6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child

The PSLE is over and uppermost on most parents’ minds are what results their child is going to get and which secondary school to choose. Having my 2 older girls go through PSLE and the selection for secondary schools, here’s how my opinion has changed.

When #1 finished her PSLE, we had no idea how she would fare. We never made them do extra “mummy’s” work at home and never micro-managed their school work. They know our expectations. What they need to do is:

1) Pay attention in class
2) Finish all school homework
3) Sleep on time so they don’t fall ill and don’t miss school
4) Plan their own revision before the exams
4) Do their best

We believe in giving them a good childhood which is filled with lots of unstructured play, laughter and ‘white space’ (time to decompress and ponder what they have learnt or experienced). We also believe in making them independent and equipping them with life skills.

I expected the school to do their part to prepare her adequately for the national exams. However, by the time I realised they had not done that, it was already at the end of P5. She failed every single subject, much to our horror.

So in the remaining 9 months of P6, I did what I could by engaging a tutor for every subject, and she did her part by studying very hard. We had to maintain a fine balance and did not want to push her too hard as she might not be able to take the pressure. I was mentally prepared for a score of anywhere between 210 and 240.

Secondary School information

Before the results were out, I decided that I would choose a school based on her aggregate score (as what most parents do). Thank goodness she managed to score 4 ‘A’s with an aggregate of 240.

I flipped through the Secondary School booklet which was given out and looked for schools with a minimum cut-off point of 240 or 239. I chose a school with a cut-off point of 240 for her 1st choice. For her 2nd choice, I chose a school with a 238 cut-off. For her 3rd and 4th choices I put 2 of the sought after schools with aggregates above 250 (just to try my luck) as they are very near our place.

My husband’s cousin, who had a daughter in Sec 3 at that time, advised me not to waste my chances this way. She reasoned that as those 2 schools had a cut-off point above 250, it would be virtually impossible to get in. She told me that I could try putting schools with a cut-off around 241 or 242, but not any higher. I took her advice and changed the remaining choices to those between 235-241.

In the end, #1 managed to get into the school of our 2nd choice. She asked me to appeal to the school of her 1st choice as she wanted to get into a ‘better’ school. I filled in the form, and when I went to the school, I was surprised to find that the Appeal box was full to the brim! It was no surprise then that her appeal was turned down. On hindsight, after hearing from other friends how crazily academic that school is, and how their children have no more time for family activities, I am so glad she did not make it there.

When #2 took her PSLE, I expected her to score about the same as her sister. She had been a very consistent child throughout the years, with her only weak subject being Chinese. After her P6 Prelims, she came back with an ‘F’ for Chinese and a ‘B’ for the other 3 subjects! I was stunned and quickly gave her tuition for all 4 subjects in a bid to raise her scores in that short 3 months. I later realised that her school tends to set very tough Prelim papers, perhaps to scare the students to study harder for the PSLE.

However, I was disappointed that she only managed 230 as I know she was capable of doing better. With the new system of grading though, she would have been able to go to a ‘better’ school than her sister as she had 3 ‘A’s and 1 ‘A*’. Ah, policies, policies, how they can literally affect a child’s life! Read more about this in ‘So who’s smarter?

Initially I was upset that she wouldn’t be able to go to the same school and I had to search the book for options around the 220-230 band. I told her that she had to go into this ‘not so good’ school as she didn’t do so well. 

Now, with 2 of them in different schools, I can honestly say that #2’s school which has a lower cut-off point is in no way a ‘lousier’ school than #1’s school, and I have no qualms sending the other kids there in future. I have totally changed my perception of what makes a good school and I notice some differences which I have never considered before.


Having attended many parent-teacher conferences and parents’ nites in both schools, I can see how the differences in school values flow down to many aspects which directly affect the students. The principal of #2’s school is very down to earth and the values that the school upholds run through all their programs. The teachers seem to really care for the students and there’s an atmosphere of joy in the school (well, as much joy as you can get in this pressure-cooker of a system we have).

I realise that knowing what values the school believes in is very important, so that you can decide if those are the same values your family upholds. I heard that in a top girl’s school, one of their values is to imbue independence in the girls. When there is an event, 2 consent forms are given out. 1 for the parents to sign and 1 for the student to sign. If in the instance that the parents allow their child to take part but the child does not wish to, the child should have a discussion with her parents and if they still cannot come to an agreement, the child’s opinion stands. I guess I wouldn’t be too keen on that! There is also another top school where the students are repeatedly told that they are likely to be future leaders of Singapore. Where’s the humility in that? And what do 13 or 14 year old kids make of such statements? Perhaps they should first be taught traits such as humility, integrity and responsibility. Because stellar scores on their own do not a true leader make. 


#1’s school’s standard is fairly high and the teachers go at a fast pace as quite a proportion of students do have tuition. #1 finds it hard to catch up in some subjects and have been asking for tuition. However, I did not want her to rely on tuition as yet and told her to try her very best to study on her own. #2, on the other hand, was placed in the top class as her aggregate was at the higher end of the curve. Most of her classmates are at a similar standard to her and she is comfortable with the pace.

In #2’s school, for their CA1 and SA1 exams, a big proportion of the marks came from group work. For example, in Biology, they had to use clay to make models of cells and do a presentation. For music, they had to write their own music and lyrics and sing as a group and record it for assessment. I was initially worried as #2 had a ‘D’ for some of the subjects and I asked the teacher why group marks were used instead of individual marks. She explained that some students do not do well in written exams so this is to allow them to boost their marks. Besides, she feels that it is good for the students to learn to work as a team.

I totally agree and am impressed with the school’s efforts to help students find their strengths in other areas, and to build up other soft skills so necessary in the 21st century work place. I always welcome the kids to come over to my place for their projects as I like to see what they get up to. I am all for such group work as there is so much going on there. Collaboration, leadership, discussion, negotiation, frustration, and of course, much fun and laughter. These sessions help to bond the kids and I’m sure they will look back and have good memories of their secondary school days.


When she was in secondary 2, #1 went for an overseas trip to Brisbane where they attended lectures in a research station and went out to do scientific experiments in the swamp land. They brought back their materials and did lab work like the undergrads, to complete their understanding. They rounded their trip off with amazing experiences like whale watching and discovery of the wildlife sanctuary. This trip was only open to a select group of students. In secondary 3, the entire level went to Pulau Ubin for their OBS (outward bound school) camp.

In #2’s school, they have yearly trips. Their’s is done across the entire level. I think that is a good idea as there is no distinction of opportunity between the “smarter students” and the “weaker students”. It is also a good chance for the students to form comeraderie with friends across the classes. Their purpose of the trips is of a humbler nature.

In Sec 1, the focus is on self-awareness and self-management. They camp in school and learn to manage their belongings, manage their time, manage their emotions. In Sec 2, they go to a neighbouring country (I think it’s either Malaysia or Indonesia) where they learn to work as a team and they do some project work. In Sec 3, they go a little further and the focus is on social awareness and their role in the community. In Sec 4, they go on a Mission trip where they learn to serve. There is so much talk these days about schools sending their children on expensive overseas trips with ambivalent purposes. I think this school has developed it’s programs with the right focus, in line with their values.

Do find out about the trips which the schools offer and their purpose. Different schools have vastly different opportunity for overseas trips. My kids tell me that the best memories they have of school are on these trips.

So, how to choose a secondary school that is “good” for your child?

Besides looking at the aggregate score, you should consider several other aspects to ascertain if the school is a right fit for your child. I do agree that it is difficult to find out such information about the schools, but here are 6 suggestions:

1) Ask around
First, shortlist some schools based on the proximity and aggregate score (obviously your child with 240 cannot enter a school with a cut-off point of 250). Ask around to see if any of your friends, colleagues or neighbours have children in the school. First hand experience is always best and you can get a clearer picture of the school. Ask as much as you can: How are the teachers? How is the principal? What is the school culture? Do the kids like their school? What do they like or dislike about their school? Do they like their CCAs? No friends with kids in the schools you have shortlisted? Why not try kiasuparents.com. You can pose a question and hopefully some parents will give you their feedback. 

2) School website
Go to the school’s website and find out about their school motto, values and guiding principles. Initially, when I looked at one or two websites, I thought they all looked good. But after looking at many more websites, you start to notice that they have different strengths and different priorities. You can gather a sense of the school by their focus. For example, one school may have a lot of pictures and information about their awards, their competitions, their medals. Another school may have information about their outreach programs in the community. You can also see if their niche program matches your child’s interest.

3) Open House
Do take the effort to go for the open house of all the schools you have shortlisted and tour the school with your child. Some schools have already conducted their open house, but many schools will be holding them on Saturday, 23rd November 2013. Talk to the current students there. Ask them as many questions as you can possibly think of to get a feel of the school. Most of them are extremely helpful and will share what they think about their school. You can then make a more informed decision based on several aspects about the school and decide if you would want to place your child in that school and also if your child will fit the culture of the school.

4) CCAs
Find out what CCAs the school has and which CCAs the school is strong in. CCAs will be a huge part of your child’s life in Secondary school. If your child has a particular interest, it is good to find a school which not only has that CCA but where that CCA has strong support. For example, if your child loves playing a musical instrument, by choosing a school with a big and established band, your child will have a better chance of being exposed to performing in concerts, competitions, and exchanges. 

5) Transport
Don’t forget to consider not only the distance from your home, but the time it takes to get there. For example, #1’s school is not that near to our home, but she has a direct bus there which travels via the expressway. It takes her only 20 minutes to reach school. On the other hand, a neighbour who goes to a school near our place takes about 50 minutes to reach her school as she has to take 2 buses to get there. Travel time is important as they usually have 2 days of CCA after school and sometimes #1 reaches home at 8pm. CCA ends at 6, but they take another 15 minutes to finish packing and storing their instruments. They get to the bus stop at about 6.25pm. This is the peak hour and sometimes 3 buses pass without stopping. On those days, it is a mad rush to finish her dinner, shower, and get her homework done, and by the time she gets to bed, it is almost 11pm. This is way past her bedtime and teenagers still need adequate sleep in order to be alert and function well in school.

6) School Values
I realise that the underlying values which the school upholds is very important as it moulds the child in their teenage years where they are consolidating what they stand for and believe in. Do take some time to seriously consider the school’s values.

I had written this post earlier but didn’t get round to editing it before posting. As it turned out, the timing couldn’t be better as Jane Ng wrote an article in Straits Times over the weekend on “What a difference a principal can make”. In the many years that she has covered education as a reporter, she has seen how principals with a heart and a determination to make an impact on their students’ lives have made a big difference. Let me acknowledge and list these admirable principals and their contributions to their schools.

  • Mrs Aw Ai Ling (Gan Eng Seng Primary)
3 in 5 children in her school live in one-to-three-room flats. She believes in exposing all her students to music and the arts, and the wider world and gave her school band the opportunity to perform in Hong Kong Disneyland.
  • Madam Sambwani Vimi Dail (Corporation Primary)
She introduced an enriched music, art and sports curriculum so that these are available to all pupils as many are from poor or disadvantaged families.
  • James Ong (former principal of Pasir Ris Crest Secondary)
Made all students take literature as a full O-level subject in 2007 as he believed that it teaches values.
  • Mrs Chua Yen Ching (former principal of Shuqun Secondary)
Opened a ‘gaming arcade’ so her students would have a safe place to play.
  • Mr Wong Lok Oon (former principal of Dunearn Secondary)
Handed out his name cards to shopkeepers in Bukit Batok near his school and asked them to call him if they spotted his students smoking or misbehaving. He also reached out to grassroots leaders, business owners and the police to enlist their help in watching over his students and guiding them.
  • Mr Phua Kia Wang (North Vista Primary)
Pushed the starting time of his school to 8am so that parents and their children can have breakfast together before school. Uses Wii games for PE as he believes that children have to be happy in order to learn well.
  • Mrs Lysia Kee (Bukit Batok Secondary)
Turned the school around by introducing individual learning packages for every student and fixing contact time for teachers to run enrichment or remedial lessons. Made every student go through a speech and drama course to build their confidence. She empowered every teacher to discipline the students and handled parents’ complaints herself.
  • Mrs Yeo Chin Nam (Christ Church Secondary)
Used CCA to motivate her students. She saw that students who skipped CCAs also did poorly in their studies. So she made CCA part of curriculum time and as a result, CCA attendance, and discipline improved in tandem. On one occasion, the parents of a student asked her to dissuade their son from taking part in a singing competition. But Mrs Yeo saw his passion for singing and rallied her staff and students to support him. The boy, who previously lacked interest in his studies, became motivated to do well after the competition.

I am so heartened by this article. There are indeed many dedicated and wonderful principals around. We have to broaden our perception of what makes a school a good school. Every child is different, and ultimately the school has to be a right fit for your child to be a good school for him or her. 

And above all, whichever school your child ends up in, show your support. There is no point in harping on the fact that you are disappointed that she did not get into the school of her choice, or your choice for that matter, and it will be detrimental to your child if she believes that her school is a ‘lousy’ school. There are positives to be found in any school, and it will only be in the best interest of your child if you are committed in having a partnership with her teachers and her school.

MOE’s latest Work Plan 2013 is brimming with hope for a better and more holistic education system. If we couple that with every principal sincerely wanting the best for their students, I believe Mr Heng’s vision of “every school a good school” can be achieved.

Sane tip: 
Do not automatically choose the school with the highest aggregate score your child can enter. For example if your child scored 240, it may not be the best thing to choose a school which accepts students with 240-260 aggregate. Your child will be at the bottom of the cohort and will find it hard to keep up. Her self-esteem and confidence may also be affected as she used to be above average in her primary school, but now she may be at the bottom tier. And when she does her streaming at the end of Sec 2, if she is at the bottom tier, she wouldn’t get the first pick of the subject combinations for Sec 3.

Save tip: 
If your child has to change from a bus to an MRT to a bus, obviously her transport cost would be more expensive than if she had a direct bus. 

Another point is that schools with a higher proportion of high income families do tend to have more occasions where you have to fork out money. It could be CCAs, concerts or even expensive overseas trips. Of course it is not obligatory, but your child may compare with her friends and may be disappointed when she is not able to afford it. Some other schools with more lower income families will have events that are free, and trips that cost much less, and the lessons they take home may in fact be greater.

I also realised something else. To get home, #2 has to change to an MRT at a mall. She ends up buying a snack with her friends everyday after school on the way home as they are starving by then. It all adds up as these days snacks don’t come cheap. In comparison, #1 takes the direct bus home from school so she comes straight home and has her lunch. Well, we can’t always have the ideal situation. Anyway, these pointers are just food for thought in your search for the best school for your child.

For more information on choosing the right school for your child, take a look at the MOE’s Parents in Education website on: Choosing a Secondary School for your child after PSLE.

Related posts:

Should Tuition be the first line of defence?

How to prepare your kids for PSLE.

Be ready for how crazy the PSLE year can get.

Read about How Principals make a great impact on schools.

Read my article in the Straits Times forum page on “Why parents are forced to spend on tuition”.

~ www.mummyweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

11 Replies to “6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child”

  1. Even though my kids aren't even in primary school yet, this was a really useful post! There is indeed so much more we should consider that makes a school right for our children.

  2. Thanks for the wonderfull tips.was very useful to me as my dd is taking psle this year.

  3. So true, thanks for sharing. Now the challenge to make a balanced choice between the "real" good schools, with teachers who care and truly get the best of academic and social emotional results. Not an easy task.
    Father of a P6 student

  4. I agree it's not an easy task at all. We can only do our best to find out as much as we can to make a good decision. At the end of the day, whichever school they end up in, if it's not one that we had hoped for, we can only accept it and try our best to recognise the good points and highlight to our child because they have to be there for 4 years. And everything happens for a reason, so even if it's not our choice, if we keep an open mind, the child can still have a positive experience. All the best for your child!

  5. My son just got his psle results and Google brought me to your page. Cos he had 230 (4As) like your #2. Don't know what school to choose for him. Travel time is a consideration for me.
    Thanks for sharing your valuable experience, I appreciate it very much.

  6. Hi Wei Kang,

    Thank you for letting me know. It's nice to know that what we write is beneficial to others along the same journey. All the best to your son as he embarks on this exciting next phase of his education!

  7. It's always "Merit over Choice" (see MOE website) – so definitely no point putting schools with higher COP as the later choices. One of my kids was joking when our eldest was to put in her JAE choice. He said, just put from the top schools down – RJC, HJC, NJC, AJC, and so on – doesn't matter right? Bc "Merit over Choice" – you will still be posted to the JC that you are supposed to go with your score… :p … talking about this, we have Monday's O's for No.3! Wahahha.

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