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Singapore education and international schools guide

Singapore is not short of international schools with world class campuses and a broad range of curricula on offer. This article is designed to help you make the right choice.

Expats in Singapore are considered to be spoilt for choice when it comes to good schools, with more than 50 international schools offering a primary or secondary education across the island and the arrival of a number of leading British school names in recent years. Many of the top schools now deliver an all-through education offering a solid pathway on to universities worldwide. As a result, it is not unknown for families to choose to stay longer in Singapore and see out their child’s education before relocating.

On face value there may appear to be little difference between the top schools with regards to fees, academic standards and core student values. Facilities range from good to fantastic and the parent communities tend to be active and sociable. Location is less of an issue than it might be in other countries, as Singapore is not a big city and, in any event, all schools offer good bus services, albeit at extra cost. Instruction language across all international schools is predominantly English although some schools offer a dual language stream and/or ESL (English as a second language) programme.

The obvious differentials are really to be found in the curriculum on offer and the ensuing cultural mix, with IB World schools naturally attracting the most international of cohorts. Academic selection on entry has raised its head at a few of the more recently arrived schools though it is yet to be determined whether this tallies with stronger results in the graduating cohorts.

Decisions on which school to choose are made on all these factors, as well as whether there are places available: waitlists at some schools especially at key stages can be lengthy.

International schools

For cultural diversity and embodying an IB world school ethos to the full, look no further than United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA). The two campuses - Dover and East – share a strong community based outlook but with distinctively different identities and importantly, waitlists. Each school should be considered as separate options in any family shortlist. Another option is XCL World Academy (Singapore) which has a diverse international student community reflecting what you would expect of a fully IB World school.

The International Baccalaureate curricula have landed on fertile ground in Singapore, with a wide selection of schools embracing the IB Diploma, namely, amongst others:

  • Tanglin Trust School (TTS), which has a long tradition of offering a British-based education with a strong, forward-thinking international perspective, on a well located and modern campus.
  • Dulwich College (Singapore) (DCSG) which has well earnt its reputation as one of the top international schools in Singapore thanks to a strong leadership team, a slick campus and the benefits of the heritage of the Dulwich College family
  • Dover Court International School (DCIS) which has grown to become an all-through school and is a family-orientated, inclusive school.
  • Nexus International School which is growing rapidly to fill its brand spanking new, and much larger state-of-the-art campus to the east of the City. 
  • Canadian International School but if you are looking towards secondary, you’ll want the Jurong campus in the west of the island as the East coast campus offers a family-friendly option for primary years only.

Singapore American School (SAS) has a 30 minute commute from the more popular residential and central areas of Singapore but this does not deter many families. However, those looking for a truly multicultural experience should look elsewhere; this is an unashamedly American school and its Americanness does not suit all.

Another American based school but very international in comparison is Stamford American International School (SAIS). SAIS is also one of the few schools offering a boarding program for students whose families live outside of Singapore. Worth a look whether you are American or not. The SAIS early years run on a separate campus, the Early Learning Village, a delightful Reggio Emilio inspired space with shared facilities also used by the Australian International School and Brighton College and affectionately known as "the village".

New to Singapore, but with a buzz in the air about their recent arrival, is North London Collegiate School (Singapore), The Perse School Singapore and Brighton College (Singapore).Watch this space as we give them time to breathe life into their campuses.

Meanwhile, Marlborough College Malaysia, an offshoot of Marlborough College in the UK, can be found just over the border in Malaysia so not technically a Singapore-based international School but catering to families in Singapore and across Asia who are looking for the closest thing to a traditional British boarding and day school. 

The Australian International School with its majority of Australian students plays ball, literally, with all the main international schools. Strong on the sports field, the Australian School takes in students with a wide range of abilities including a number of non-native English speakers. Meanwhile, Overseas Family School lives up to its name by offering a strong mother tongue programme woven for families living overseas who are keen to keep strong ties to their home culture and language.

For those looking for a more faith-based approach to education, SJI International School is Singapore’s only Catholic international school, though families of all faiths and backgrounds are welcomed, and the elementary school, in particular, is popular with international families for the integration of its Virtues Programme into the IPC curriculum. International Community School (Singapore) runs an American curriculum based on Christian values, offering a biblical world-view for students from 4 to 18 years old. While Sir Manasseh Meyer International School offers the option of either a Jewish education taught in Hebrew or a World Religions curriculum aimed at students of all nationalities and faiths at its very modern and well equipped campus in the north of the island.

Those looking for a smaller and more affordable school might consider Chatsworth International School now consolidated into one central campus or One World International School and  International School of Singapore (ISS). If it’s primary years, small class sizes and tailored curriculums that you are after, you might also consider Invictus International School and The Grange Institution, Integrated International School, Razum International School and Repton Schoolhouse.

EtonHouse International Schools are well known for their multiple pre-school campuses across Singapore but they also offer an all-through education at their boutique Orchard Road campus right in the heart of Singapore and are also the group behind Middleton International School, which takes students from 4 years old to 15.  

There are various European schools at which English is run either as a parallel stream to a European stream, or as a multi-lingual programme.  These include the German European School Singapore (GESS), the Hollandse School, the International French School of Singapore (IFS) and the Swiss School in Singapore (SSiS).  Of these, GESS has the greatest degree of English instruction with a fully English-speaking IB stream that attracts many dual citizenship families.  

In a similar vein, Global Indian International School and Hillside World Academy offer an international education for those looking for schools with an Indian and Chinese approach respectively. The former has four campuses across Singapore including its state-of-the-art, technology-driven GIIS SMART campus, while the latter offers a bi-lingual, bi-cultural English-Mandarin education.

In addition, there are a small number of local, international schools in Singapore.  These are managed by the Singapore Ministry of Education but are privately funded, meaning they can set their own curriculum and pricing. Aimed at Singaporean students who are interested in an international curriculum, they are also popular with international students looking for a Singapore context to their education as well as having the draw of lower fees and rigorous academic standards. Schools to look at include Anglo-Chinese International School (ACS), Hwa Chong International School and the High School at SJI International School.

Special education needs

All of the schools mentioned above offer learning support for children with mild learning difficulties. None of them cater for children whose learning difficulties are more severe except for Dover Court International School which has a three-tiered pathway for students from the mainstream through to those with significant learning or social needs. Alternatively, families might like to look at The Winstedt School an inclusive and supportive school for all students aged 4 to 17 or the Melbourne Specialist International School (MSIS) which was set up in 2014, specifically to cater for a wide range of learning disorders and physical disabilities across all age groups.

For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Singapore considered by expats'.

Useful information

Transport

All the international schools have extensive and well-used bus services. Note though, that the school day starts early at many schools and you have to be up with the larks to catch the morning bus. Not even those living closest to their school are spared as bus routes can be circuitous. Price is usually based on distance from the school. 

Local schools

Human talent is often cited as Singapore’s most valuable resource and considerable emphasis is placed on educating the local population.  However, very few expats send their children to local schools.  Reasons vary but most dislike local teaching methods: rote learning is prevalent and pressure to do well academically can be enormous with considerable homework and plenty of extra tuition. In addition, some parents are concerned that the standards of English in local schools might not be up to scratch and that an expat student would feel isolated. 

It can be hard to get into the top local schools as Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents have priority on waiting lists. Even at the best schools, there are few extracurricular activities. That being said, as in all countries, local schools vary in quality and the few who chose them are often happy with their choice. They are certainly a bargain compared to the alternatives. 

Nurseries and pre-schools

Plenty of expats chose local pre-schools for their nursery age children. These are numerous, seemingly located on every street corner. Though approaches vary, many offer mandarin classes or bilingual immersion (instruction in English and Mandarin) as well as classes in Maths, reading and writing. Popular choices include Pat’s Schoolhouse which has 10 centres island-wide, The Preparatory Place, which is centrally located just off Orchard Road, and United Educare to the west.

Nurseries and pre-schools that specifically aim at the expat market are usually slightly more expensive and generally less scholastic.  White Lodge (with its eight centres) and Pibos Garden Playschool are popular and offer play-based programmes while Swallows & Amazons and the Blue House both offer high levels of outdoor play and sensory experiences linked to the environment and nature.

Pupils and parents

There is little to differentiate between the parents of children at the international schools. There isn’t, for example, a school where all the posh people go.  Parents tend to be high achieving professionals, working for big corporates and partnerships – bankers, lawyers, IT etc. Quite a lot of mums (and a few dads) have given up their own successful careers to follow their partners overseas – unflatteringly known as ‘trailing spouses’ but in actual fact they are anything but. With a bit more time on their hands, they often get very involved in their children’s schools and local organisations or find the time to set up their own successful businesses. 

Children at the international schools are not too different from each other either, though some schools are a bit more laid back than others with regard to uniform and personal appearance – all are pretty typical offspring of fairly affluent, middle-class parents. Discipline is not cited as a problem in any of the schools, nor are drugs – no surprise when you consider the strict drug laws in Singapore and the severity of penalties for drug offenders. Some schools randomly drug test senior pupils: a positive result can lead to expulsion from school and possible expulsion for the whole family from Singapore.

Fees

The big international schools are also comparable when it comes to fees. The difference in price between SAS, UWC, TTS and DCSG is not significant enough to be a major factor in the decision-making process. All of these schools are expensive: as well as hefty tuition fees, parents are often required to make contributions to building or development funds, and pay sizeable deposits, application and registration fees. The smaller, less flashy schools tend to be more moderately priced but are still not cheap.

And finally…

Cost aside, expats in Singapore are extremely fortunate when it comes to educating their children. There are plenty of schools here, each offering something different. You are, as we said at the beginning, spoilt for choice.

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