Singapore local schools vs international schools: The pros and cons from one family

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If you’re an expat parent in Singapore, entering the local school vs international school debate is inevitable. “Where do your kids go to school?” Is usually one of the top three questions asked here. “What does your husband do for a living?” and “How much is your rent?” are usually the other two. The ones we all hear daily. What people generally don’t expect is my response when I reveal that I have two children in the local system (N2 and P3) and one in international (Year 10). “Oh.” Slight pause while that information processes.  Standard reaction: “Really? Why? Is that fair?” Here’s why it works best for us, the pros and cons and the truth about how hard it is to apply for a school in Singapore

Choose the system that’s best for your child
For us there isn’t a simple answer. You see, back when we arrived in Singapore in 2008, it was on an all-singing, all-dancing expat package. Remember those? Does the expat package really exist anymore? We didn’t think about sending our son to anywhere other than the nearest international school, which happened to be EtonHouse International School on Broadrick Road. (If you’re going through the process of picking the perfect international school for your child, then save yourself a whole lot of homework and check out HoneyKids’ original online school comparison tool, School Selector – it will be your new best friend during this process!)

Sadly for us, the package lasted a mere 10 months before The Husband was rather inconveniently made redundant… his company had forgotten to mention when we accepted their offer to move across the globe that they were thinking of selling the part of the business he was working for. We had to look, really look, at our expenditures. Which were hideously huge.

Thankfully The Husband got a new job quite quickly, albeit on a local package. So financially we were alone. At that point our eldest was the only one in school and we decided to keep him where he was. It was also around the same time that we had him tested for some learning difficulties. And when the results were in and did indeed confirm our suspicions, the obvious choice was to keep him in the school that he loved and in the school that, handily, offered Learning Support. We decided, having heard all the horror stories of how rigid and scary the local system was, that he was best left in an international school. (If you’re looking for support for your child with special needs, have a look at this guide to preschools, schools and courses for kids with learning differences; or, if you have a little one, inclusive and early intervention preschools in Singapore.)

internatTracy's kids Angelica, Jack and Rafferty are enrolled in both international and local schools.

Tracy’s kids Angelica, Jack and Rafferty are enrolled in both international and local schools.


Different kids; different systems
Fast forward a few years to his sister turning three. Initially we put her in an international school too, in the pre-school class. It was okay. But it just wasn’t worth the money – she couldn’t have cared less if we were paying for her to eat the Play-Doh there or not. So with a bit of investigating, and a rather large stroke of luck, we managed to secure her a spot at one of the most popular local kindergartens, St Hilda’s Kindergarten in Katong. She was happy. Really happy. And we were too. The teachers were far from the draconian people we were led to believe local teachers were. They handed out hugs and happiness in abundance. And it cost us a whole lot less to let her eat their Play-Doh! She was there until she was six years old and really had an amazing backbone for education gifted to her. She appeared to have none of the learning issues that her big brother had had at her age, and her happiness and love of learning meant that continuing her in the local system was the logical step.

But can expats even get into a local school?
Fast forward to 2017, and the MOE has announced that it’s merging 14 local schools “to address the significant continued fall in cohort sizes.” Surely there are many foreign families fighting for a place in the Singapore School system who would have gladly joined these school communities?

I won’t lie to you… Getting a place for a P1 child on a DP was not easy. It required many months of worry, stress and the odd fight. But the gods were on our side and she was indeed allocated a place at a local school, Angsana Primary School, near our home. She has now been there for four years and is doing really rather well. Yes there are more rules and restrictions put on the children there than in the international system, but it is no where near the tough environment that we hear rumour of. Local schools are changing the way they teach and with that they are encompassing a more holistic approach along with their strong academic values.

Equally, her very different brother, has continued to flourish despite his ‘labels’ and the international system is exactly the system that benefits him and the way he learns.  Academia is still important but the approach is generally less black and white.

Two very different children in two very different systems. Both are happy and neither really have any concept that we pay a large amount more for one than the other… To them they simply ‘go to school’.

The pros and cons – and the guilt factor (don’t go there)
Do we feel guilty that we pay vastly different amounts towards the education of our children? Well, actually, no.

Our daughter receives a world-class education for not a lot of $$. However, she does not feel hard done by. She is proud of how well she is doing and happy in an environment that suits her perfectly. Amongst the benefits for her are the fact that as she is educated amongst mostly Singaporeans, which means she does not have the turnover of friends that my son has been subjected to over the years. Her long-term friendships and the standard of education she has cannot have a monetary value attached to them. She is happy and therefore so are we.

Our son receives an international education that offers him the Learning Support that he needs, and the more holistic view to education as a whole. He does not have the ridiculous early start nor the constant pressure of exams and tests. He learns a wide range of subjects but at an easier pace. This suits him perfectly. He is happy and therefore so are we.

Our third child started kindy last year… at the moment he is following the path of his sister and is in the same kindergarten that she attended. It remains to be seen what sort of attitude and dexterity to education and learning he will have. When he gets to six years old we will have a clear idea by then which system to put him in. We hope to get it right like we did with the other two. And once again we will be led by what we feel is the best fit rather than what might seem ‘fair’ to outsiders on the differing costs.

Local school students and international school students race for the same goals. Photography: courtesy of Chatswood International School.

Local school students and international school students race for the same goals. Photography: courtesy of Chatswood International School.

 

NEED-TO-KNOW DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE SYSTEMS
Comparing the two types of systems can be a minefield, so check out the HoneyKids School Selector – Singapore’s original online school comparison tool to save you a ton of research on fees, school hours, holiday timetables, curriculums and parent reviews on the international school of your choice.

Below is a quick guide to what you need to consider for the two systems, but full details for individual local schools can be found on the Ministry of Education website. Where applicable, you will see the direct comparisons that can be made between the local and international systems.

The hours (or, are you a morning person?)
The early start for the local system is not for the faint-hearted. But the earlier finish makes for a fun afternoon together. Each school differs very slightly but most start between 7am and 7.30am. International schools tend to have longer school days, but with more frequent and lengthier breaks.

  • Local school hours: 7.20am to 1.40pm with 30 minute recess.
  • International school hours (Chatsworth): 9am to 3.30pm with 60 minute recess plus snack break.

School holidays
This one can prove tough if you have kids in the different systems… the two calendars rarely marry up and it does mean that I have at least one child milling about at home during the summer from the end of May through to mid August!

The local school calendar is available on the MOE website. These are fixed dates that all schools in the local system will follow.

International school calendars vary vastly across the board, so check term times at the individual school’s website.

Costs and fees

Local: The biggest difference between the two systems is not the quality of education, but the wallet-busting factor. Local primary school fees start at just $6 a month for citizens and can go up to as much as $613 per month for those with foreign status. Do note though that for the first two school years your child will pay the PR rate, which is currently $160 per month. These costs do vary slightly between schools, so once you have a place offered then your school will confirm the rates directly, and are usually revised each year. Fees are paid monthly via Giro.

  • Local secondary school fees are higher than primary fees. These range from around $13 to $800 per month depending on your status.
  • Learning Support = free for all students at all levels.

International: The fees can vary greatly at international schools: for your child’s first year, it ranges from $13k to $47k and can include application fees and one-off registration fees alongside annual tuition and building and facilities fees. Check out this chart at HoneyKids’ school comparison tool, School Selector, for an overview on the cost of a child’s first year at several top international schools. Generally, fees are paid in two installments at most international schools.  There is usually a registration fee and a confirmation fee to be paid when you enrol with your chosen school.  All international schools have their own fee structures, but I have used the international school that my son attends (Chatsworth International School Orchard) as an example of a mid-level fee scale you can expect to pay.

  • K1 – K2 Students = $22,293.56 per year
  • Yr 1 – Yr 6 Students = $25,910.33 per year

Secondary International School Fees

  • Yr 7 – Yr 9 Students = $26,484.92 per year
  • Yr 10 – Yr 11 Students = $27,656.73 per year
  • Yr 12 – Yr 13 Students = $29,807.40 per year
  • Learning Support = $2855.00 per year
  • Registration fees of $214.00 and a confirmation fee of $2140.00 are also applicable when you join this school.


Curriculum

Local schools: No matter which local school your child attends in Singapore, all schools in this system follow the same curriculum as outlined in the MOE website.

International schools:
The curriculum will change based on the school you choose. Confused about the different systems on offer? This guide to the international school curriculums explains the essentials. Many international schools follow the British, the IB and/or PYP/MYP systems. Check out this handy guide to schools offering different systems to learn more.

 

International and local school students in friendly competition at Chatsworth International School.

Getting your child into either system has its own challenges. Photography: courtesy of Chatsworth International School.

Admissions
Once you have made your decision between the two systems you will face the next hurdle: admissions. The local system has a very strict procedure to follow, which applies across the board. Admissions are handled entirely by MOE and for international students trying to get a placement from years P2 upwards, they will need to sit an assessment exam (AEIS) before admission will be considered. Do have a look at the admissions policies for students set by the Ministry of Education. For those students who have one parent who is a Singaporean Citizen, the procedure will be different and you are advised to contact MOE directly at contact@moe.gov.sg.

Local schools:
For parents who wish to enrol their child for P1 in a local school, this will be undertaken in a number of phases during the year. Your phase to apply directly at the school of your choice will depend on your status here in Singapore. To find out which phase your child would qualify for, you should take a look at this guide to local school admission phases. If your child is unsuccessful in gaining a place during any of these phases, then appeal is, sadly, no longer an option.

International schools:
For parents wishing to enrol their children into the international schools, again each school has a different procedure. Most schools have waiting lists and each school has its own policies with regards to admissions. In your first instance you are best to get in touch with the schools you are keen on to arrange a tour, and then speak with their designated Admissions Officer once you have decided where to apply. Singaporean citizens are not allowed to attend international schools unless they have special dispensation given to them by MOE. To do so, you would need to approach MOE directly to state your case.

The verdict
Only you can decide which system suits your child the best. There is no right or wrong answer and it is down to each individual child. And there’s another consideration worth mentioning: do you want to immerse your children in Singaporean culture while they are here? Or do you want to prepare them for a return to your home country, with an international education within an international learning structure?

No matter which system you choose, they all learn to read. They all learn to write. They all learn maths. The price tags are different. The school hours are different.  The cultural diversity is different. But the kids all end up looking exactly the same on Graduation Day. A hat, a robe, a certificate and a happy smile.
Like this story? Here’s more we think you’ll enjoy:
What it really costs to get your kids into international school in Singapore
International Schools in Singapore by neighbourhood
School curriculums decoded
The rise of affordable international schools in Singapore