April 26, 2009
THE EX-PAT FILES
Primary school daze
By Jervina Lao
Which school should I send my child to?
As my son nears the age for entering primary school, I find myself facing this question with increasing trepidation.
I've done my homework. I've trawled through the websites, investigated the schools and grilled parents with children in my targeted schools.
I've even resorted to stopping kids wearing the uniforms of the schools I'm looking into and interviewing them, all in an effort to come to a decision.
It's not easy. I've begun to realise that deciding on a school can be a nerve-racking exercise for many parents, Singaporean as well as expatriate.
My husband is from Greece and I am from the Philippines. I came here in 2001 to work at The Straits Times.
My husband joined me in 2003 and has since become an asset manager with a hotel company. We have two boys - one is five and the other, three.
One option for our children is an international school. In fact, to some expat families, the question is not whether to send Junior to an international school, but to which one.
Until recently, securing a place at a top-tier international school was like queueing up for a spot on American Idol, the high fees notwithstanding.
Until last year, the wait list for some international schools literally meant waiting for many years.
But with the current financial party pooper, many expats with hefty packages - that may have included generous schooling allowances - have been repatriated. Many of those who remain have stayed on with modest packages and are footing the school bill themselves.
Which leads me to the other option: Government-subsidised local schools.
For parents on modest budgets like me, it seems like a no-brainer. Do I mortgage my house and the rest of my working life to fork out the hefty sums for an international school - around $15,000 to $25,000 a year - or do I keep the money in my pocket and save for a nice retirement in Phuket by choosing a local school which costs next to nothing?
While going for a local school appears to be the easy choice, it very often is not for expats.
Foreign children who are not permanent residents fall at the bottom of the balloting barrel. This means they can get a place only after all the Singaporean and permanent resident children have secured places in schools.
Scratch out elite and branded schools. And cross out popular government schools. Be prepared for Junior to enter a school that is the last on any Singaporean parent's list.
'Nightmare, lah,' one of my Singaporean friends told me when I asked what was wrong if the child falls under Phase 3 of the balloting exercise.
There are also expat parents who won't even consider local schools as an option.
Singapore's education system, known for being achievement-oriented, is not everyone's cup of tea. The reputation of local schools as demanding, rigid and stressful has some expat parents regarding them as reminiscent of Dickensian sweatshops.
A few years ago, one of our good friends who had lived in Singapore for close to 10 years decided to quit his well-paying job, give up his and his family's permanent residency status and return to his native Australia.
His reason? Watching his then eight-year-old daughter spend her childhood toiling over worksheets and stressing over exams was giving him heartburn.
At one dinner I attended, I found myself embroiled in a heated discussion with another expat over the issue of international versus local schools.
All the verbal jujitsu I could muster couldn't convince her that I wasn't a nutter for contemplating sending my son to a local school.
Her reason? She cited her own niece who attends a local primary school - and who carries a bag almost as tall as herself and filled with her weight in books.
One expat father I know placed both his sons in an international school because the thought of them picking up Singlish with 'lor, lah, hor and meh' peppering their sentences made him and his wife cringe.
But for every parent who prefers international over local schools, there is another like the father I spoke with who is looking to pull his son out of an international school and place him in a local school because 'the lessons are much too easy for him. He's not being challenged enough'.
As for myself, having lived in Singapore for eight years, I've decided to go native.
I'm following that most hallowed of traditions practised by the most kiasu of Singaporean mums: I'm scheming one year ahead to get my child into the local school of my choice.
And which school have I decided on?
That's another tale.
The writer is an executive sub-editor with The Straits Times. She is a Filipino national and has lived here for the past eight years.