School Stories #13:Tuition – First line of attack?

I had the most amusing conversation with #2’s classmate, C. She has been asking #2 to enrol in her Math tuition but #2 told her that I’m not allowing it at the moment, but will consider it next year when they are in Secondary 4.

C called me to try and convince me herself. She spoke with such urgency and couldn’t believe how a parent would not immediately sign their child up for tuition if they could afford it.

These were her arguments:

  • CA2 is coming up very soon. She is only scoring around 50-60 marks. What are we waiting for?
  • Another classmate who just joined managed to pull up her grade from C to B. The tutor is very good and we will definitely see improvement.
  • She needs to get her foundation strong if not it will be very difficult next year to catch up and get an A.
  • They have 8 subjects to concentrate on next year, and it would be too stressful if many subjects are weak.

I found the conversation highly amusing because the roles were reversed! A child was trying to convince a classmate’s mother of the necessity of tuition.

Beyond that, I was struck by C’s genuine concern for my daughter. What a good friend she was! I told #2 that it is hard to find such caring friends these days as kids seem to have a ‘better for you, worse for me’ mentality.

However, I was somewhat perturbed that tuition was seen by most children in Singapore as a norm, an expected part of school life, the right of a student.

I replied that I whole-heartedly agreed with all her points. However, I explained that tuition should not be seen as an easy way out.

Not doing well? Tuition!

Tuition is a privilege, not a given.

The given is that the child puts in her best effort to listen in class, finish all the requisite homework, approach the teacher for help if she doesn’t understand, and keep practicing.

And if after all these, she is still not performing, then, and only then, should tuition be considered.

Knowing her, #2 must have been either daydreaming, or was not motivated to put in enough effort for her Math. If she was able to score A* for Math in PSLE without any tuition, I am sure she is capable of achieving better results, and should not be allowed to be spoon-fed by tuition at this stage.

I also explained to C that there are sacrifices and priorities that go behind a decision to allow for tuition, especially in a big family like ours.

As the location is rather inconvenient, I have to send her, wait around for 2 hours, and pick her back. That means I will not be able to spend the time doing something more productive with Kate or the other kids, not to mention the stress of driving in peak hour traffic.

I quipped that since the tutor was so amazing, I’m sure #2 would be able to score an A if I signed her up 6 months prior to the O levels. They felt I was pushing it, but I recounted the story of how I went from an F9 to an A1 for my O level Math with 5 days of tuition. Yes, I had a pretty astounding tutor. Who happened to be my best friend’s mum. Who offered me the tuition free because she felt sorry for me.

Besides time and effort, there is also the financial consideration. Could the money spent be put to better use? #2 really wants to go to Canada to visit her good friend and I told her that if she achieves the goal I set for her, I would take her there.

I would much rather use the money for a nice trip together than spend it on tuition, as I want the children to learn that money is finite and the way we spend it should reflect our beliefs and priorities.

There was a pause on the other end. C was dumbfounded. It never occurred to her what went behind parents providing tuition for their children.

In secondary school, before throwing them the life-line of tutors, I encourage them to study with their classmates and help one another to revise, so that those strong in certain subjects can teach the others and vice versa.

Our home is always open to them, and they have learnt that cooperation is better and way more fun than competition. Besides, by teaching their peers, it helps to reinforce what they have learnt. It really is a win-win situation. The kids also learn that everyone is gifted differently and no one should feel inferior or superior to others.

Besides, I don’t want them to be reliant on tuition because when they enter polytechnic or university, no one is going to sit by their side and spoon feed them.

The big question remains: Is 1 year enough to chase up? Well, maybe not. But I have to draw the line somewhere.

If I was wiling to pump money, time and effort to send her all over the place for tuition from the time she was in Sec 1, I would definitely expect her to churn out the As. The expectations would escalate, and so would the stress.

It’s just unfortunate that even though we have a world class education, it is still not able to prepare the majority of our children adequately for the national exams without external help.

I have accepted that reality and factored it into my overall strategy.

I am not willing to let tuition run amok in our lives because it is all too easy to be sucked in to this whole ‘better not lose out’ mentality and be blinded to the opportunity cost and toil it will take on the children and our family.

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

School Stories #8: Paying tutors $250 an hour to do assignments?

This article came out in yesterday’s “The New Paper”. It reported that:

“Some parents are paying up to $250 an hour for a tutor to come over to their homes. It is not for tuition lessons. Instead, it is for the tutors to do their children’s homework. For these parents, it is something that cannot be helped, they say. Their children are inundated with so much tuition, co-curricular activities and school assignments that they are struggling to cope.”

The reporter who contacted such a tuition teacher goes on to say, “If the assignments are more complex and require research, he ups the price to between $500 and $750 an hour.”


Photo: The New Paper
I do agree with the parents that in some instances, the children have insufficient time to fit in tuition, CCAs, homework and projects and still get an adequate amount of sleep. This happened to #1 during her PSLE year. She had a copious amount of homework and even though she was an efficient worker, she ended up going to bed very late.

I told her it was important that she had proper rest and to leave her homework half completed. I wrote a note to her English teacher and explained my reasons for allowing her to do that, and that I would take responsibility for it. #1 got really stressed and told me that her teacher was very fierce and would scold the students until they cried. She refused to go to bed and in the end, I had to help her finish some of her homework.

I still remember what it was. She had to look through the dictionary and write out the meanings of the words. She picked that out for me to do because she said that her teacher does not mark it, but they had to show that it was done. Everyday they were given about 5 pages of that, on top of variables like comprehension, composition and grammar cloze. In addition, they were required to watch the News which they would be quizzed on the next day. And that was just for English.

I think for starters, what needs to be looked at are 3 simple areas to ease the homework crunch on our kids:

  1. Better coordination between subject teachers. (Some schools have a simple but excellent system whereby the daily homework is written on the board, so that all teachers for that class will be able to see how much homework has already been given out.)
  2. Students should learn to have better time management and to work more efficiently. (This is where I can see a huge variation between the kids. Some will whip out their homework between a change of lessons, and are able to do their homework very quickly. Other kids take a long time to eat their lunch, shower, and get easily distracted while doing their homework.)
  3. Something has to be done with our nation’s over-reliance on tuition. The time spent on travelling and attending extra tuition is significant, which leaves the child with insufficient time to complete school homework.

This article gives us much food for thought. Where do we draw the line between telling children that they have to finish their homework themselves, and assisting them when the amount of homework given is unrealistic? I know of many parents who get the older siblings to help out, or the parents themselves will do parts of their children’s projects.

What message are we sending our young about what is important? That only homework which would affect their academic grades are worth doing? In the article, a parent mentioned that she hired a tutor to complete superfluous assignments such as “a project on volunteerism where the students had to dissect the pros and cons of being a volunteer.”

PSLE results: Good or bad, what do you say?
6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child
My teen in a neighbourhood school
PSC Scholarship? Wow
What the PSLE is really aboutWho is behind MOE

PSLE results: A test of the parents more than the child

ECHA – The mother of all awards

School Stories:

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
#12 – DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 – Tuition – First line of attack?
#14 – Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 – First day mix up!
#16 – The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 – No more T-score. Now what?
#18 – Tackling the new school year
#19 – She did it, without tuition.
#20 – So who’s smarter?
#21 – Why I do not coach my kids anymore.


~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

School Stories #7: Who has an obsession with TUITION?

I love our current Education minister. His new road map is truly visionary. He says that:

“Parents would have to give up their obsession with grades; employers would have to hire based on skills, not degrees; and teachers should strive for an all-round development of their students.”

And how does he propose we do that?

“One is to go beyond learning for grades to learning for mastery of skills.”

“Second, develop a lifelong learning habit among Singaporeans so that they are equipped for changing economic realities.”

“The third is to move from learning for work to learning for life, so that a student develops interests beyond work and a commitment to serve society.”

I am excited to see what his ministry is going to roll out to make these a reality. He is indeed courageous to take on this path which “no other country has travelled”. I am firmly behind you, Mr Heng!!

One area they are looking to tackle is THE TUITION PROBLEM. Mr Png Eng Huat (MP for Hougang) asked for a survey to get to the bottom of Singaporeans’ obsession with tuition, joining at least three other MPs in warning about over-reliance on tuition.

Obsession with tuition?

Why does it sound like we parents have nothing else better to do with our money?

Besides a small percentage of ‘tiger mum’ parents who are giving their kids tuition even though they are already scoring all As and A*s, for most of us, it is borne out of necessity.

Here’s how my kids ended up having tuition.

For my eldest, I did not know much about the whole primary school scene when she entered Primary 1. The hubs and I chose the closest primary school to our home and left her in the good hands of the school (or so we thought). I did not give her tuition from P1 to P5 as I expected her teachers to prepare her sufficiently for the exams. The only tuition she tried out was 6 months at Berries, a group tuition centre for Chinese, when she was in P4. As I did not see any improvement in her grades, I withdrew her.

I had a shock of my life when she failed her Math and Science at the end of P5. How was she ready for PSLE?

I scrambled to ask around for recommendations and realised that everyone we knew gave their kids tuition. We had no choice but to pay through our noses for private tuition to help her plug the gaps.

In a mere 8 months, she managed to soar from failing grades to score 4 As with an aggregate of 240 for her PSLE.

For #2, she has always been a very consistent student probably because she’s a very obedient child. From the time she was in P1, I told her that she had to pay attention to her teachers and listen in class. And that was what she did. This traditional method of teaching also suits her learning style so she had no problems with school work.

Since she was not failing any subjects I held out giving her any tuition. It was only after her P6 mid-year exams where she scored mostly Bs that I decided she needed some extra help to tackle the papers. I gave her tuition for all subjects but on hindsight, 4 months was too short for her to get used to her tutors’ style of teaching to really have an impact on her grades. In the end, she scored 230, which I felt was below her potential.

For #3, she is a visual learner and a hands-on approach suits her better. It was no surprise that she always did badly academically even though it is obvious to all of us that she is extremely bright.
I made the decision to start her on English and Chinese tuition from P5 because she was very weak in both subjects. Thank goodness I found tutors who were creative and managed to make the lessons fun and engaging. I added on Math and Science tuition for her in P6 because she barely managed to pass the exams.

As they were all one-to-one lessons, she picked up very quickly because the tutors could accommodate to her learning style. In the end, she enjoyed her lessons very much and managed to score 229. With such an aggregate, she is now in a school which suits her very well and she loves school. They use different modalities to learn, such as group discussions, project work and lively debates in class. If I had not given her tuition at all, she would likely have ended up in normal academic or normal technical which is a wrong fit for her.

What do these examples show?

That if we leave our kids to the education system, it may not be able to do justice to their capabilities.

Now that I am more aware of the limitations of our education system, I am keeping a finger on the pulse to monitor their progress. And if they are not learning what they are supposed to be learning, I have to supplement it with tuition.

The tuition industry has ballooned into a billion dollar industry, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge what it does right.

Most tuition centres have class sizes with a maximum of 12 to 15 students. 40 in a class is just too big a class for effective learning. If only we could shrink our classes to 25 or 30 students.

Tutors are paid to teach. Not to run events, chaperon kids to competitions, deal with parents’ complains or attend endless meetings. Perhaps a teacher’s main job should be to teach as well.

Such a radical road map is what Singapore needs at this crossroads. I just hope that it will be rolled out with urgency. If a new minister gets rotated for this portfolio, who knows what vision he might hold?

I certainly hope things will be shaken up. Currently I have no choice but to give my kids tuition in their P6 (or perhaps even P5) year. And it looks like they might also need tuition in certain subjects in the Sec 4 year, such as in ‘A’ Maths, Chemistry, Physics or Chinese.

Let us all – parents, teachers and employers rally together and embrace this new vision to move the next generation towards a more meaningful education to face the future.

I can’t wait to save money by eliminating the need for tuition.

PSLE results: Good or bad, what do you say?
6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child
My teen in a neighbourhood school
PSC Scholarship? Wow
What the PSLE is really aboutWho is behind MOE

PSLE results: A test of the parents more than the child

ECHA – The mother of all awards

School Stories:

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
#12 – DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 – Tuition – First line of attack?
#14 – Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 – First day mix up!
#16 – The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 – No more T-score. Now what?
#18 – Tackling the new school year
#19 – She did it, without tuition.
#20 – So who’s smarter?
#21 – Why I do not coach my kids anymore.

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

Ed-Quest – Mandarin Enrichment Centre

Typical of many families these days, my kids are hardly exposed to Mandarin outside of their school classrooms. It is no surprise that they end up failing their Chinese year after year. I asked around and was recommended some of the big name enrichment chains. I signed the 3 older ones up for a year but found no improvement in their grades. Now my strategy is to give them one-on-one tuition during their P6 year and so far, the 2 older ones managed to get an ‘A’ with 1 year of chinese tuition.

When we were extended an invitation by Ed-Quest for #5 to attend a Mandarin Enrichment holiday program for a week, I was apprehensive to send him as he already dreads Mandarin lessons in school and I wanted him to have a good break and enjoy the June holidays. I glanced at the program and was surprised that it looked interesting and very hands-on. I finally decided to let him join as #3 and #4 were also going to be tied up with school for that week. In the end, I’m glad he went, as it was a fun way to expose him to the language and he found out that Mandarin doesn’t have to be dry and boring.

Having fun making lanterns
In his 1 week holiday program, they did lots of interesting activities like wrapping rice dumplings, cooking jiaozi, folding dragon boats, just to name a few. I like that they adopt the approach that Mandarin is not merely an academic subject but a language that is rich in history and cultural roots. As this week’s theme was on food, they explored the food items with their five senses, then created and tasted what they cooked. As their interest was piqued, they were more interested to learn the related descriptive words. The holiday program is catered to children between the ages of 5 and 8 years old. The older kids were exposed to more phrases and idioms, and they also wrote poems and short essays about their experiences thereafter.

Tea appreciation
#5 got his good buddy to join him for the holiday program, and when I picked them up, I asked Wu laoshi for feedback and if they behaved well. She said they enjoyed themselves and mentioned that #5 is a visual learner. I quipped, “He hardly understands Mandarin, so he watches to know what to do!” I probed on about his behaviour as his school teacher keeps telling me what a naughty boy he is in school. Wu laoshi mentioned that he is rather mischievous and always tries to push the boundaries. He would also make jokes constantly and tries to do things his own way. Spot on. She deciphered him in 1 lesson. I asked her if she was able to handle him and what methods she used because his school teacher was at her wit’s end.

She shared with me that she did not scold him but was very firm with him and patiently explained why his actions are wrong. Perhaps he can tell from her tone that she is not merely nagging him, but was genuinely concerned about him. She also explained to me that I have to break this behaviour if not he thinks that it is acceptable to play up in every class. Needless to say, I was extremely impressed with Wu laoshi. I relayed my feedback to the management and they told me that they believe in hiring very experienced and competent teachers.

Making jiaozi

I was surprised that #5 actually looked forward to going for the classes and Wu laoshi told me that he started behaving really well and even helped the younger boys. One of the days, they were taught how to make jiaozi (meat dumpling) and she noticed that #5 was fumbling and was probably on the verge of rebelling or giving up. She explained to him why the edges should be tucked and sealed and he went on to improvise and made a whole dozen! I’m glad laoshi didn’t insist on him making it that one and only way and she allowed him leeway for his creativity.

His UFO-looking jiaozi

Ed-Quest has been around for more than a decade, and with Mrs Patricia Koh (founder of the first Pat’s Schoolhouse) as Education Director, they firmly believe in bringing the language alive and making it relevant to the children. My sentiments exactly. If only our schools can adopt this approach, along with having smaller classes, many of our kids won’t be struggling with the language.

The fees for their holiday program are at $250 for 1 week, 9am – 12noon. It runs through to July to cater to the international students as well. Do contact them at 6356 8186 for more details. In addition, they have regular classes for both children and adults.

Sane tip: I’m glad #5 had a very positive first Mandarin enrichment exposure. I’m now all for exposing them to Mandarin in fun and interesting ways. If they can slowly build up their vocabulary and listen to the language spoken more, it wouldn’t be so tough on them during the PSLE year. Ok, here’s my new strategy: Let them join fun Mandarin lessons during the school holidays (I get to have a break too!), listen to some Mandarin CDs, and give them private tuition during P6.

Save tip: I believe in giving my kids quality extra academic classes. No point wasting the child’s time and my time sending them and put them in any enrichment classes from P1 just to make myself feel secured that I’m doing something extra. I always follow up on their progress and ascertain if there is any improvement in grades. If there isn’t, I will stop after 3-4 months because I believe that if the child finds the right fit of the teacher and the method, we will definitely see an improvement in their grades or at least in their interest in learning that subject.


177A Thomson Road
Goldhill Shopping Centre
Singapore 307625

Tel: 63568186

Disclaimer: We were sponsored this holiday program. All opinions are my own.

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

6 things to do in the PSLE year

#3 is taking her PSLE this year. Her grades have a lot of room for improvement,  as she scored mostly Cs. However, we are all very excited as she has proven (for English) that with the right teacher or tutor, she is able to jump from a C to an A. So this is our game plan to tackle her PSLE.

1) Set a Goal

The first step is for her to have a goal which she sets herself, not mummy. This will ensure that she wants to achieve it as it means something to her. Her goal is to be able to get into #2’s secondary school, and she will have to work very hard to achieve the necessary grades for admission.

Another one doing her PSLE

2) Engage a tutor if necessary

We have started her on English and Chinese tuition since the middle of P5 as these are her 2 weakest subjects (every year, she barely manages to scrape a pass for both). For Science, she has a teacher who is new to this school, but she has a track record of getting 34 of her students to achieve A* for Science last year! After hearing from #3 how strict she is, I like the sound of this teacher, and I think #3 is in good hands. However, I will still monitor her progress and hire a tutor if need be. #1 has decided to tutor her for Math, so we’ll see how that goes. She may need a tutor down the road if #1 gets too busy with her own ‘O’ level revisions.

3) Early bedtime

We’ll try to stick to a 8.30pm bedtime on weekdays unless there’s way too much homework to be completed that day. Might not be feasible though. Today, she came home with a ton of homework, and it’s just the 1st week of school! For English, she has to read 10 compositions, complete 1 composition by the weekend, learn her spelling list of 106 words, and do some grammar worksheets. She also has Science and Chinese homework. I believe sufficient sleep is vital for her to be alert to learn well in school the next day. I guess she has to learn to work smart and work fast!

4) Destress & decompress 

During the P6 year, the students are pushed to work very hard in school and are swarmed with homework. She will need time to de-stress everyday and I think for her, that is best done by playing with Kate!

5) Family activities

This year, we will still carry on with our family activities as per normal even with 2 kids taking major exams. I have heard of families where the kids in their PSLE year are not allowed to go out once the Chinese new year festivities are over. Well, I think the kids do need a break and even I would go crazy being kept at home for a year! Besides, the message I want to get across to them is that yes, academic achievement is very important, but not at the expense of family life. We’ll just have to strive to achieve some sort of balance.

6) Communicate, communicate, communicate. 

I will take every opportunity to communicate with her teachers. We need to have a balance between school and home. 2 years ago, when #2 was taking her PSLE, she hardly had any homework at all. Finally, when I spoke to her teacher, I realised that they didn’t want to stress the students further as the parents were already going overboard with tuition and home assessments, and the teachers were afraid that the students would break under the tremendous pressure. There was a boy in her class who scored 100 for every Math exam. He revealed to the class that his mum makes him do 6 hours of Math work everyday! For us, we were relying only on school as #2 did not have any tuition at all, so in the end her teacher gave her some individual homework. 

I will also be communicating with her tutors constantly to see if their approach is working and if we are seeing improvement. And I have to be the bridge between her school teachers and her tutors so they would know how to supplement the knowledge needed. 

And finally, I have to communicate with #3 even more frequently to know what is going on in school, if she is feeling the stress, and if there are any other issues bothering her. If I take all these little steps, the PSLE year can actually be quite an adventure where she will learn how to work hard, but where the journey will still be enjoyable. 

Sane tip: I noticed how a lot of parents go into overdrive in the P6 year. All the kids do is to go for tuition, do endless assessment books, and they are not allowed to play. This makes the kids detest exams which is not how I want them to feel about education. So after having 2 kids go through the PSLE, I have come up with this simple strategy which hopefully will bear much fruit! 

Save tip: I have heard of many tuition teachers who can ‘guarantee’ good results, and their fees are exorbitant. Their methods are through drilling and I’m glad I don’t feel the need to sign my kids up for one of those as I believe learning is for the acquisition of knowledge, not just to pass a bunch of exams. 

For what I expect out of a good tutor, click here.

~  mummy wee – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore  ~

Another award for #3

I was indeed surprised to find yet another award for #3 in the mail!

This time, it is a Good Progress Award. All the years, she has always been at the tail end of her class, but this semester, thanks to her English and Chinese tutors who tailored the lessons to her learning style, she became interested in her school work and started to pay more attention in class as well. 

But what made me most happy was that during the exam period, #4 asked if I could sit with her to supervise her revision like all her friends’ mummies did. Before I could open my mouth, #3 told her: “Don’t you know what mummy is trying to teach us? To be independent and self-motivated so that even when she is not with us, we will know what to do. If you need to rely on mummy being next to you, then next time how?” Wow. I was more proud of her for having managed to internalise what I have taught them than her improved grades per se. Ah, this time, I deserve to give myself a little pat on the back 😉

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

Who had 2nd position in class?

Yesterday was a very happy day for our family. The hubs and I attended the awards ceremony in #3’s school as she managed to attain the 2nd position in her class! That came as a surprise to us as she didn’t study any harder than she normally did and played just as much as she always did.

Besides, I have always thought that #3 is not suitable for our education system as she has a different learning style and learning by rote is very difficult for her. School has always been a bore to her and her results reflect her interest. 
I was even more excited than her

So how did she achieve such a vast improvement in 3 short months?

After her dismal P5 mid-year exam results (failed almost everything),  I decided that instead of the normal pattern whereby I get them tuition only in the P6 year, I realised that as she didn’t have a good foundation from young (hardly read books, never had good teachers) she needed to start tuition immediately for her 2 weakest subjects. So I hired an English tutor and a Chinese tutor for her. My instruction to them was that they have to make lessons fun to engage her as she can’t sit still and finds the traditional way of learning very boring.

So what her tutors did was to figure out her interests and use those topics to teach her so that it didn’t feel like she was doing work. Her English tutor realised that she loved colours so she allowed her to decorate her pages and use her markers and highlighters to do her work. On days when she was tired, she didn’t insist that she do written work. Instead, they just talked the questions out. Basically, both her tutors took the time to understand her learning style and they tailored the lessons to fit her. There was always laughter in the room, and even #1 said, “Wah, not bad huh, her tuition always like playing, yet she improved so much.”

But I was still puzzled as to how she achieved such great improvements especially in her English as tuition was only once a week for an hour. At the awards ceremony, I took the opportunity to speak to her English teacher, Mdm Ling. She believes that it had to do with the drama sessions they had in term 3. Their class had the good fortune of being picked as one of the classes where Dr Magit from MOE was running some sort of research on how drama could help the students. Mdm Ling said that #3 loved the drama classes so much that she was fully involved in it. Besides acting, the kids had to write out the storyline and obviously a lot of speaking was also involved. She feels that all these helped to increase her interest in the English language, with a resultant improvement in her English grades. Mdm Ling also mentioned that the majority of students in her class improved on their English grades. 

I can finally see what I have believed in all along. In my previous post on our education system on our education system, I bemoaned the fact that our education system is a one size fits all method, which does not suit every child as different children have different learning styles. When the delivery is suited to the child, the child can easily pick up the same material which she previously couldn’t. I hope Dr Magit’s research bear much fruit and not only will drama be introduced to our schools as part of the English curriculum (especially for those children who need a different teaching modality) but other modalities will also be studied to see what works for our children.

There was also another very interesting fact which I unearthed anecdotally. As yesterday was the last day of school, #3 invited her friends over. Coincidentally, her other friend Nat also had the drama research conducted in her class. Now, #3 has always been in the lower band of classes while Nat has always been in the top band of classes. As I was discussing this topic with them, I could still see the excitement in #3’s eyes as she related the drama lessons to us and how it was soooo fun! On the other hand, Nat said that it was “ok only”. #3 immediately responded “ya you all in the smart classes enjoy studying so much, all these things not fun for you”. Then I recalled that Mdm Ling did say that she never had so much fun teaching English in all her years as the kids in #3’s class really let loose and they all had a great time. It is precisely these kids who find it difficult to learn via the traditional boring way who need a more hands-on approach.

#3’s flowers having pride of place on our dining table

Her English tutor came to her awards ceremony to personally deliver this bouquet of flowers to #3. It was indeed a lovely surprise for her. But what was most heartwarming was when #3 told her little brother, “I got 2nd in class you know” and he gave her a big hug and said “Wah! I’m soooo proud of you.” How I wish everyday was like this 😉

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

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 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”.

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~