Everything I Know About Getting Into A Local Government School In Singapore As A Foreigner, Plus A Couple Of Things I Probably Made Up

We got the letter last week. P was accepted into a local Singaporean primary school. It wasn’t the one near the place where he once had an oreo milkshake but it was quite near a place where he once had an ice-cream sandwich, so that worked out ok. Unfortunately it’s not near the place where we live*.

Over the past week or two I’ve spent a considerable amount of time researching the breakage of leases, the rental of cars, the cost of taxis, the lengths of school bus trips, the ins and outs of the public transport system, and, at one point, the legality of fording Singapore’s waterways using a home-made amphibious bike.

I’ve also joined a facebook group for expat parents whose kids are going to local schools and met some fellow P1 families for 2015.

Oh, and I looked into the school, too, for what that’s worth. There’s a trendy-looking cafe opposite the main gate which opens at a time BOTH CHILDREN WILL BE IN CLASS SIMULTANEOUSLY. I’m not sure how to handle that yet but I’ll think of something.

In the meantime, in order to close the 2014 chapter of the Primary School Registration Saga, let me share with you everything I’ve learned about registering for a local primary school in Singapore as an expat. Plus – what the hey? – a couple of things I’ve most likely made up.

Everything I Know About Choosing A Local Government Primary School In Singapore As A Foreigner | Journeys of the Fabulist

Do you see what I did with this picture? Because it’s P going to school but kind of it’s me going to school?

1. There really is nothing you can do til phase three.

I said this at the start of the year when the registration frenzy began, and before I got caught up in it. I’m saying it again now, not because I think it’ll stop anyone getting caught up in it, but because, I don’t know, life is an exercise in futility and it’s nice to keep fit?

Bear in mind this applies for subsequent siblings as well – so there’s no guarantee both your children will be able to get in at the same school (although it is rumoured that where places are still available for phase three, siblings gain some preference).

2. The Ministry Of Education has no obligation to ensure foreign children get schooled.

The ministry will give you a place if they have one left over after taking care of citizens and permanent residents. Based on a 2014 Facebook group poll, this still includes the majority of applicants, but when they run out of places you’re on your own. Apparently (this was also on Facebook but the person who posted it swears it came directly from a representative of MOE so it must be true) over a thousand expats received rejection letters instead of school places this year.

Some of them are going to head off in a mad scramble for international schools. Many have decided to home school, or form “tuition groups” – informal mini-schools – and apply again later. Some are embarking upon a quest for the elusive Permanent Residency, and a few are just leaving Singapore. In any case, it’s not anyone’s business but the family’s – c’est la vie.

There are plenty of rumours about wait lists, transfers, and avenues for appeal, but stories are inconsistent and none of it’s backed up by anything official. The system’s more centralised this year than in the past, so a lot of what you’re hearing may be out of date. It’s my current impression that most families won’t be able to change their current placement (or lack thereof) in the short term, but chances may crop up in six or twelve months.

3. I don’t know how you can increase your chances of getting a place in a local school as an expat, but I can speculate.

MOE doesn’t reveal its methods, so you can’t game them. We know they’re not entirely random, though. The process takes into account “factors such as availability of school vacancies and ensuring a good spread of students“, which is vague enough to make you wonder which of what you write on the application form is up for grabs. Parents’ occupation? Race, nationality, and mother tongue? All good things to obsess over, especially if you have multiple qualifications, dual nationality, and speak several languages at home.

We have no such ambiguities, and might just have got lucky. There are only a couple of things I can think of which may (or may not) have put P further up the list.

  • He was born in Singapore. This either helped him (he’s practically one of us!) or hindered him (so why hasn’t he got PR/Citizenship yet?)
  • He’s been through a local kindergarten. Schooling isn’t compulsory for any child before P1, but you do have to write the name of the kindergarten – if any – on the application form. Could be they’ll more readily take a punt on a kid who’s not only been to kindergarten but had a chance to hone their Singlish at a local one. Or not.
  • For the gifted and talented. There’s no official testing for students entering P1, and it’s a stretch to think MOE would go to the bother of officially (or in any other capacity) contacting schools for reports on individual students. If they did, I’m not sure which would win out – P’s tendency to be mildly disruptive in class, which is a sign of either hidden genius or poor discipline (depending on how charitably his teachers word his report cards), or the bounty of scientific knowledge he’s gleaned mainly from listening to They Might Be Giants. However, entry testing is standard for grades P2 and up, with academic streaming (“banding”) in schools from P3, and it’s fair to assume that gifted students at those levels would have an edge over their peers.

If you’re an expat in Singapore gearing up for local school registration, here’s my advice:

  • Read the MOE website for information on foreign/international students. Prepare the correct documents, including an up-to-date immunisation certificate.
  • Join the Facebook group Singapore Expats In Local Schools. It seems like a good resource for discussing options and experiences with a large number of fellow parents and some educators.
  • Consider a local kindergarten program, bearing in mind this may have nothing to do with anything.
  • Try to make sure your child has been born, either here or elsewhere.
  • Good luck.

*It’s also not the same one his friend got into. I’ll keep you posted on any developments in terms of rift-causing technology.


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