Personally, I think a more apt slogan should be “Every school is unique.”
It is precisely because children are unique, with different aptitudes, learning styles and interests that we need different schools to suit them.
Every child is different and I’m glad we don’t have a system where they stay in the same school right through to 16 because the learning differences are already quite stark at 12 or 13 and most schools don’t have the resources to cater to this full range of abilities.
My 5 older children went to 4 different secondary schools collectively and their experiences have been quite different.
Basically, different schools have different values, different CCAs, slightly different modes of learning, different niche programmes, different options for streaming (very important) and different opportunities for overseas trips. Read more in 6 tips to choose a secondary school.
Besides these differences, there are other factors to consider in choosing a suitable school for your child.
Big fish in a small pond?
Amongst my 6 children, one is academically inclined and her intelligence suits our education system. Whether she sits in a class of 40 or in a lecture theatre of 200, she has no problems grasping concepts quickly. It doesn’t matter which teacher she gets as she is able to read between the lines and figure things out on her own even if she gets an inexperienced teacher for a particular subject. If she doesn’t understand what her teacher has just taught, she will approach a classmate whom she can relate better to or she reads up on the notes.
For kids who score well academically, your consideration would be whether to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. By being a big fish in a small pond, the opportunities would be more as there are fewer of the same calibre fighting for the leadership positions and various openings and you are more likely to be able to build a good portfolio.
If you choose an elite school, being in an environment with peers of a similar high ability, there is a rich platform for discussion and healthy competition. Although I have heard from counsellors that the stress levels have become quite unhealthy, with rising depression, anxiety and even suicide cases.
Parents have to be ever vigilant during this period of time from secondary school to JC where our teenagers are facing a lot of pressure.
Another aspect of choosing an elite school is whether a child can fit in socially. A friend was sharing how her 2 boys had very different experiences going to an elite school. One settled in very well, but the other had certain issues which cropped up. Her son said that group meetings were held at Starbucks or at cafes which went over his weekly budget. Some kids may feel inferior that their family is “not wealthy enough” for them to blend in or afford the expensive CCAs or overseas experiences.
I have another child who learns experientially. She is a bright child but doesn’t like rote learning. Pages of black and white notes bore her and she has to touch things to discover it for herself. She has a quick mind and asks never-ending questions as that is how she gets to the bottom of things.
She went to a “mid-range” secondary school and that suited her really well. Her teachers explained that because the students find it hard to learn the traditional way of listening to a teacher lecture at the front, they have come up with more creative approaches to present lessons. There was even a teacher who was so understanding and open that she encouraged them to make up songs about her chemistry concepts and to sing them in class.
Her school was big on students’ welfare and every week, the teachers would take a walk with their students one by one, and they could chat about any topic under the sun. The teenage years are tumultuous to say the least, and a supportive adult with a listening ear serves as an anchor for some of these kids who are struggling with life, family issues or school pressures.
Neighbourhood schools have their plus points
I have another child who is not academically inclined, but has great artistic talent. She struggles with school work and finds it hard to understand concepts and only certain teachers are able to break down and explain things in such a way that she is able to grasp. The slower pace in her secondary school is helpful, and I notice that her teachers are extremely caring and concerned about her grades.
After spending 3 years in a neighbourhood school, I have found 4 advantages:
1. With the proximity, she can wake up at 6.40am as compared to her siblings who had to wake up an hour earlier. It gets harder and harder for teens to go to bed early and the extra hour really helps! She’s also the only one lucky enough to have daddy sending her to school everyday as her school is close by.
2. It has been an eye-opener as she is exposed to friends from different backgrounds and family circumstances and she has become a more appreciative and considerate child. I’ve shared her experiences in My teen in a neighbourhood school.
3. At the end of Sec 2, she was amongst the top in her level and that meant that all the different subject combinations were open to her. In contrast, #1 who was at the bottom of a higher COP school was caught in a situation at Sec 2 streaming where she was unable to get the combination for subjects she was strong in, which affected her O level grades.
4. Teachers take it on themselves to teach well because they are aware that not all students are able to afford tuition.
Do some research about the schools around your neighbourhood before making your selection. Some schools have exciting niche programmes such as aerospace, robotics or social entrepreneurship. I asked my teacher friends for their input, spoke to neighbours and attended Open Houses before making a decision together with my child.
One BIG CHANGE that is happening from 2020 is SUBJECT BASED BANDING (SBB).
This is GREAT NEWS for children like my son. Some kids have very narrowly defined strengths, which isn’t a bad thing at all, and they shouldn’t be penalised in those subjects they can excel at. In fact, it is easier to plan a pathway for him, than another child with average grades but no clear indication of strengths and interests.
His strengths have been clear from the time he was in preschool. A creative child with interesting ideas, his teachers used to marvel at how his creations were always symmetrical in shape and colour and he had the most complex and unique designs amongst his peers.
If our education system was radically changed to one of innovation and invention with a more hands on mode of learning, this child would shine!
After a year in secondary school, his favourite subject is Design & Technology, Art and Science. He has this to say about Literature: “Strange how it is English, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me.” He isn’t excited about Geography nor History, and Chinese is still a perennial struggle.
What SBB aims to do is to RECOGNISE their STRENGTHS in INDIVIDUAL SUBJECTS and to GIVE them A SECOND CHANCE.
Subject based banding (SBB) was first introduced in 12 secondary schools in 2014, but only limited to English, Mother Tongue, Math and Science. If a child was in Normal (academic) but is strong in say Mother Tongue or Math, they can take those subjects together with their peers in the Express stream.
Next year, in 2020, FULL SBB will be piloted in 28 secondary schools, and in 2022, it will be implemented in all schools. If your child is streamed into Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical), he might want to select one of these 28 schools as he would have a chance to take subjects at the Express level, not only for the 4 core subjects, but humanities as well, if he has the ability.
These are the 28 secondary schools piloting full SBB from 2020:
1. Ang Mo Kio
2. Assumption English
3. Bedok Green
5. Clementi Town
9. Gan Eng Seng
12. Jurong West
15. Paya Lebar Methodist Girls’ School
16. Pei Hwa
17. Ping Yi
20. St. Andrew’s
21. St. Anthony’s Canossian
22. St. Patrick’s
23. Swiss Cottage
25. West Spring
I am really heartened to see that schools have taken it upon themselves to innovate and create an appropriate environment to cater to the students that they receive.
With the different perspectives that I have shared, don’t be afraid to ask questions when you visit the Open House so that you can get a better overall picture of the school.
All the best in your hunt for the most suitable school for your child!
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#7 – Who has an obsession with tuition?
#8 – Paying tutors $250 an hour to do assignments?
#9 – I didn’t even know my child was being bullied, until…
#10 – How I got my son to do his homework without nagging
#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
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#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.
#29 – Our education system is starting to get exciting!
Michelle Choy is an Occupational Therapist by day and mum of 6 by night. Besides the already very demanding job of managing 5 teenagers and one 7-turning-17 tween, she is also Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in areas like resilience and executive function, to survive today’s volatile world. She is also a parenting coach and has been featured on national TV, radio and print media.