Are international school fees in Singapore keeping you awake at night? Are you considering the local system? Wondering what the differences are between the two options? Tracy Tristram had her children split between the two school systems. Here's why…
If you’re an expat parent in Singapore, entering the international or local school in Singapore debate is inevitable. “Where do your kids go to school?” is usually one of the top three questions asked here. What people generally don’t expect is my response when I reveal I have two children in the local Singapore school system (K2 and P5) and one in international (Year 11). “Oh.” Slight pause while that information processes. Standard reaction: “Really? Why?” Here’s why it works best for us, along with the pros, cons and issues with how hard it can be 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? We sent our son to the nearest international school. (By the way, if you’re trying to find the perfect international school for your child, check out our online school comparison tool, School Selector. It’ll be your new best friend during this process.)
Sadly for us, the package lasted a mere 10 months before The Husband was made redundant. 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 when it came to our kids’ education. 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. When the results confirmed our suspicions, the obvious choice was to keep him in the school he loved and that offered Learning Support. We decided he was best left in an international school. (If you’re looking for support, see this guide to preschools, schools and courses for kids with learning differences.)
Different kids, different systems
Fast forward a few years to Angelica turning three. Initially, we put her in an international school, in the pre-school class. It was okay. But it just wasn’t worth the money. She was oblivious to how much we were paying for her to do colouring sheets. With a rather large stroke of luck, we managed to secure her a spot at one of the most popular local kindergartens in Singapore, St Hilda’s Kindergarten. She was happy. Really happy. And we were too. The staff handed out hugs and happiness in abundance, and it cost us a whole lot less for her to do colouring sheets. She was there until she was six and had an amazing backbone for education gifted to her. Her happiness and love of learning meant that keeping her in the local MOE school system was the logical step.
But can expats even get into a local school?
I love that my locally-educated kids are exposed completely to Singaporean culture by being part of the local system. It’s such a huge benefit for long-term residents like ourselves. But getting a spot for a foreign child continues to be really, really difficult.
Angelica is in Primary 5 now and has flourished at her local MOE school. I am so proud of her and continue to be impressed with what a lovely community she is part of. Getting her a spot was hard, and there were many months of worry and stress along the way. Luck was on our side and it was a happy day indeed when she was given a place at a local school near to our home. Yes, there are more rules and restrictions in the locally-educated Singapore school system, but I try and keep the balance of school and after-school clubs right for her. The school itself also works hard at encompassing a more holistic approach, while still keeping its strong academic values. Her favourite school activity? Scouts!
Unique kids, unique choices
Equally, her very different brother has continued to flourish despite his ‘labels’. The international school 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. Where’s next for him? We’re looking at lots of options, including a vocational course at a local college or A-Levels. We think the IB course for years 12 and 13 at his current international school isn’t suited to how he learns.
In a nutshell, so far, so good! Two very different children in two very different systems. Both are happy and neither cares 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 (sigh)
In the international or local school debate, do we feel guilty that we pay vastly different amounts for our children? Well, actually, no.
Our daughter receives world-class education in the Singapore school system, with an affordable price tag. 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. The benefits for her include the fact that 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 had 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 he needs and a more holistic view of education as a whole. There’s no ridiculous early start or 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.
But what about our third child?
Rafferty is in his final year at the same kindergarten that his sister went to. He is as bright as a button and has thrived academically and socially. Next up? We have to decide what path to set him on for the next stage of his academic journey. And we would LOVE for him to snag a spot at the same school as his sister.
He has a great attitude to learning, and we believe that a local MOE school will absolutely be the perfect fit for him. We just have to keep our fingers very much crossed and hope for the best – so we’re thrashing out a backup plan!
We would love for him to end up with the ‘right fit’ and not what others deem to be the ‘fair fit’. He was born here in Singapore, it’s ‘home’ and he very much wants to continue to be a part of the local Singapore school system… And annoy his big sister in the playground!
Need-to-know differences between the two 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 international or local school systems.
No matter which local school your child attends, all Singapore schools in this system follow the same curriculum as outlined on the MOE website.
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.
Once you have made your decision between the two systems you will face the next hurdle: admissions. The local MOE school 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 [email protected].
Local schools admissions
For parents who wish to enrol their child for P1 in a local MOE school, this will be undertaken in a number of phases during the year. Your phase to apply directly to 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. Do note you need to register your intent during June each year to be considered during the enrolment phase later in the year.
International schools admissions
For parents wishing to enrol their children into international schools, each school has a different procedure. Most schools have waiting lists and each school has its own policies. 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 a special dispensation given to them by MOE. To do so, you would need to approach MOE directly to state your case.
Only you can decide whether an international or local school suits your child the best. There’s no right or wrong answer – it’s 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?
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.
UPDATE: Here’s where they are now!
Spoiler: Tracy is still confident that she and her hubby made the right choice for each of their very different kids! Here’s where Jack, Angelica and Rafferty are at now, and how the different systems have worked out for them…
The early years – international school
Jack spent years 1-6 in EtonHouse International School Broadrick, which is where we initially picked up on the fact that he needed assessing for some learning difficulties he was having. He was eight years old when the assessments were completed, and we found out his struggles in the classroom were due to dyslexia. Having a reason for his learning battles was the making of Jack in terms of both confidence and achievements. We decided to not pursue a local school education for him, and he had support both in school and externally to help him get up to speed. The difference was like night and day once we all knew what we were dealing with.
Sadly, at that time, EtonHouse did not have a secondary programme, so we had to find a new school for him for his high school years. Was that easy? Nope, not at all. Band words like ‘dyslexia’ around and many doors were shut, which was disappointing since he was coping so admirably by this point. A friend put Chatsworth International School on our radar, and it ticked all the boxes for the smaller, more boutique-style school we were looking for: plus it had a learning support programme.
The secondary school years – international school
Jack was enrolled at Chatsworth from years 7-11, and he completed his MYP and the assessments that went with it. Despite the roadblocks and tears (a lot of which were mine), he passed all of his subjects: not only are we off-the-scale proud of him, but he is proud of himself, which is the best part of all.
Thanks to his learning support programme (Mr D: you’re awesome!) and his sheer determination, he got to graduate and finally say goodbye to his nemeses: maths and science. But what was next on the cards for him? If we were in our home country – the UK – it would have been A-Levels, which would have suited him well. He could have picked his three strong subjects and concentrated on them. Alas, aside from one international school in Singapore (which we could neither afford nor hope to get a place in), it’s pretty much IB all the way once a child hits Year 12 here in the international system. This was NOT a path suitable for Jack, so for a good few months I hit the internet for info, trawled my mum-group Facebook pages and did all the research I possibly could into ‘what next?’. It was actually a mum on a Facebook page that suggested the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). Thank you so much, to that mum!
The college years – not-for-profit private college
Jack began his Foundation Psychology Diploma at MDIS, a seven-month course. He can move on to do the full diploma once he has completed this, which will be an 18-month course. There is a mix of expat and local students ranging from age 16 years through to early 20s in his class, and he is loving the freedom that a college timetable affords him. (Especially when he has late lessons and doesn’t have to get out of bed!).
He has plans, eventually, to return to the UK and become a police officer, so this is a good fit as a further education option for him right now. MDIS has affiliations with UK universities, so this also works in his favour if he decides to continue to do a degree. I can’t deny it: I feel hugely happy that this has all worked out for him after all those months of worry. I feel like he is on the right path for sure.
So Jack’s ‘international schooling’ has come to an end, and looking back it was 100% the right kind of schooling for him during his primary and secondary years, and college seems to be working out too. The kid did good.
The early years – local kindy and local school
Angelica attended St Hilda’s Kindergarten from N2-K2, which gave her an amazing foundation for her future learning. Yes, we had a bit of a bunfight on our hands to get her a spot in a local school when the time came, but she did end up with a place at a lovely school close to our home.
She started at Angsana Primary School for Primary One… and now she’s gone into Primary Six! This feels insane, to be honest. It’s flashed by so ridiculously quickly, and this year was the year of the dreaded PSLE…
I’ve always been puzzled by the draconian reputation local school has amongst a lot of the expats. Yes, there is homework and what feels like quite accelerated learning compared to the learning pace Jack had in an international school, but there’s also been learning support, fun after school clubs (Angelica is currently a Scout) and amazing overseas trips (she went to Xi An to see the Terracotta Army!).
I firmly believe that the bad rap the local system gets is not actually because schools are exerting too much pressure, but because some parents adopt the ‘tiger parent’ model when it comes to education. The ‘Life Beyond Grades‘ initiative, created by parents who recognise that primary school does NOT define a child, is definitely an initiative I absolutely agree with. For what it’s worth, Angelica’s ‘Discipline Master’ is one of the nicest teachers I’ve ever met: the school has the right balance when it comes to what is acceptable behaviour and what is not, and likewise, it has high expectations of students when it comes to learning, but not unattainable ones. My daughter wants to do well because she is encouraged to do so, not forced to do so.
I’ll be honest, we haven’t decided yet. We are torn between a secondary education in a local school for her, or placing her in an international school so that she can do iGCSEs, which would be a better fit if we repatriate back to the UK during her secondary school years. An international education at secondary level would be an easier transition to a UK secondary school. BUT we also know that a secondary school education in a Singapore school will be exceptional. Ugh. Decisions.
Angelica will be involved in the decision process for sure, and at the moment she is keen to try an international school. Watch this space! And if you see me in the coming months, do feel free to buy me a coffee. I’m tired. #moresleeplessnights
The early years – local kindergarten and primary
Ah, Rafferty. He’s now six years of menace and a completely different kettle of fish to his brother or sister. Rafferty also went to St Hilda’s and he flourished there. He attended from N1-K2 and was chosen as ‘valedictorian’ for his graduation ceremony. He has a flair for learning that, at this stage, is pretty impressive. He loves learning. He also seems to attract mischief like a magnet, and often manages to make the wrong decision when it comes to keeping his behaviour in check. Luckily for him, he is extremely likeable and he probably gets away with more than he might otherwise.
We actually did get Raff a spot at an international school for P1, but this was our second choice for him when it came to his education path. Balloting for places was tougher than ever for foreigners for the local system, so we needed a backup plan. The School Gods were, however, on our side, and he not only got into local P1, but he got into the SAME school as his sister. For the first time ever I have two children in the same school at the same time!
There have definitely been some teething issues: he has gone from being a big fish in a small pond at Kindy, to a minnow in primary school, and it took him a while to adjust. He naturally gravitated towards the bigger kids in his new school and spent his break times hanging out with P3 kids, rather than his own peers. He got himself into a bit of bother on more than one occasion and the aforementioned Discipline Master did say to me, “Mrs Tristram, Rafferty is not like his sister at all is he?” No sir, he is not. He’s a rambunctious bundle of energy, but he’s definitely finding his feet.
His class teacher called me last week (the teachers at Angsana are, can I just say, wonderful) to assure me (after a minor scrape he got into) that he was doing really well, was a very kind soul and that he was settling in well. He’s going to be just fine, I know it. Especially as I know the school has his back, and have already worked out how to get the best from him. I think perhaps an international school would have been too ‘soft’ for him, and I know that we have made the right decision for him.
So there you have it. A complete update on where they’re at since I am asked a lot about where my kids are studying these days. And no, to those who ask me frequently, we do not feel guilty that Jack went to international school while his sibs do not. Jack got the education pick that suited him, and we continue to evaluate what system is best suited to each individual child’s needs. All three children are happy with the schooling choices we have made for them, so the price tag is irrelevant to them.
This story was originally published in 2015.