International schools vs local schools in Singapore: One family, both systems – the pros and cons

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 is a mum who has her children split between the two school systems. Here's why...

If you’re an expat parent in Singapore, entering the international schools vs local schools in Singapore 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 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 (K2 and P5) and one in international (Year 11). “Oh.” Slight pause while that information processes.  Standard reaction: “Really? Why? Is that fair?” 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? Does the expat package even exist anymore? We sent our son to 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 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 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 could be 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.)

international schools vs local schools in Singapore

Tracy’s kids Angelica (top), Jack (left) and Rafferty (right) are enrolled in both an international school, a local primary school and a local kindergarten

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 couldn’t have cared less if we were paying for her to be there, she was oblivious to how much we were paying for her to do colouring sheets. So, after 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 in Singapore, St Hilda’s Kindergarten. She was happy. Really happy. And we were too. The teachers were far from the draconian people we had envisaged local teachers to be, and the horror stories proved unfounded in our case. 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 years old and had an amazing backbone for education gifted to her. She appeared to have none of the learning issues her big brother 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?
MOE announced earlier this year that it will be merging 14 primary schools and six secondary schools in 2019, ‘to address the significant continued fall in cohort sizes’. Being a member of a local school support group, I know there are many foreign families fighting for a place in the Singapore School system who would have gladly joined these school communities, so this news is rather puzzling. I love that my locally-educated kids are exposed completely to Singaporean culture by being part of the local system, and this is 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 school. I am so proud of her, and continue to be impressed with what a lovely school 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 put on the locally-educated children than Jack has faced in the international system, but as a total non ‘tiger mum’ 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, but still keeping its strong academic values. Her favourite school activity? Scouts!

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. He is about to finish Year 11, is taking his exams next month and ticking along just fine! Where’s next for him for sixth form? We are looking at lots of different options for him, including a vocational course at a local college or A Levels, as the IB course for years 12 and 13 at his current international school are not 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 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 (sigh)
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 with a way more 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 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 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 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.

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 (if a little noisy!) and really has thrived academically and socially at St. Hilda’s. This year 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 school will absolutely be the perfect fit for him. Watch this space: We hear that getting a place for him is going to be nigh on impossible, and although he has a sibling at the school, as a foreigner this will not be taken into account when our application is considered. We just have to keep our fingers very much crossed and hope for the best.

Sadly, we won’t know the results until around November 2018 (and the school year starts in January 2019), so we are also thrashing out a back-up plan. We’re not entirely sure what that is yet, but we hope to get it right for him like we did with his siblings. 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 is his home and he knows, even at age six years, that he very much wants to continue to be a part of the local community (and annoy his big sister in the playground!).

international schools vs local schools in Singapore

Local school students and international school students race for the same goals. Photography: Chatsworth 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 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 total around $13 a month for citizens and go up to $650 per month for those with foreign status. Fees are set to rise for PRs and foreigners over the next two years reaching, $205 per month for a PR, $465 for ASEAN international students, and $750 per month for other international students by 2020.

Do note though that for the first two school years your child will pay the PR rate, which is currently $155 per month (rising to $180 per month for the new school year). 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 $25 to $1100 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, 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 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 for 2018/2019 academic year.

  • K1 – K2 Students = $25,710.90 per year
  • Yr 1 – Yr 6 Students = $29,484.00 per year

Secondary International School Fees

  • Yr 7 – Yr 9 Students = $29,969.10 per year
  • Yr 10 – Yr 11 Students = $31,208.84 per year
  • Yr 12 – Yr 13 Students = $34,208.84 per year
  • Learning Support = $3140.00 per year
  • Registration fees of $240.00, confirmation fee of $2400.00 are also applicable when you join this school. There is also a $2100.00 per student annual building fee included in the above fees.


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 schools vs local schools in Singapore

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. Do note that for admission to P1 for 2019, applications should be made online, and you now need to register your intent during June 2018 to be considered during the enrollment phase later in the year.

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. Do sign up for our newsletter to get deets of our next HoneyKids International School Fair – the previous two have been invaluable for meeting admissions staff and principals from 20 schools under one roof!

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

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