Choosing A Primary School: 6 Alternative Ways To Assess A School

Choosing Primary School
Apart from academic performance, how else can you tell if a primary school will be right for your child? A KSP member (and mother of two) shares her tips.

1. Look at the wall displays.

Are you looking for an achievement-oriented school or a values-driven school? That depends on your education goals for your child. What’s important to a school is usually signposted through its wall displays. What messages are being communicated to the students through the school’s posters, murals, and other displays? Do you agree with those messages?

Mom Tip: If the school has a social media page (usually Facebook), you can also get a sense of the school culture by browsing the page and reading the updates and comments.

2. Tap into the grapevine.

Every child’s experience in a school will be different, but it doesn’t hurt to gather several opinions before you make your final decision.

If the option is available, go straight to the source and schedule a meeting with the principals of the schools that you’re interested in, or find a way to reach them via e-mail. It’s the best way to ask about the principal’s vision and objectives for the school. If not, you can talk to students at these schools as well as their parents, to find out if the learning environment is enjoyable, and if there is a strong parent community that supports the efforts of the teachers.

If you have teacher friends, ask them to check on a school’s reputation and work culture. If they happen to  work in the school that you’re interested in, ask, off the record, about the findings of the “school climate survey”. An unhealthy work culture can only breed unhappy teachers—as well as students.

Mom Tip: If you have friends who have experience with both elite and neighbourhood schools, talk to them for a balanced perspective. If no one in your network has the scoop on the schools you’re researching, refer to our primary school database to find the KiasuParents network for each primary school in Singapore, and seek opinions there.

3. Less homework = more growth.

I was told by a well-informed friend that parents may be increasingly looking towards “good” schools, rather than schools at the cream of the academic crop. It’s something that I’ve done for both my kids—chosen schools that are not known for being academically driven, but rather, for providing a caring environment where values are emphasised.

Parents who are forward thinking may also favour such schools to give their children the time and space to develop their other talents, although again, this would be subject to one’s budget and other factors.

Mom Tip: Even if you’re not thinking about the future just yet, it’s an undeniable fact that children need more time, simply to relax. Insufficient play time is thought to impede a child’s emotional development, leading to anxiety, depression, and self-control issues. This may have a lasting impact on adulthood as well.

5. Diversity is healthy.

If you want to raise a child who is comfortable mixing with other races and nationalities—not just socially, but for work eventually—it’s best to start them young. In fact, parents should lead by example, and having your child join a school that has a more diverse student body may be one way of expanding your own social network.

Mom Tip: There are some neighbourhood schools that are known for having a multicultural or even a multinational student profile that includes permanent residents and non-Singaporeans. These schools tend to be located near residential neighbourhoods that are more diverse as well. It’s worth doing the research to see if you have such a school near you, as it would be akin to sending your child to an international school—for the price of a local school.

5. Observe the morning or mid-day drop-off (for double-session schools).

It’s a chance to see how kids feel about their school—unstaged and unfiltered. I live near a highly popular school where I’ve witnessed kids crying at the school gate, whereas my daughter looks forward to being dropped in school early so that she can read or mingle with her friends.

A fellow mom has also shared with me that the drop-off provides clues about the socioeconomic mix of the student body—just look at the cars driven by the parents. As with all matters, parents hold different views on this: Some parents are wary of “wealthy” schools as they are concerned that their children may feel envious or inadequate. Others see this as good exposure for their children to expand their circle.

Mom Tip: My daughter is in a school where many of her friends live in a condominium or on landed property. In contrast, we’re a middle-class family residing in a four-room HDB flat. My daughter’s had a smooth sailing school life; I’m very happy with her circle of friends, and we’ve had no qualms about inviting them to our home for birthday parties or playdates. That said, I have also noted that in my daughter’s school, there are certain assumptions about money, such as when parents are encouraged to buy commemorative products that cost “only $80,” or when yearly fees for certain CCAs (co-curricular activities) run into three- or four-figure sums. To this end, my advice would be to always ask for a cost estimate before you make a commitment. Don’t feel pressured to support all of the school’s activities or promoted causes, as you always have a choice.  

6. Find out how the school runs its CCAs.

Don’t stop at asking about the school’s range of CCAs, but find out if children will be given the freedom to choose activities that they may enjoy, or if the school dictates what they can join. Also, find out if the school adopts a modular CCA approach to give every student exposure to a wide range of activities, or if students are encouraged to stick to their interest areas.

Mom Tip: Don’t assume that schools will be able to spot and develop each and every student’s talents. If you feel your child may have a strength or particular interest, be proactive and look for opportunities within and beyond the school. (Read about my daughter’s experience here, and read about another child’s foray into the world of performing arts here.)

For more community advice, read our discussion on choosing and evaluating primary schools.