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Education and Schools

Singapore - Education and Schools


The Government spends approximately one-fifth of Singapore’s annual Gross Domestic Product on education. This funds public/state schools, government-assisted private schools, and the national Edusave programme which provides an account for each Singaporean child, wherever they are educated, to undertake an enrichment programme. The children of Singapore’s citizens attending public/state schools receive a free education, though a small fee of a few dollars is charged per student each month to cover miscellaneous costs.

The Financial Assistance Scheme provides financial assistance for the education of Singaporean citizens, a waiver of school miscellaneous cost charges, and a partial subsidy on national examination fees to low income families. They may receive full or partial subsidy of school fees if they are in an Independent School. There are a number of other Government and charitable schemes to assist education. Students from low to middle income families who have good academic performance may be granted the Edusave Merit Bursary (EMB), and local schools have an Opportunity Fund to assist pupils from low income families. However, the Government does not have a responsibility to find a place for foreign students in national schools, and will not provide financial support to foreign families for their children’s education.

It is compulsory for children who are citizens of Singapore to attend school on a regular basis between the age of six and fifteen, regardless of gender, ethnic community or financial background; clothing of a religious nature is not permitted in the national schools. Exemptions must be formally granted by the Ministry of Education (MOE) if the child cannot attend school because they are to be educated at home or at a religious institution, if the child has significant disabilies which prevent attendance, or if the familiy is living abroad.

The school year consists of two semesters; one starts at the beginning of January and runs until the end of May, the second begins in July and ends in November. The school day can start between 7.45am and 9am, depending on the individual school. Kindergarten children will normally finish at noon, and older children at 3pm, with many children then taking enrichment and private tuition activities.

After your child is allocated a place at a school, on registration day (an allocated day with registration 8-11am and 2.30-4.30pm) you must present your child’s passport, vaccination records, visa pass and any previous school records.

According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), about 4% of national school places are allocated to international students, and about 9% are allocated to PR students. Local school fees for foreigners range from $6,000 to nearly $10,000 annually. The Admissions Exercise for International Students (AEIS), which assesses English literacy, numeracy and reasoning abilities, was introduced in 2008 and is now compulsory for international students applying for education in local schools; foreign students who do not pass this test will not be allowed to attend a national school.

Applications for pupil places in Primary 1 (after the three years of nursery) are made directly to the MOE. They allocate places firstly to Singaporean citizens and PR children, who are guaranteed a space in national primary schools. For PR families, priority in a family’s chosen school is given to families who have been volunteering in the school. Foreign students are considered for any remaining places, and do not have a guarantee of a place. Although the birth rates among local Singaporean families has been falling and leading to smaller native cohort years, the significant rise of foreign workers and PR families means those places are under increased pressure. As a result, it is estimated that roughly two out of every three three foreign students are unable to gain a place at a national school. Before making an application for a choice of school, parents are able to access acceptance rates for the previous year, and assess the varying chances for different schools. School visits are possible. Other expat parents may offer advice on sites such as Singapore Expats in Local Schools and Kiasu Parents.

There are now about 30 international schools in Singapore, whose yearly fees vary between S$10,00 and S$40,000. The initial application fee ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and there is an enrollment fee which is usually a few thousand dollars.

Children who are citizens of Singapore must obtain Ministry of Education permission if they wish to attend an international school on the island, except for three international schools which daily sign the national anthem, swear the pledge, and offer bilingual education. These three schools, the Anglo-Chinese International School, Hwa Chong International School and SJI International School, are private schools managed by the boards of other locally renowned institutions, and their fees are 15-20% lower than most other International schools in Singapore.

Private education institutions have to register with the Council for Private Education (CPE) under the Enhanced Registration Framework. They are evaluated by the CPE for standards relating to management, teaching, courses and examinations, and since the standards are very high it is an achievement for a school to meet them.

Singapore’s Japanese population are served by an international school and a weekend education programme.

Prior to Singapore’s independence, the Madrasahs - full-time, religious institutions whose education includes Islamic religious education - were the centre of religious education in the region, attracting prominent Islamic religious scholars. Six Madrasahs in Singapore offer primary to tertiary education today; four are co-educational and two offer education to girls. They teach a range of Islamic religious subjects in addition to mainstream curriculum subjects, and pupils take PSLE and O-Level examinations. Pupils wear traditional Malay uniform, including headwear of religious significance which is not permitted in national schools.

Children usually attend a private preschool from the age of 3, progressing through the classes called Nursery, Kindergarten 1 (K1) and Kindergarten 2 (K2); during this time they will learn the basics of behaviour and collaboration, basic language and maths skills, and begin to learn a second language. In the year they turn seven, the enter the Primary 1 (P1) year.

Primary 1 to Primary 4 are the Foundation Stage year groups. All pupils will be taught English, Mother Tongue, Mathematics, Civic and Moral Education, Arts and Crafts, Music, Health Education, Social Studies, and Physical Education. From Primary 3 onwards the children will be taught Science.

Primary 5 and 6 are the two orientation years, whereby children are taught in ability streams for each subject determined by their pupil testing scores at the end of Primary 4. At the end of this phase, children sit the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). The secondary school place they are offered will depend on the parents’ choice of school and the child’s test scores. Some places in a number of schools are offered under the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme, which allocates a set number of places based on creative or sporting talents before the PSLE is taken.

From Secondary 1 (S1) pupils are taught in 4 streams:

• Special: A four year course leading to Singapore-Cambridge O Level examinations, including Higher Mother Tongue (Mandarin, Malay and Tamil) or another language
• Express: A four year course leading to Singapore-Cambridge O Level examinations, including Mother Tongue (Mandarin, Malay and Tamil) plus a further year to complete A Level H1 Mother Tongue examinations or another language
• Normal (Academic): A four year course leading to the Normal-level (N-level) examination, with an additional year for those who wish to take the O Level examinations. May include practical subjects such as accounting.
• Normal (Technical): A four year course in technical subjects such as Design and Technology, leading to either N-Level or O-Level examinations. Generally leads to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

Some schools offer pupils from the Special stream, and occasionally the Express stream, a place on the Integrated Programme, known as the Through-Train Programme. Pupils do not take O-Levels but enjoy further enrichment time, before they take either an International Baccalaureate Diploma or to A-Level exams at the age of 18.

Pupils taking O-Levels, usually in Secondary 4, will take between six and ten subjects. The compulsory subjects are English, Mathematics, Mother Tongue or language alternative, one Science and one Humanities subject. If they receive passes in English Language and Mathematics, and a good score level overall in comparison to other applicants, they then have the option to take A-Levels after a further two years of study at one of 18 Junior Colleges, or after three years at the Millennia Institute. They must continue a course of CCA as it is a requirement for university applications.

All pupils at primary and secondary schools must participate in at least one Co-Curricular Activity (CCA). These include Uniformed Groups, Performing Arts, Clubs & Societies and Sports & Games Competitions, with different options at each school. Participation is included, with other non-academic achievements, in the scoring system LEAPS 2.0. The scoring will be based on leadership, enrichment, achievement, participation and service, and may give up to two bonus points for junior college entrance applications.

Because education is valued so highly, parents in Singapore often take extreme measures to get their children into schools with a history of producing top PSLE performers. They move house, buy the past examination papers of top schools, and spend significant money on private tuition. With over 850 Government-regulated tuition centres in Singapore, in addition to unregulated private tutoring services, it is thought that more than a billion dollars a year is spent on private tuition not only to help struggling pupils but also to give bright pupils a continuing competitive edge. Even children on the presitigious Gifted Education Programme (GEP), which selects the most outstanding 1% of pupils from intelligence tests taken at the end of Primary 3 and offers them a place in special streamed classes at a small selection of schools, will frequently receive private tuition to compete within the elite class.

Whilst the education results in Singapore are the envy of the world and are one of the reasons Singapore ranks so highly as a destination for expats to relocate to, the pressures on students and teachers have become intense. In this society where education is of high status and is highly competitive, the Government has started to reform the education system. Partly this is a response to the pressure it puts on individuals, but mostly Government thinking is driven by the need to make Singapore’s citizens able to complete in the high value innovation industries, which require creativity and curiosity rather than conventional rote learning of facts.

The Government is changing the focus of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), so that by 2021 it will incorporate the pupils’ interests and individual talents, and the new set of results are intended to foster curiosity and a love of learning.

Applied learning within the reformed education system is intended to develop character and life skills. It will include compulsory camping trips for collaborative and practical experience, and more emphasis in communication as part of the language curriculum. Physical Education classes are now required for approximately 10-20% of lesson time in primary and secondary schools.

It is intended that secondary schools will be varied to offer a choice of further specialisms, such as engineering or arts, to reflect innate talents of the individual pupil. The Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme for schools was implemented in 2004 and is being expanded to five Polytechnics and three Universities, allowing students to be accepted not just on academic grades but also on the basis of their creative talents, and aptitude-based admissions. Parents have already responded to the increasing status of the enriched curriculum by paying significant sums in private tuition to enhance their children’s creative and sporting abilities from a young age, which enhances school and college applications.

Children completing secondary school will no longer be graded against each other, but instead receive grades as used in many Western societies. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has recently stopped naming the PSLE top scorer, and revealing the highest and lowest scores in the cohort. These changes have not been popular with all parents, some of whom have used websites such as Kiasuparents to compile their own lists.

Schools are now encouraged to celebrate the success of their top students not as individuals, but as a group. Children who have overcome challenges such as disability or illness, shown significant improvement in their academic work, or have excelled in sports or volunteering activites, are now also celebrated for their achievements.

About 40% of pupils leaving Secondary 4 prefer to follow a specialised education route by taking a diploma at a Polytechnic or Arts Institution; if they get good grades they will later receive exemptions from some university modules. There are a wide range of courses available.

The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) has three technical schools whose courses lead to a locally recognised National ITE Certificate. Certification for apprenticeships also exists in conjunction with industrial companies. Entry requires acceptable N-Level and O-Level results, though only a minority will reach Polytechnic or University courses via this route.

The National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University, ranked 12th and 13th in the 2016 QS World University Rankings, each have over 30,000 students on their wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes.

In response to rising participation rates, a further four Universities have opened since 2000, bringing the total number of National Universities in Singapore to six. The Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology are sector-focused, the Design and the Signapore Institute of Technology provides progression for Polytechnic and Arts Institution graduates, and the SIM University is the only private University in Singapore.

There are approximately 28 further University campuses in Singapore, established by Universities across the world including the USA, the UK and Australia. These sites provide education to citizens of Singapore as well as foreign students. The Government are supportive of these projects, as they wish Singapore to capitalise on its reputation of world leading education to become a ‘global schoolhouse’.




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