Elaine Ee: The Singapore rat race starts at age 7

Elaine Ee: The Singapore rat race starts at age 7

In high-pressure Singapore, success hinges on getting into the right primary school

Something big happens in Singapore around this time of year.

It’s not the Great Singapore Sale, or National Day and its multiple peripheral celebrations, but for parents with a child turning seven, it’s time to join the mad rush to secure a primary school place.

Having been through this twice myself, I can personally say that the whole experience can get slightly crazy.

The process starts in July and drags for about two months. Parents are first told where on the priority list of their desired school their child falls and then given a few days to apply for a place.

A quota of places is allocated to each priority group, or “phase.” If the number of children jostling for places in your child’s “phase” exceeds the school’s quota, the school draws lots and parents start praying.

If your child doesn’t get a place, he or she gets bumped way down the list, and, if all else fails, is assigned to the nearest school that has room left.

This whole experience is nerve-racking.

Much has already been said in the press recently about the lengths parents -- wealthy financiers and celebrities included -- will go to just to give their child a leg up.

we are talking about primary school here, not Harvard.

Volunteering with a school, which means giving 40 hours of work; moving to a school’s zone, which for many top schools means fancy neighborhoods; and politicking their way onto the school board.

These are some of the things parents do to claw their way up that priority list and hopefully past the competition.

So why this mass anxiety? After all we are talking about primary school (seven- to 12-year olds) here, not Harvard.

The reasons are plentiful: our “kiasu” culture, status consciousness, over-emphasis on elite education and the fact that in Singapore, education is completely dominated by our national education system.

Singapore's Compulsory Education Act makes it mandatory for children to receive their primary education at a Ministry of Education, or MOE-approved, school. After primary school, education options start to free up and students are left to pursue their education in any way they wish from their first year of secondary.

An increasing number of homeschoolers -- many with parents who hold strong convictions or whose kids are not benefiting from the MOE system -- are emerging among secondary school students.

Beyond secondary school, options fan out, with MOE-related junior colleges, polytechnics, institutes of technical education as well as myriad other private institutions for students to choose from, such as the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Shatec Institutes.

But because the MOE system is so pervasive and ingrained, and because of the Compulsory Education Act, it’s often MOE’s way or the highway, so the pressure is on to get it right, from the start.

Once our kids are in the all-consuming system, the path to doing well involves jumping through a series of well-defined hoops called assessments and exams. Miss one and play catch up.

School examinations channel our children onto more or less set paths at relatively early ages; and while there are more paths to be channeled into, switching (particularly up) is difficult and rare.

In 2009, for example, 38 percent of students in Secondary One had to enroll in the five-year O-level program because they did not qualify for the regular four-year program, and about 30 percent of those dropped out.

the right primary school ... leads to the right job, the right career and therefore eternal “success” and happiness.

That percentage has remained about the same for the last 10 years.

The crux really is: “good” primary schools bear affiliations to “good” secondary schools.

Translation: Get your child into the right primary school and hopefully that will mean better performance at key exams, especially the dreaded Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE); this leads to admission into the right secondary school, which should lead to the right junior college or polytechnic, and that in turn to the right university, the right job, the right career and therefore eternal “success” and happiness.

So prevalent is this mainstream path to success in Singapore that -- even if we acknowledge it is blinkered and excluding in many ways -- it holds many hostage.

These blinkered notions means the desirable, or “big brand” primary schools are ridiculously oversubscribed, while lesser recognized neighborhood schools can’t fill their classes.

A friend who refuses to succumb to the rat race and deliberately enrolled her son in a low-key neighborhood school reports that there are barely 30 students in his class.

A typical primary class in a big name school still holds around 40 students, despite MOE officially reducing primary class sizes to 30 in 2005.

That must be a relief to my friend and, I can imagine, to the teacher. But my friend has to contend with the prejudice that, in Singapore’s focus on helping the good get ever better, the best teachers and resources are believed to be allocated to the better schools and that her son is therefore “losing out.”

This also begs the question on what makes a teacher good? Aren’t teachers who invest in students who need help as valuable as those who groom President’s Scholars?

So until there is a meaningful alternative to mainstream primary school education or more varied paths to success in Singapore’s education system and what constitutes “success,” come this time every year we will see this madness resurface again.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Elaine Ee.