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 ~

Can we really have a brand new education system?

I’m glad my post An open letter to all principals spurred some other bloggers to pen their views on our education system. Whether we agree with one another or not is another matter, but at least we are trying in our own small way to effect some change. The livelier the discussion on this subject, the better. An ex-teacher wrote a post on her blog, titled “What’s wrong with the world’s best education system?“. She feels it is not so much the principals but the system which is the problem.

She believes that the way the ministry runs its schools are very much corporate world-like. Yes, I totally agree with her. In fact, I heard that the EPMS could have possibly been adapted from the Ministry of Defence. How is that even remotely possible, many parents must be thinking. Well, I hope it was not. But I can see why teachers say they feel they are like just another machine, tasked to churn out more and more As. And yes, I do agree that the system needs a major overhaul. And I hope they can scrap the EPMS and replace it with something more humane. But in the meantime, we cannot just sit and wait for change to manifest as it would take years. #1 entered Primary 1 almost a decade ago. 9 years later, nothing significant on the ground has changed. That is why I hope principals and teachers could stand their ground, leave the KPIs aside and put the children first. Yes, even at the expense of a lower salary and probably zero chance of a promotion. I know, it is much, much easier said than done. That is why only a handful have done it or are doing it. And in my books, they deserve the highest accolades and the deepest gratitude from parents.

A fellow blogger, Petunia Lee, who is a seasoned education blogger, agrees with me that principals have a lot of leeway and power in running their schools. She explains the nuts and bolts of how schools are run in her post titled “Power & Influence in the MOE“. Her post begins with the observation that “Principals of schools run little fiefdoms within each school”. She also notices that principals are all rowing their boats in different directions, and the only way Mr Heng’s vision for ‘every school a good school’ can be achieved is if power is brought back to MOE HQ.

About 2 months ago, our PM announced that they would do away with the T-scores and use broad-based banding to allocate places in secondary schools. Since then, there are no follow-up concrete information on what other criteria they will use to differentiate the students when there are more applicants than places. I find it incredibly unbelievable, but I hear parents saying that they have to start changing their strategy. They can foresee that there will be a horde of students with similar grades, so how to differentiate their child? These ultra kiasu parents are now searching for enrichment classes in music, sports, and the arts to beef up their child’s portfolio. This brings to mind the university admission requirements in the U.S., where the competition for places in top schools is so keen that they not only require stellar results, but the students need to show a whole portfolio of extracurricular activities, including community and charity work, and outstanding personal qualities such as leadership, self-confidence and good character. Will our 12-year olds be put through that in the future? 

Another parent blogger, Pamela Tan, who’s husband is a Math teacher in a secondary school shares the plight of secondary students who come from dysfunctional families and her disbelief that it is actually in the interest of the schools to expel these students so that their performance or non-performance (as the case may be) will not hinder the school’s performance. Read her post in “The story of the stationery Bento“.

Amidst all these seemingly depressing and unsurmountable challenges facing our education system, I see a glimmer of hope after reading an article in the Straits times. Lawrence Lien, a NMP (Nominated Member of Parliament) and chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and chairman of the Lien Foundation mooted the idea of setting up a prototype full school that is child-centric after his education study trip to Finland. I quote: “The philosophy of the school should be child-centric, process-driven and geared towards holistic learning. Assessments should be focused on tracking progress against a child’s individual potential, not on how he or she compares with others. Since the school will include both primary and secondary levels, no PSLE will be necessary.”

I love it already! This is exactly the type of school I have been envisaging for my kids. I have always wished that our schools would adopt many aspects of the Finnish education system. Dare I dream that it could materialise in my children’s time? For Kate perhaps. She still has 5 years before she enters Primary 1. Mr Lien speaks of what he wants for his 3 children: “I want my children to be developed holistically as whole persons. I wish for them to witness and practise values every moment, so that values become part of their being. I hope they will become lifelong lovers of learning, motivated to acquire new knowledge to serve and transform society. I desire their school to be a genuine community that reflects a society that I want to live in – warm, collaborative, inclusive and oriented towards a common good.” AH… if only our schools were a fraction of what he has painted, I would be contented. Sad, how sad that we have been eating dirt for so long, even grass tastes good.

The ex-teacher I mentioned earlier explained that she left the system because of a fundamental crisis she faced in the values system and the dissonance between what’s professed and practised. I have heard that sentiment echoed by many teachers who have left the teaching service. Perhaps we can gather all these like-minded and passionate teachers who truly love teaching young people and who see it their mission to impart values along with knowledge, to staff this school. There are many opportunities for teachable moments which do not require any extra time or effort, only the willingness to do so. 

#1 was so fortunate to have had a form teacher in her P5 year who wove values and morales into her lessons. How do I know? #1 constantly shared with me what her teacher taught them and I watched how she interacted with them on the many excursions I accompanied them on. Teachers do play a big part in a student’s life. Many children have told me how they dislike a particular teacher and how they hate that subject. On the other hand, I have seen how good teachers are able to motivate their students to push beyond what they can comfortably achieve. The exceptional ones are able to go as far as to change the lives of their students. It’s time we provided an environment which will support these teachers.  

I am very excited at the prospect of a school where they are competing with no one other than themselves and where the joy of learning is eminent on all the children’s faces. I will be the first to put my kids in that school!

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

An open letter to all principals

I applaud the MOE’s move to assign experienced principals to helm heartland schools. My 5 school-going children are in 4 different schools so I can see firsthand how a principal makes a difference. To begin with, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the principal of #4 and #5’s school (I will not disclose the school to protect their privacy). She is very approachable, always greeting parents with a smile, and she stands shoulder to shoulder with her teachers (even in the rain) to receive the students when they are dropped off in the mornings. When I stop her to have a quick word about some concerns I have, she is willing to listen and she does follow up with the problem.

However, to make ‘every school a good school’ I do believe that there are several other factors to consider besides the implementation of niche programs or other hardware. Let me just share with you some scenarios on the ground.

1) A friend’s child could not get into a popular primary school and was posted to a heartland school. She had no qualms about it and was very excited to journey with her child in her education. She decided to get involved and was on the parent support group. However, after 2 years in the school, she was greatly disappointed. In one instance, she asked the teacher why the one and only excursion in that year had to be cancelled and the teacher replied: “Do you know that it costs us $170 to charter a bus there and back? We don’t have that kind of money.” In some CCAs, they did not have adequate funding so they roped in willing parents with some basic skills to teach the children.

When her daughter got into the gifted program, she was transferred to a top school in P4. There, she saw a world of difference. Not only were there many more CCAs to choose from, but they could afford to hire the best coaches for their students. The ratio of coaches to students was much better and the kids could have more attention. There were also more opportunities for excursions and overseas trips. She can now see very clearly why parents are fighting to get into the best schools.

Issue: The allocation of funding should be balanced across the levels and programs so that all students will benefit, instead of having a bulk of the money channelled into niche programs or programs to raise the profile of the school.

2) Another friend shared with me her story. Her eldest son got into a SAP school in P1 and she was quite sure he was in safe hands. She did not give him any tuition, but at P6, she realised too late that the school only taught half, and expected parents to settle the other half of their education out of their own pocket. Her son scored 180 and went to a heartland school. She was fine about it. However, within a few months, she saw her son change drastically. He sat next to a boy whose parents were busy at work the whole day. The boy introduced her son to Lan gaming and he came home at 10pm every day, even during school days. They had so many family quarrels and she couldn’t control her son. She went into depression and had to seek help. She was desperate and heartbroken. Now with her 3rd child, she takes no chances and gives her daughter tuition, hoping that she will get into a much better school than her brother.

I am aware that such negative influences are also present in ‘top’ schools, but the prevalance is lower. I do believe that we as parents have the bulk of the responsibility in instilling the right values and morals in our children so that they would stand firm against negative peer influence. However, which parent wouldn’t prefer to leave their child in a good school environment so that they can have peace of mind while they go to work. I would think that I’m not far off the mark when I say that most parents do think that many heartland schools are good schools when it comes to having good programs and dedicated teachers coming up with innovative teaching methods etc. However, the concern lies in the friends the child is going to mix with.

Issue: Peer influence

3) #1 had a best friend in P6. She ended up scoring 240 while her classmate scored 190. They went to different schools. I took them out shortly after they entered Sec 1 and was very sad to hear the stories her friend shared. She was telling us how scary it was in school. She related an incident where they were in class having lessons, and suddenly a Sec 3 boy slammed through the doors and barged into her classroom. He went up to one of her classmate and punched him in the face. Her teacher tried to restrain the boys but the older boy was oblivious to the teacher and went on harassing the other boy, all the while spewing vulgarities. Both of them were then hauled to the disciplinary master. Apparently, the Sec 1 boy had stood on the toilet bowl and looked over to the other boy’s cubicle during recess. Besides such drama which probably petrified the class, there are other daily disruptions to lessons whereby the teacher is constantly wasting time dealing with some disciplinary matter or other.

Issue: Discipline and bad classroom environment.

4) During the final year exams in Sec 1, a friend called up to ask if her daughter could study with my daughter so that she could get some ‘good influence’. She said that her daughter did not want to study as it would seem uncool, and she would be labelled a ‘nerd’. It would take a strong child to stand up to this type of school culture. In comparison, I can see healthy competition going on amongst the students in my daughter’s class where they try to out-beat one another in their exams.

Issue: A student culture that does not promote studying

5) A teacher shared with me that it was a world of a difference coming from a heartland school and being transferred to a ‘top 10′ school. Before, her students never did her homework and she had to go around to the HDB block of flats after school to hunt for her students. She would find them at the playground and have to tell them to go home and do her homework and to revise. She even had to buy alarm clocks and go to her students’ homes and tell the parents to get their children to school on time. In the top school, she was surprised that most of her students already knew what was in the syllabus!

Just a suggestion: In situations like these where parents are too busy working to make ends meet to take charge of their children, perhaps the schools can step in. They could get a mentor program running where they provide rooms in school for these latchkey children and get the students who are doing well academically to mentor the weaker students under the supervision of a teacher. Instead of letting the negative influence prevail, have the other children provide a positive influence to their classmates. 

6)In #3’s school, we had a change of principal. This principal was highly acclaimed as she achieved a lot at her previous school. However, having been here for the past 6 years, she has left many parents disappointed on so many aspects. But I’ll just like to highlight one very simple incident. There was a case of HFMD going on in one of the classes (it was a P4 class). No information was provided to any of the parents in that class nor in any of the other P4 classes. Bear in mind that the students shuffle around for their banding subjects. Many days later, my daughter came down with HFMD. I did not even know anything about it until the day she got it. I asked her if any of her other classmates were absent. She told me yes, another 9 of them. I was shocked. I immediately called up the school and voiced my concern and asked what was the protocol for such contagious diseases? I never got a reply from the school, even after leaving an email for the principal. I heard from the parents of the class with the first case of HFMD that it had spread to more than half the class. The parents banded together and went to school to insist on a meeting with the principal. The principal’s stand was that the exams were round the corner and she would not shut down any class. In the end, my younger children caught HFMD. I’m sure many other siblings of those kids caught it too. We as parents could see where the principal’s priorities were, and it definitely was not the student’s or their family’s welfare. But what I was most disappointed in was that the school did not even have the decency to inform parents about it. We would have understood the school’s viewpoint to complete the syllabus and we could have made our own decisions whether to send our children to school or not. 

In contrast, in #5’s school, when one of his classmate came down with chickenpox, a doctor was called in immediately and all the students were screened. I had to go in and pick him up from school as he was suspected of having chicken pox. As it turned out, it was just some scratches, but they would rather err on the side of caution.

I could go on and on with other examples, but I think you get the point. If every school could someday really be good schools in all these other aspects, I can safely say that most parents would be comfortable sending their kids to any school. This would really alleviate a lot of the unnecessary competition going on at the PSLE level and a lot of unnecessary parental stress at the P1 registration exercise.

In my post 6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child, I highlighted some very admirable principals who had dared to be different and implemented many out of the box strategies and programs for their students. 

I humbly appeal to all principals. You are not the head of a corporation. You are a leader, with the power to inspire and garner the energies of a legion of teachers under your wing. Who in turn have the power to influence and shape the lives of thousands of young people, who will go on to shape our country. Take good care of your teachers, even if it may mean a smaller bonus or less accolades for your school. Lead your teachers with integrity, courage and wisdom. After all, isn’t that what we are trying to teach our children? 

I had a cousin who was a principal. Sadly, she has left us. However, till today, when I meet parents who had children from Fairfield Methodist, they still remember her fondly. They tell me she was a principal with a heart. I sincerely hope that as you go about your challenging tasks ahead of you, you do it with a heart. 

To read about the Dialogue Session I was invited to at the MOE, click here.

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

Burning of PSLE books

This photo appeared in today’s Straits Times. It shows some children burning textbooks after the end of the PSLE. Comments abound, from parents setting a bad example, to the wastage of books which could be donated to the needy, to the barbaric nature of destroying books, to global warming. Of course this is terribly wrong, even if we acknowledge that they need an outlet to vent their stress.

However, 2 points sprung up in my mind when I saw this photo.

1) That our education system has surely failed in some ways if children believe that learning is just for passing some exams, and not for the sake of acquiring knowledge. 

2) That the children, and parents, must have been through so much stress that they resorted to use this method of literally burning their books, as compared to tearing them up or giving them away. It hints of releasing some form of oppression or perhaps anger or frustration at the system.

A few years back when #1 was in Primary 6, a friend organised a Chinese New Year gathering at her place. They were all from the same Kindergarten class, and had kept in contact until now. So the kids were all in their P6 year, in various schools. As the moms gathered, the conversation immediately centred on the PSLE. After the kids went off to play for a few hours, they came back down to get some refreshments. One boy commented, “You are all still talking about our PSLE? Don’t you have anything better to talk about?”

For those of you who have not had kids go through the PSLE, you will probably not understand how any parent can even condone such an act of burning books. I definitely do not condone this, but I have seen how the PSLE has taken over the lives of so many families. I even know of families who do not allow their child to leave the house during the entire PSLE year. They are supposed to stay at home to study and not be distracted by any outings or play. Daily family conversations revolve around schoolwork and tuition. And usually there is displeasure on the parents’ part, resulting in scolding or nagging. Can you imagine what the child gathers from all these? That my worth to my parents are in terms of my grades. That the exams take precedence over family activities. That these textbooks and assessment books are a hinderance to a happier family and a happier life for me.

Well, it’s easy for an MP to say that whatever the amount of stress faced, they still shouldn’t burn their books. Yes, we as parents all know that we should not burn books. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that books are definitely a source of knowledge meant to educate a person. If our schools have taught the children well, would they feel this strongly about books and want to burn them? Or has schools inadvertently led the children to believe that books are a source of immense stress. That books have no relevance in our daily lives, besides being information that is needed to be memorised and reproduced in the exact way the examiner wants. That they have to be drilled every single day, for months, on these repetitive questions. Where is the joy in learning? Where is the appreciation of books? How can we sell our kids on the idea of lifelong learning if learning is such?

It’s sad. Very sad. We have indeed failed our children.

Related posts:

On how I prepare my kids for the PSLE, click here.

On how to choose a secondary school that is right for your child, click here. 

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

Dialogue session at the Ministry of Education

A few bloggers and myself were invited to a dialogue session at the Ministry of Education. Before I attended the session, I was like most other parents. We had our opinions on what was wrong with the education system. The problems were crystal clear to us – Teachers are overworked. They are not doing a good job teaching our kids. The tuition problem is getting out of hand. The pressure is way too much for the kids to handle. They don’t have time for a decent childhood. Family life has taken a back seat due to the demands of the education system. Yet, why is the MOE not listening and not doing anything about it?

Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, had just delivered the Work Plan Seminar 2013 (Full Keynote Address) and we were there to discuss the new initiatives. To begin with, I was heartened to see that they were listening and jotting down notes more than they were speaking (or maybe it was because we bloggers have so much to say that they couldn’t get a word in edgewise!) They were not there to explain their stand for us to propagate. It was truly a roundtable discussion. That I think, is a very positive signal that they are sincerely interested to ascertain the differing points of views from various individuals, and to try and fix the problems. I did write an article 3 years ago, and I suggested that the MOE needed to engage the stakeholders to analyse the situation on the ground. And engage they did. They spent the last one year hearing the voices of 22,000 students, parents and teachers!

From there, they have crafted a very comprehensive strategy to drive our education forward for the next decade. They are going to move towards a student-centric and values-driven education model, recognising that every student is different. They are keen to provide opportunities for every student to pursue their various interests and to stretch them to their fullest potential. They are working toward providing a multi-dimensional education, beyond just academics. These directives are what I have wished for, but never dared to hold any hope for, to be accomplished in my children’s time.

The Ministry is aiming to create a colourful landscape of distinctive secondary schools with their own niches in every neighbourhood. More and more secondary schools are starting to be established in their niche programs, however, it does not seem to be provided across the board. If that becomes a reality for the entire school population, not just a select few, and if all schools manage to mitigate the behavioural problems by channeling students’ energies into their specific interests, then it will go a long way in lessening the competition to fight for the very last mark at PSLE to enter the ‘reputable’ schools. 

Mr Heng has indeed painted a very bold vision, worthy of even the harshest critic’s commendation. However, for the 3 of us parent bloggers, who are near to being permanently disillusioned with the system, our only scepticism lies in the implementation. Mr Heng himself foresees the challenges ahead in the implementation. He urges parents to change their mindsets in this partnership of educating our children.

As the discussion went on, I started to see how in many areas, their hands are tied. For example, we know that many teachers are scrambling to complete the syllabus before the exams. One obvious solution to us is to reduce the curriculum. However, MOE has to balance that with providing students with a proper foundation in all the subjects so that they are equipped to pursue whichever course in the higher institutions which they so choose in future.

Although I knew that it is not going to be an easy problem to fix, but I am now only beginning to grasp the enormity of the challenges facing them. Not only do they have to ensure that their vision filters down through every single educator, but they have to ensure that each and every teacher is on the same page, and that they all embody this holistic perspective of learning. Because if some educators are still hanging on to the old system, or to their own models of success, this will not work. And to implement such initiatives which are going to cater more specifically to each individual student, it will take a lot more time and effort as compared to traditional methods of teaching. How are they going to carve out more time when teachers are already pressed for time? What are they going to take out to enable these to be put in? And the other huge part of the equation is the parents. Perhaps surprising, but it seems that for every parent who wants to make education more meaningful, there are other parents who unfortunately still believe that pushing the child forward unrelentingly is the only way ahead.

Well, I am very excited about this new direction, to see the day the Ministry’s aim to give our students a broad and deep foundation for their lifelong journey is achieved. But being the ever pragmatic mom, as they are working towards attaining that, here is what I hope to see when my 6th child, Kate, enters Primary 1 in 5 years time: 

An education system

  • Where teachers are highly qualified and passionate about teaching, and spend most of their time involved in teaching.
  • Where class size is reduced to 30 students.
  • Where tuition is needed only for the minority of students who genuinely need the extra help to cope.
  • Where different modalities are used to teach, and lessons come alive and are made more relevant to the students.
  • Where no school bus pick the kids up before 7.30 am, so that kids can spend time with their parents in the evenings and still be well-rested for school the next day.
  • Where CCAs are conducted for the real purpose of learning team-work, building character and instilling values, not for the sake of competition.
And above all, where children come home and say they LOVE school!

If 80% of their plan can bear fruit by the time Kate enters Primary 1, I will be an extremely happy parent. Let us all take the first step by reading Mr Heng’s Keynote Speech, and aligning ourselves with his vision. We can then work together in whatever ways we can, whether it be a mindset change or in contributing our ideas or expertise, to propel it forward as quickly as possible. Every single one of our children will stand to benefit. With synergy we can see the changes we want to see. Let’s stop complaining and pointing fingers. Let’s work with the Ministry to get the ball rolling. Every cog has to move in sync with the entire system for this to succeed.

Feel free to paint your picture of the education system you envisage for your child in the comment box below. I’m sure the MOE is willing to hear our suggestions if we give them constructive ones.

To read another parent’s opinion on our education system, click this link: LittleBlueBottle-Tutored to Death

~   mummywee – parenting 6 kids in Singapore without going mad or broke  ~

A comment by a former teacher in the Straits Times forum page

Yesterday, I posted that 1 of the biggest problems in the education system is the way teachers are incentivised wrongly, leading to teaching being relegated to the back burner. This article in the Straits Times forum page today, contributed by Ms Anne Chia, a former teacher and HOD (head of department) of a Secondary school echoes this point.

She is urging the MOE to give teachers sufficient time to teach, mark, and provide feedback to the students. Only then will proper learning take place.

She also mentioned the second problem that I have unearthed. The Ministry is coming up with very good initiatives but the implementation is at best slip-shod, and I feel, at worst, skewed or manipulated beyond its real purpose.

If MOE can seriously tackle these 2 problems:

1) Let teachers focus on teaching (with the correct monetary benefits to reflect that)

2) Implementation of initiatives to be carried out properly (from principals, to teachers, to parents)

Then, we should be able see a huge difference in our education system within 5 years.

For “Why parents are forced to spend on tuition”, click here.

For 6 things to do in the PSLE year, click here.

For 6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child, click here.

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

Why parents are forced to spend on tuition

I wrote this article 3 years ago, which appeared in the Straits Times Forum page. This past week, the tuition issue is still raging on, especially after Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah said that tuition is unnecessary for most children in Singapore as the education system is more than sufficient to provide them with the tools and information that they require. I’m not sure about her family situation, but I can safely guess that she does not have a child currently in either a Primary or Secondary school. This is my experience with the education system:

Why parents are forced to spend on tuition

My three older children are in Primary 6, Primary 4 and Primary 2 in a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school. Having put them in such a well sought-after school, I thought they would be in good hands.

All three of them were getting average grades. However, to my utter shock and dismay, my eldest came home with red marks in all her subjects for her Primary 5 year end exams, and she was the last in class. Her concerned form teacher called me to find out what happened. She told me that my daughter was attentive in class and was, in fact, chosen as the role model student for that year.

After speaking to me, the teacher was surprised that she had no tuition and that I did not coach her myself. She was even more surprised that I had not bought any 10-year series or guidebooks for her. (As she was my eldest, I didn’t know that just sending her to school and buying all the requisite textbooks were not enough to get by). I, in turn, asked her what was happening. She was the one teaching my daughter 3 out of the 4 subjects in school, so I should be querying her about her poor grades, not the other way around! She then explained to me that due to time constraints, teachers could only cover the basics, so the child needed to do a lot more extra work at home or to get tuition.

That seems to be the reality, as I have found out from parents of children in other schools as well. She was put into a different class in her P6 year. Subsequently, I enrolled her for tuition for all four subjects and for her mid-year exam, she achieved the first position in her class. In the end, thanks to tuition, she managed to get 4As for her PSLE. (I shudder to think what her grades would be like if I had not sent her for tuition in her P6 year). I can now understand why the majority of parents are willing to spend so much money on tuition. The system is just not delivering.

Tuition centres, on the other hand, are able to produce many students with As. Why is that so? The class size is about 10. The tutors are motivated to get the students to do well as there are incentives to do so. More than that, they are not bogged down with many other responsibilities that distract them from teaching. Many good tutors I spoke to are former teachers.

If we could give our teachers a good environment, and not burden them with umpteen other responsibilities, they would have more time and energy left to prepare well for lessons.

The sad truth is that parents are focusing all their energies on academic achievement, thereby neglecting more important matters like character building and family bonding, which are so crucial in today’s fast-paced and changing world. It may be a good idea to set up a forum with parents, students, teachers, tutors and the Ministry of Education to analyse the situation. Singapore has a world-class education system. Perhaps, that is in part due to a world-class tuition system.


That was my article published 3 years ago. I have since spoken to more teachers and tutors and I have identified the biggest problem. If we can solve this 1 problem, I think we are half-way there. 

The problem is the incentive of the teachers. Currently, all schools have an annual review by the MOE. The principal’s performance is pegged to this review. To get a better review, the principal has to show more initiatives and programs they have achieved that year, besides teaching. So in turn, the principal will push the teachers to be involved in more initiatives, activities and competitions to pump up the annual review. The teachers are willing to do this because the more extra initiatives they take on, the better their EPMS, the better their bonuses. So in fact, the whole system encourages teachers to spend time on other areas besides teaching. As a result, where is the motivation to teach well? In fact, teaching is considered low level work. Honestly, I couldn’t believe my ears when I first discovered that fact. How can teaching be considered low level work when teaching is the primary role of a teacher? Once I made that discovery, it all made sense to me why teachers were behaving the way they were behaving. They actually benefit monetarily by doing all this extra CCAs, competitions, sports festivals, etc. 

I am really curious about what MOE thinks. Do they know that it is already a full time job for teachers just to be teaching? Do they think it is really possible for a person to be handling so many other responsibilities yet be able to teach passionately and effectively? Can we instead, incentivise teachers who teach well? Peg the bonuses to the delivery of good lessons. I remember reading one article in the Straits Times about a history teacher in a secondary school. He even went to the trouble to dress like a Japanese soldier when he was doing a lesson on the Japanese occupation. He brought the lesson alive to his students and I think he even used role-play to get them involved. Ideas like that should be complimented and taken into consideration in their performance review. I think herein lies the crux of our solution. Raise teaching to High Level work with the subsequent monetary benefits and we will probably see a reduction in the need for tuition.

On a brighter note, I am very excited to read in today’s papers about the bold plans to move away from the single focus of exams to develop a more rounded education for our students. This is exactly what I have been saying in my past post. Education minister Heng Swee Keat announced that there will be an applied learning programme and a learning-for-life programme in all secondary schools by 2017. These programs will help students use what they learn to solve real-life problems and they will also discover their strengths and interests. I have also proposed this in my previous blog “so who’s smarter?” I think these 2 programmes are right on the mark. 

I am really keen to find out more about the details of these 2 schemes in the dialogue session which I am attending next week at the MOE. I just hope that the delivery and execution of these schemes will always retain the right focus and purpose. Somehow, our system seems to warp all the best plans and initiatives formulated by the Ministry. I don’t know if it’s the principals, the teachers or the parents who drive everything into a competition. 

Now that the Ministry is being so supportive in nurturing our children to find their individual strengths and talents, I hope all parents can take on this liberating mindset, that each and every child is different and we are not competing against one another. We should instead focus our energy in teaching our children to challenge themselves to be the best that they can be.

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

A chat with Ms Sim Ann about the education system

I met with Minister of State Ms Sim Ann and took the opportunity to voice out my concerns about our education system. I shared with her that as a parent, I was disappointed in the new policy changes and that what we desperately need is real change. I was rather baffled as I have been following our Education Minister, Mr Heng Swee Keat’s, comments on the newspapers over the past year and I feel that he has got the fundamentals right, but why are we not seeing that filtered down to the policies?

I highlighted to her the problems and some suggestions from a parent’s point of view. 

1. Students – They are getting so stressed that mental health issues like depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and self mutilation are all on the rise and it is very alarming.

Suggestion: Every time I speak to a child from an International School, be it a 6 year old or a 16 year old, they tell me that they love school. Why don’t our children feel the same way about our schools? I found out that the way lessons are conducted there are vastly different from ours. We should perhaps study their system more closely and adopt those that would work for our framework. I know that the Ministry has previously sent teachers into International Schools. However, when they come back to their own schools and try to implement what they have witnessed, they are constrained by resources, time and support. To make anything work, the entire system has to follow through. 

2. Teachers – They are tremendously overworked with additional duties so much so that they can hardly cope with completing the syllabus, much less deliver inspiring lessons. The Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS) has also been manipulated. Teachers realise that to get a better performance grade and hence a better bonus, they need to take on more initiatives and be more visible. This leaves them less time for their main role – teaching. Many good teachers end up leaving the service due to burn out or lack of work life balance, which leaves our children with new and inexperienced teachers. Sadly, many teachers start off very passionate, but the burden of the system leaves them drained and disenchanted.

Suggestion: We do not expect great chefs to do the administrative work and organise the parties. We let them concentrate on what they do best – cook. Can we do the same for our teachers? Let them have enough time and resources to come up with creative ideas to bring the lessons alive to the students. Let other people organise the fun fairs and sports festivals. Let CCAs be 100% outsourced to professionals. Instead, experienced teachers should mentor the new teachers, especially in the areas of keeping the class in order and handling difficult students. If the teacher can’t even manage to get the students to sit attentively and listen, how can they teach effectively?

3. Tuition – Too much time and money are spent on tuition. I know of children who have back to back tuition on the weekends. There is practically no more time left for family bonding. Some teachers even blatantly tell their students to get tuition. 

Solution: We have to re-look our syllabus such that tuition should not be needed for the majority of students. It is unfortunate if new parents decide to stop at 1 or 2 children due to the high cost of raising kids these days, especially if much of the cost is contributed by tuition.

4. The ‘teach less learn more’ policy – it has not been implemented properly and now it seems to be a ‘schools teach less, tutors teach more’ reality.

Coincidentally, #3 had some homework on ‘Our MP’

5. Parents – Because of the hierarchical system, whereby they are streamed from top down: IP, Express, Normal (academic), Normal (technical), ITE, etc, parents being parents will try to push their children to do as well as possible to go to the ‘best’ schools or to ensure they don’t end up in the ‘neighbourhood’ schools, which leads to much of the stress faced by the children. I agree that there are now many pathways open to students. However, this top down system seems to suggest that “If you are not so smart, nevermind, you can go down this other path”. How many parents would feel proud if their child went to ‘Normal’ stream or ITE? It is very hard to rid this ‘labelling’ mindset, so perhaps we should revamp the whole secondary education scene, into a horizontal system, recognising the different intelligences and the different ways children learn, and catering to them. 

Solution: Let us use the Primary years to sort them out. We can then stream them into different Talent schools in their Secondary years. We need to re-brand them, such that none of it is a ‘second choice’ school, but each a more suitable fit for the individual child. Examples could be:

1. Academia School
2. Entrepreneur School
3. Engineering School
4. Artistic School
5. Education School
6. Trades School
7. Culinary School
8. Design School
9. Technology School
10. Journalistic School

The core subjects such as English, Mother Tongue, Math, Sciences and Humanities should all be taught, but using different modalities and with different focuses. For example in the Design school, they can first study a product, research into the history of such products and various competitor’s products, find out about the creators, learn about their countries of origin, and attempt to build a better design. We can easily incorporate all the elements of the different subjects into one project. When a child is motivated by his area of interest, learning is quicker and more dynamic. 

We have to challenge this basic assumption: Is academic intelligence the most superior of all intelligences? Will it get the child furthest in life? If we pursue this at all cost, will he have the happiest future? A career he loves? A family whom he cares about and who cares about him? Friends who will support him in times of need? One very worrying trend I am hearing from teachers is that students now have a ‘each man for himself’ mentality. They think that is the only way they can advance themselves and score higher marks than their peers. What has this system, and the parents’ response, inadvertently done to our children?

We do not need mere robots which our system has been so successful in producing thus far. We need to prepare our next generation for the demands of our ever changing economic landscape. We need entrepreneurs, visionaries, innovators, leaders. We also need to realise that not everyone is academically inclined, and that there are multiple intelligences. And we need these different intelligences to shine if we are to push Singapore forward dynamically in this new era.

As it turned out, she was the right person I was speaking to as her portfolio is in the Ministry of Comms and Info, and Education. She briefed me on the direction they were heading towards and explained to me what a mammoth task it was, not only to craft the right policies but to move the whole system to align with their new direction. She said that the Ministry valued the opinion of parents and is trying to reach out more effectively. She also mentioned that the Ministry is serious about equipping teachers and schools to bring out the best in different students. However, it is a long journey and parents’ feedback is most welcome.

After 9 years of being disappointed in our education system, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. (Although I can foresee it to be a very, very long tunnel) I will give Mr Heng and his team my full support and hopefully, all of us – ministers, principals, teachers, students, and especially parents do our part in forging the next chapter in our education landscape. I have been invited to a dialogue session on education with Minister of State Sim Ann. I am looking forward to it and I hope that we can all have open minds and do our part to craft a truly world class education system. If we can transform Singapore into a first world country in one generation, I don’t see why we can’t transform our education system in one decade. Let us all rally together to move this mountain.

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