Singapore is increasingly awash with international schools, most of whom are expanding as fast as they can. This is designed to help you make the right choice.
There is little between the top schools when it comes to fees, and academic standards are generally high. Location is less of an issue than it might be in other countries as Singapore is not a big place and, in any event, all schools offer good bus services, albeit at extra cost. Facilities range from good to fantastic and the parent community at most schools is active and sociable. However, the cultural mix at each school varies enormously, as do the programmes on offer and the timing of school terms and holidays. Decisions tend to be based on these factors as well, unfortunately, as whether there are places available: waitlists at some schools can be lengthy.
Schools to consider
Currently, the largest school in Singapore for expats is the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) with over 5,000 students. The cultural mix is definitely more diverse than at many of the schools catering for expats in Singapore. Located just west of Singapore’s business and shopping centres, UWC has students from over 60 countries. Instruction is in English, and a high level of proficiency in English is required for entry (there is limited language tuition for non-native English speakers), but a variety of languages can be heard on campus.
Singapore American School (SAS) is extremely fortunate to have a 37-acre campus, even if it is practically in Malaysia. The 30 – 45 minute commute from the more popular residential areas of Singapore does not deter many, however, and it is easy to see why: the facilities are fantastic, the range of extracurricular activities superb, and the academic standards high. This is not just a school for bright kids though and there are plenty of opportunities for students who are not so gifted academically to find their niche.
Both sport and the arts are extremely well catered for at SAS and the school has students who excel in both.Those looking for a truly multicultural experience should look elsewhere. What sets UWC apart from most other schools, however, is the Global Concerns and Social Service programmes, which are an unusually important part of the curriculum. Note that it definitely feels American and its Americanness does not suit all.
Other schools that have a multinational mix of students include the Overseas Family School and the International School Singapore both of which are large, very centrally located and follow the IB programme, although IGCSEs can also be taken. Another option is the Canadian International School which offers the full IB programme for 3 – 18-year-olds, has small class sizes and approximately 1300 pupils spread across its three campuses.
For those who would prefer to send their child to a school that feels more like schools at home, Tanglin Trust School, with its British curriculum and 45 per cent British students is the most obvious choice. As a matter of policy, children at Tanglin are placed in classes according to their age, not their ability, and it is rare for a child to be moved ahead of his peer group.
The same applies in most of Singapore’s international schools. What is not so usual is that at Tanglin, there is no English language programme for students whose first language is not English: fluency is an entry requirement. Whilst a few grumble that it is hard to fit all the activities in, many parents are attracted to the strong sense of community at TTS and firm friendships are formed amongst parents and children.
The Australian International School with its Australian curriculum and largely Australian students is newer than most but during its short history has established itself as real competition for the older expat schools. Academically the Australian School is strong, especially considering it takes students with a wide range of abilities including a number of non-native English speakers. Results in New South Wales standardised tests are generally above average throughout the school and some students taking the High School Certificate have excelled.
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. However the Melbourne Specialist International School was set up in 2014 to cater for a wide range of learning disorders and physical disabilities.
Dover Court International School has developed from being a preparatory school to an all-through school now owned by Nord Anglia. Unusual in giving all primary pupils Mandarin lessons. On a new (2014) updated campus and now offering the IB Diploma.
Those looking for a smaller school that caters for students up to 18 years might consider Chatsworth International School, which has just over 800 students. This is a popular second choice school, often chosen by those waiting for places at the larger international schools.
Eton House International Schools run seven pre-schools (one Chinese) and two international and offers a mixture of IB programmes and IGCSEs. . Another school catering mainly for English-speaking expats is the International Community School, which offers an American curriculum with a Christian perspective to over 450 students from pre-school to grade 12.
There are various European schools at which the use of English as a medium of instruction is limited or non-existent. These include the German European School, the Hollandse School, the Lycee Francais De Singapour and the Swiss School Singapore. Of these, the German European School (divided into two sections)has the greatest degree of English instruction.
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.
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 and Pibos Garden Playschool are popular and offer play-based programmes. They are located close to residential areas just west of central Singapore. Hard to believe, but a few expat nurseries have long waitlists: at the time of writing, one particularly popular expat nursery has closed its waitlist as all places for the next two years have been filled.
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. With a bit more time on their hands, they often get very involved in their children’s schools which are a central to the expat community.
Kids 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.
The big international schools are also comparable when it comes to fees. The difference in price between SAS, UWC, TTS and AIS 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. 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. We are almost spoilt for choice.