Compared to many expat postings, it is relatively easy to find good international schools in Singapore. The difficult part is narrowing down the many choices to just one.
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.
The largest school in Singapore for expats is the Singapore American School which has capacity for 3,700 students. Space is limited in Singapore so 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.
SAS has a very extensive Advanced Placement programme and each year its graduates go on to top universities, mainly in the States but also elsewhere. Younger pupils also do well academically, gaining top marks in national (US) standardized tests. Apparently, there are few transition problems for students transferring back to schools in the States. 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.
The size of the school is a bit overwhelming at first but the administration goes to some lengths to help its pupils and their families settle in. There are also several parent bodies- all of which welcome newcomers - so there is a myriad of opportunities for those keen to get involved and meet other parents. The administration is very supportive of the parent community and operates an open-door policy: communication between the school and parents is said to be excellent, astounding for a school this size.
The curriculum on offer at SAS is American, as is a large proportion of its staff and students. The school celebrates American holidays as well as Singaporean ones, and follows the American school year, with two semesters starting in August and January. Although the school has plenty of non-Americans, and the curriculum is not so narrowly focused as to exclude all Asian influence (students have far more exposure to Asian languages, history and culture than they would in the States) nevertheless, SAS definitely feels American and its Americanness does not suit all. Those looking for a truly multicultural experience should look elsewhere.
The cultural mix at United World College of South East Asia, or UWC as it is known locally, 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. No single nationality dominates. 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. This is not something the school want to eradicate. At UWC diversity is celebrated.
Senior students at UWC take GCSEs before beginning the IB Diploma programme. Results at GSCE are good compared to schools in the UK but it is the results at Diploma level that really impress. UWC consistently achieves some of the best Diploma results in the world. Whilst entry into most of the school is academically non-selective, entry into the IB Diploma programme is selective. Pressure to do well academically is keenly felt in the senior school. For students who struggle to keep up, or who have to sit entrance exams to schools back home, some parents feel it is judicious to provide extra tuition [NB for Americans, extra “tuition” means “tutoring”, and is not to be confused with “school fees”], but this is not uncommon in Singapore, whichever school you look at.
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. Students are very active in the local and wider communities, raising funds and awareness for a variety of charities and projects. In addition to social service, there is a wide range of extracurricular activities to choose from and pupils are expected to fully participate. They are an energetic and resourceful bunch.
UWC is a large, modern school with good facilities and nearly 3000 pupils. Some parents are put off by the size, especially those with very young children starting school for the first time. Others, who do not envisage their stay in Singapore as being lengthy, prefer their children to go to a school where the curriculum on offer is closest to that followed by schools in their home country and so, in theory at least, make the transition to and from home an easy one. However, with its good academics, diverse cultural mix and community programmes, UWC is great if you want an educational experience for your children that is different to that which they would have at home, wherever home might be. This is a school with long waitlists though and many applicants start school elsewhere in Singapore before a place at UWC becomes available.
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 predominantly British students, or the Australian International School, with its Australian curriculum and largely Australian students, might fit the bill, depending on your nationality.
Reputedly, TTS is not the toughest school academically but results at GSCE and A level have been strong in the short time it has been offering senior education. Up until now, class sizes for GCSE and A level students have been very small, however, and it will be interesting to see if standards can be maintained as the senior school grows and classes expand. Lower down the school, students gain above average results in tests taken at Key Stages: good considering this is a non-selective school. As at UWC, there are parents here who feel their children need extra help before moving back to schools in their home countries and it is common for students to have private tutoring before sitting entrance exams for schools in the UK.
As a matter of policy, children at TTS 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 TTS, there is no English language programme for students whose first language is not English: fluency is an entry requirement.
Historically TTS was a junior school and it is still most popular at infant level. Although the school is large with nearly 2000 pupils, the infant school, which caters for students between 3 and 7 years, is self-contained. It is well-resourced and well-run and parents are particularly complimentary about its staff. The senior school is growing fast and has already established itself as a good option for those keen to stick to the English curriculum. There are waitlists for most year groups so early application is recommended.
TTS has a very friendly and active Parent-Teacher Association. New Tanglin parents, working mums and dads included, are often pleasantly surprised by the number of social events to which they are invited, including newcomers’ coffee mornings and a variety of lunches, dinners and parties. 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.
A new broom will be sweeping through TTS in the coming months. The current Head is leaving after 11 years on the job. Parents and pupils watch with interest to see how the new Head will make his mark.
The Australian School is newer than most but during its short history has established itself as real competition for the older expat schools. It already has 1500 pupils and is still expanding: it has almost outgrown the purpose-built campus it moved into in 2003 and the Head has started the ball rolling on building new accommodation for the youngest pupils, right next door to the school’s current location, a bit out of the way to the north east of the central shopping and residential areas.
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. Sports provision has improved in the last couple of years and the performing arts facilities are good. This is a good, all-round school and students seem happy here: its rapid expansion is testament to its popularity.
As well as the Australian curriculum and predominantly Australian students, the school has a largely Australian staff and follows the Australian school year. The strong association with Australia might be off-putting for non-antipodeans but many Australian parents choose the school precisely for this reason: enrolling at AIS enables expat kids to have a sense of Australian identity. Again, the parent community is active and opportunities to meet like-minded people abound.
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. Parents of children with severe SEN, as well as those with milder or no learning difficulties, frequently choose Dover Court Preparatory School which is located next to UWC.
Dover Court is small compared to the most of the other international schools with just 500 pupils. Twenty per cent of students have special educational needs ranging from mild dyslexia to Downe’s Syndrome. SEN students are taught separately, in very small classes, until they are able to join in mainstream classes. Even those with severe learning difficulties who are not able to join in mainstream classes have plenty of opportunities to mix with students in the mainstream school: assemblies and mealtimes, sports and school performances are activities in which all participate.
In mainstream classes, Dover Court uses an adaptation of the English national curriculum. Teachers are predominantly British though the student body has a good mix of nationalities. Students who have little or no English are taught separately until they can cope with mainstream classes so mainstream students are not slowed down. All classes are fairly small at Dover Court and plenty of attention is given to each student’s individual educational needs.
Parents and children are drawn to the nurturing environment at Dover Court and are impressed by the confidence and courtesy of the students. The fact that, for mainstream students at least, fees here are a bit more affordable than most is also quite attractive. There are compromises made when choosing this school, however: the buildings are not as modern or well-equipped as some of the larger international schools and sporting and performing arts facilities pale in comparison; there is no parents association and whilst parents can, and do, help out in the school there is no ready-made and wide circle of friends for parents and less sense of community than in some of the other schools; although the school has a few pupils approaching GCSEs, it does not offer a range of GSCE options so those wanting continuity of education should consider some alternatives.
Those looking for a smaller school that caters for students up to 18 years might consider Chatsworth International School, which has just over 600 students. The central location, just off Singapore’s main shopping street, Orchard Road, is convenient but space is limited. The curriculum is described as international and draws on English and American systems. This is a popular second choice school, often chosen by those waiting for places at the larger international schools.
Eton House International Primary and Pre-School caters for 3 to 11-year-olds, is located on the East Coast and follows the English National Curriculum. It is considerably cheaper than the larger international schools. Other schools catering mainly for English-speaking expats include the International Community School, which offers an American curriculum with a Christian perspective to over 200 students from pre-school to grade 12, and Insworld School, a new school offering a British education to senior students.
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 has the greatest degree of English instruction. The school is divided into two sections, a German and European section. In the European section, instruction is in English and German is taught as the first foreign language. It has a popular pre-school catering for children from 18 months. The Lycee Francais has, until now, been completely French but is just beginning to introduce bilingual classes for its youngest pupils, teaching the French curriculum in French and English.
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. Although a biennial donation of S$1,000 is payable to the Education Fund of the Ministry of Education, school fees are as low as S$3 per month for primary students, S$5 for secondary students: books, uniform and transport come at extra, but not significant, cost.
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.
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.