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Education in Singapore is a very serious business indeed.  Throughout its history, education has been a government priority and there have been a number of important reviews and restructurings over the years that have led to Singapore’s current position today as a world education leader.  People are Singapore’s primary resource and as a consequence its well-educated and multi-lingual workforce is the envy of many countries around the world.  For many expatriates, having the opportunity for their children to learn in Singapore is one of the most positive aspects of life here.

In essence, there are two routes open to the expatriate family in Singapore – you can choose either to send your children to an international school (sometimes called foreign system schools) or you can enrol in a local school that falls under the purview of the Singapore Ministry of Education.  In both cases, as a foreigner in Singapore you will have to pay fees but there is a marked difference in how much, the former being by some margin the more expensive path.

However, no matter the option upon which you decide, you will be able to find other parents following the same route and therefore a good deal of support, advice and encouragement is always available – don’t hesitate to take advantage of the expertise and knowledge that your neighbours, friend and colleagues will have already built up; seek out people who have already agonised over this decision and look at the choices they have made.  Such advice may save you from trying to reinvent the wheel.

In the meantime, the following will provide you with some useful background on the different types of education provision available for you to consider.

International Schools

International schools represent a fairly obvious and straightforward option for most parents, if for no other reason than you will be able to ensure a good degree of continuity in your child’s education by enrolling them in a school that operates the same education system as you have experienced at home.  If your child is currently at school in a large European country, the UK, USA or Australia, you will be able to find a school in Singapore offering your national curriculum, teaching in your home language, and operating the same year and age group structure, etc.  The benefit of choosing this path is that your transition into the international school sector should be relatively simple, while reentering your national system on your return home will also be pretty straightforward.

Most international schools in Singapore offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) either alongside or in addition to their national curriculum.  The IB caters for pupils of all ages and is offered in English, Spanish and French.

International schools in Singapore are genuinely international in that they have pupils from a vast range of nationalities and backgrounds (although some inevitably have a slightly more homogenous student body than others), and this is one of the greatest benefits of attending such a school.  It is not uncommon for larger international schools to have students from anywhere up to 100 different countries.  Likewise, the parents of pupils will be involved in every conceivable profession, business or industry, which only serves to enhance and enrich the experience for the whole family.

Most international schools in Singapore cover the full age range, which means they offer provision from pre-nursery school or kindergarten right up to year 13 and graduation (i.e. from 2 years old up to the age of 18).  Most are also mixed sex, i.e. they accept both boys and girls.  These two facts are very advantageous for the expatriate family, in that parents are not required to be in several places at once with regards to the school run, parent-teacher meetings, school concerts, etc., while siblings being together in the same school means that you will have established a ready-made, inbuilt support system.

The majority of international schools in Singapore are non-selective i.e. they do not accept pupils solely on the grounds of academic ability.  They may nevertheless require prospective pupils to sit an entrance examination, the primary purpose of which is, in most cases, to test prior learning and/or language ability.  Some schools will also use an entrance examination to enable them to place pupils in the appropriate stream or set (e.g. pupils of roughly the same maths ability, or attainment level in science, might be grouped together).

The fees at the majority of international schools are high, but in the best schools you should be able to see quite clearly why this is so.  You can expect to find extraordinarily well-equipped classrooms and laboratories, extensive grounds, outstanding sports facilities, and wonderful performance spaces, such as theatres and concert halls.  However, as attractive and impressive as these facilities may well be, they are not in fact the main reason why international schools charge the fees that they do.

Employing first-rate teaching staff and maintaining small class sizes in the school is where you can expect the bulk of your fees to be spent.  A good international school will have classes that are much smaller than you might expect to find in a comparable school at home, even in the independent sector.  This has a significant impact on the quality of education that a school can provide and is an important reason why international schools charge the fees that they do.  Manageable class sizes should be a high priority when you are considering schools – try to find out what the school’s policy is in this regard and what they consider their optimum class size to be.

The quality of the teaching staff at international schools is another reason why you will be charged premium fees but, at the same time, if a school has invested wisely in its staffing it will be worth every penny.  In most instances the staff at international schools are of a high calibre, and a successful and imaginative principal will have put together a teaching team that consists of a good mix of youthful, energetic teachers on the way up, combined with more experienced teachers looking for enhanced job satisfaction and a new challenge.  A good staff will be balanced in this respect, as well as being from a fairly broad range of countries and training institutions.

This is an important factor to consider when you are making enquiries, but most international schools are pretty good at providing information about their staff, so do take the time to look on their website at the staff section as part of your research.  Look for a staff that manages to combine both youth and experience, has some stalwarts in its ranks (this usually means the staff are happy and the environment is stable), and comes from a diverse range of backgrounds and education systems (so that you know the school’s approach and outlook isn’t limited or stagnant).  A well-managed international school staff should go some way towards satisfying all of these criteria and if it does you can feel fairly confident that your child will be getting an education at least equivalent to that which they would experience at home.

Some international schools in Singapore have waiting lists, while at others admission at any time of the year presents no difficulties, so you should always be prepared to look at at least a couple of options  (This should definitely not be interpreted, however, as necessarily being a sign of quality i.e. a school with a waiting list is not automatically better than one without).  However, it is always advisable to start making enquiries about the admissions process as soon as you can, for peace of mind as much as anything else.

There is no central registry or agency that deals with admissions to international schools and so enquiries and applications should be made to schools directly.  They will also inform you at this time if there is an entrance exam or whether they expect a minimum level of language proficiency, as this will vary from school to school.  There are, however, no regulations in place with regards to catchment areas, so you are free to apply to a school in any part of the city.  Our schools listings pages provide full details about how to get in contact with the schools of your choice.

Another important point to enquire about is the dates of the school year.  Some international schools will run on the Singapore education calendar, where a school year is roughly in line with the calendar year, while others may operate on a northern hemisphere school year i.e. the academic year begins in late July or early August and concludes the following May or June.  You should make sure that you are clear on this and how it fits in with your pattern of family life.

Also have a look at our articles entitled Choosing the Right School and Delivering the Goods for some further advice on selecting the right international school for your kids.

SINGAPORE | INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS

Local schools

The Singapore Education System

In Singapore, both officially and unofficially, education is regarded as the key to social mobility.  This means that the education system is well run, well funded and held in high esteem; at the same time it also means that it can become overly-competitive, results driven and obsessed with academic success at the exclusion of all else.  Whether these characteristics should be regarded as positive or negative depends on the individual…

Education in Singapore is managed by the Ministry of Education (MOE), which directs education policy.  Singapore’s government is conscious that its citizens are its most valuable asset and so the education system is designed with the goal of producing skilled, motivated, multi-lingual students capable of playing a role in the global economy.

The Singapore school year consists of four terms of ten weeks each and the academic year generally follows the calendar, beginning in the first week of January and ending in the middle of November. From primary school onwards, English is the main language of instruction.  It should be noted that corporal punishment is sanctioned and used in Singapore schools.

Kindergarten

Kindergartens in Singapore provide a structured three years of pre-school for children aged three to six. The three years are called Nursery, Kindergarten (1) and Kindergarten (2).  Kindergartens operate five days a week, with school hours ranging from three to four hours per day.  Most kindergartens operate at least two sessions a day and they are required to teach in English and a second local language.

Kindergartens are run by the private sector, including community foundations, religious bodies and social and business organisations.  They are defined as private schools and so have to be registered with the MOE.  Kindergartens are also run by child care centres and international schools.  For admission, you should approach the kindergarten directly.

Primary school

Primary education consists of a four-year foundation stage known as Primary 1 – 4, and a two-year orientation stage or Primary 5 and 6.  Primary schools have as their focus the teaching of the English language, a mother tongue, maths and science.  Most schools will introduce a degree of streaming during the primary years e.g. pupils of roughly the same maths ability, or attainment level in science, might be grouped together.  This is no particular government criteria as to how this is organised and it is left to the discretion of individual schools.

At the end of Primary 6, pupils sit the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).  The main aim of the exam is to assess students in order that they may be effectively streamed at secondary school.  Subjects examined in the PSLE include English, mother tongue, maths and science.

Secondary school

Secondary education is for four to five years and students are placed into one of the following education streams according to their performance in the PLSE:  Special; Express; Normal (Academic); or Normal (Technical).

Special and Express are four-year courses leading to the Singapore Cambridge General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (O-Level) examination.  The primary difference between the Special and Express streams is the level at which languages are studied.

Normal is split into Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) and is a four-year course leading up to a Normal Level (N-Level) exam, with the possibility of a fifth year followed by an O-Level exam.  Students in the Normal (Technical) stream take subjects more technical in nature, while in Normal (Academic) students are prepared to take the O-Level exam.

Students at secondary school must also participate in at least one co-curricular activity (CCA).

Junior college (Pre-university education)

Admission to a two-year pre-university course at junior college is determined by a student’s O-Level subject grades.  Junior college prepares students for the General Secondary Education Advanced Level (GSE A-Level) examinations.  Students who successfully complete A-Levels are eligible to apply to one of Singapore’s four universities.

Special schools

The education of children with disabilities is provided in Special Education Schools (SPED).  SPED schools are run by voluntary welfare organisations receiving funding from MOE and the National Council of Social Service.

Admissions Procedures

For those with a knowledge of such things, it is not difficult to recognise Singapore’s British colonial roots in the organisation of its education provision (particularly in its emphasis on streaming and classification of students), and many might argue that it is all the better for that.  For others, such groupings are anathema as they tend to run contrary to much current western educational theory.  Again, the appeal or otherwise of this system lies very much with the individual.

Nevertheless, if it all seems somewhat dour and unforgiving, rest assured that in reality it isn’t.  Singapore is an enormously cosmopolitan city and this is naturally reflected in its schools both in terms of their outlook and their student populations.  Many western establishments that labour to make their pupils aware of and responsive to multicultural and global issues in their schools would be extremely envious of the way this is sometimes accomplished seemingly without effort in Singapore.  Your children will have opportunities to make an enormous range of friends from a wide variety of backgrounds while at the same time they should have little difficulty in blending in themselves.

So, should you decide that your children would benefit from and enjoy the type of education provided in Singapore, there is some important information that you need to know in order to begin the admissions process, as gaining a school place will depend on availability, your child meeting certain admission criteria and your successful application for a Student Pass (STP) from the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA), if necessary.

A crucial part of the process is the Admissions Exercise for International Students (AEIS), a centralised admissions exercise conducted by MOE around September or October each year for new international students who wish to join mainstream primary (Primary 2 – 5) and secondary (Secondary 1 – 3) schools in January of the following year. (If you are unable to sit AEIS you may continue to apply for admission directly to a school of your choice at any time of the year.  The school will conduct its own entry assessment and, if successful, you will be given a Letter of Acceptance to use to apply for a Student Pass, if necessary.)

AEIS consists of a centralised test in English and maths that will assess your child’s English literacy, numeracy and reasoning abilities.  Applicants who pass the test will be offered a place in a school depending on availability and where you live in Singapore.  You are strongly encouraged to help your children prepare for the AEIS tests – the best way to do this is explore the English and maths syllabi of the level preceding the one for which you are applying (more information is available on the AEIS website).

As above, you can also apply directly to the school of your choice yourself without going through AEIS, although admission will still depend on the availability of places (this may also apply to kindergartens).  In this case, the school will also conduct its own entrance examination.  Naturally, those schools that are considered successful (and there are a great many of them) will be extremely popular with Singaporean parents and as a consequence they may have very lengthy waiting lists and you may not be able to enrol.  Therefore, it is important that you make enquiries of more than one school in your area, as you should also be aware that in the case of over-subscribed schools preference is given first to Singaporeans, then to permanent residents, and then to international students.  (It is thought by some that this is part of the government’s drive to encourage more long-term residents from aboard to take up permanent residency.)

When you are successful in being accepted into a school, unless you have a Dependent’s Pass or Immigration Exemption Order, you will need to get a Student Pass (STP) for your children.  You will also be required to make a donation of SGD$1000 to the Education Fund every two years (these are eligible for tax-exemption).

Fees

In addition to school fees, all students are required to pay the miscellaneous fee (to cover any additional costs for excursion, events, etc.)  All fees are payable monthly and are as follows:

Primary School Fees (per month)
Nationality

School Fee SGD$

Misc. Fee SGD$

Total SGD$

Singapore PR

$110

$6.50

$116.50

International (non-ASEAN)

$550

$6.50

$556.50

International (ASEAN)

$370

$6.50

$376.50

Secondary School Fees (per month)
Nationality

School Fee SGD$

Misc. Fee SGD$

Total SGD$

Singapore PR

$160

$6.50

$166.50

International (non-ASEAN)

$800

$6.50

$806.50

International (ASEAN)

$550

$6.50

$556.50

Junior College (Pre-university) Fees (per month)
Nationality

School Fee SGD$

Misc. Fee SGD$

Total SGD$

Singapore PR

$220

$6.50

$226.50

International (non-ASEAN)

$1150

$6.50

$1156.50

International (ASEAN)

$800

$6.50

$806.50

Age Criteria for Admission of Foreign Students

Level

Permissible age range as at 1 January in year of admission

Primary 1

6 to 10+

Primary 2

7 to 11+

Primary 3

8 to 12+

Primary 4

9 to 13+

Primary 5

10 to 14+

Primary 6

No direct admission is allowed to this critical level as students will not have sufficient preparation time for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) held towards the end of the year.

Secondary 1

12 to 16+

Secondary 2

13 to 17+

Secondary 3

14 to 18+

Secondary 4

No direct admission is allowed to this critical level as students will not have sufficient preparation time for the GCE N-Level or GCE O-Level examinations held towards the end of the year.

Secondary 5

No direct admission is allowed to this critical level as students will not have sufficient preparation time for the GCE O-Level examinations held towards the end of the year.

Pre-U 1

16 to 20+

Pre-U 2

No direct admission is allowed to this critical level as students will not have sufficient preparation time for the GCE A-Level examinations held towards the end of the year.

Pre-U 3

No direct admission is allowed to this critical level as students will not have sufficient preparation time for the GCE A-Level examinations held towards the end of the year.
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