profile. It's the hedgehog one :)

Anonymous said...

I did a transfer for my older gal at P3, to a sch with affiliation :-P. I have to do that beacuse I knew chinese will definitely kill her over all T-score for her PSLE and also her current sch has MEP program for secondary which she is interested with, and I have 2 gals. She was being selected for GEP last year, but we did not take up the offer after much consideration, *thats another long story*.

After being in a neighbourhood sch for 2 yrs and now into the 2nd yr in this current sch, I could see the vase different in the sch's culture and their approach.

Couln't agree with you more, we parents would know which sch suit our kids best if we just have a walk around the sch.


monlim said...

Chris (oops, another Chris!): You're really forward thinking! It would be interesting to learn your views on the differences between the neighbourhood and a more "branded" school. Care to share?

Veronica_L said...

Ok...will not ask more. Thanks for telling me that there actually IS a GEP school which is a mission school. Never heard of it.

Come to think of it, how did someone like Andre ever cope in a GEP school?

monlim said...

Veronica: GEP schools have mainstream classes as well and these cater to all abilities, so no issue for Andre :)

Anonymous said...

Mon, it was not that I'm thinking forward but more like I did not have a choice. If I want a smooth & sane primary education for her, going to a sch with secondary affiliation was the option I had at that time. So that she need not worry so much for her chinese and have more time for her other interests.

I would love to share more, but with my limited ability in writing, I can not express my thoughts well :-P. Nevertheless, I would like to share why I like about her current sch. Her current sch has a history of rich culture, the sch not only emphasise but impart to the student the important of having the right attitudes & values. The principals & teachers always remind the gals of the sch's motto during assembly & family gathering. The sch even have a Parents' Pledge, which I have not come across with her old sch. She does not have much homework, the sch do not believe in drilling the students. The relationships between the principals, teachers, students & parents is much better compare to her old sch. The sch is very open to parents visit. Before this H1N1 alert, I'm always in the sch with my younger gal, an hour before the dismissal of my older gal. My younger gal would do her reading or play the piano. As of her old sch, the principal discourage the parents from visiting the sch, unless it is necessary. The current sch encourage appreciation of music, it has about 8 pianos all over the sch, so the students can play before sch, during recess or after sch. I felt very comfortable in the sch, which I did not feel so with her old sch.

Another concern I had was the standard of the sch teachers in a neighbourhood sch. Ofcourse I believe there are good teachers in neighbourhood sch too, but when my gal was there, she just did not have the luck. A few times, her english workbook was left un-mark. Her english teacher did not understand the meaning of the words she was using and did not bother to go check on the meaning.

I was told by my neighbour that my gal old sch has improved quite a lot because it just had a new principal. The new principal was formally a head teacher in a 'branded' sch, and she is trying to implement many new things. So, I think, the directions & motivitions from the principal of the sch is very important.


monlim said...

Chris: Thanks so much for sharing! You're absolutely right, the principal is very important. He/she is the one who sets the tone and the culture of the school. I've heard of schools where the direction changed (for the better or for the worse) after a change of principal. It's not about the "brand" of the school but whether the principal and teachers follow up with what the school mission/values etc promise.

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