Dec. 2 – Like most other local students, she woke up at 6:20 a.m., got to school by 6:40 a.m., and attended the assembly at 6:50 a.m. All students stood in straight rows in the middle of the field to sing the national anthem, say the pledge, and listen to announcements. After the prefect went down the row to check all the girls’ fingernail lengths, socks, and hair, the school day began. This was freshman Katherine Enright’s everyday life at Raffles Girls’ Primary School and Secondary School before moving to SAS this year.
Over 350 local schools in Singapore create one of the world’s best-performing school systems. In the last PISA assessment, Singaporean students ranked second worldwide in reading, math, and science. The local system itself is split up into primary schools (Grades 1-6), secondary schools (Grades 7-10), and junior colleges (Grades 11-12). All schools funded by the Ministry of Education charge only $0 to $5.00 per year in fees. However, while the education is free, being a student at a local school does come at a cost.
Because Enright’s school only accepted the top 3% of the nation, there was no shortage of stress.
“There really wasn’t much comparison to SAS. The workload was extremely heavy. My mother used to say that the people in the local system started banding together like wild horses, because otherwise you couldn’t survive,” Enright said.
The primary source of stress is the PSLE – Primary School Leaving Examination. All primary school students are required to sit for this exam at the end of Primary 6. The PSLE scores students out of 300 points, and this score determines which secondary school course the students are eligible for. The different secondary level courses include Normal-Academic, Normal-Technical, and Express.
Sophomore Liam Galey, who attended Tanjong Katong Primary School from P1-P6, felt very strongly about the PSLE.
“It’s basically the SAT for 6th graders, and it determines your secondary school, which chooses your junior college, and then your college, and so on. It’s really bad because automatically, you’re putting little kids into streams that determine the rest of their life,” Galey said.
Enright, on the other hand, appreciated how students of different learning capacities are separated into different schools through the local system.
“What I loved about my old school is that they really cared about students who excelled, whereas SAS is geared more towards making the average student feel happy. Putting the top 3% in the same local school – it’s a complete pressure cooker. But there’s just more of a meeting of minds that creates a much more encouraging and enriching environment,” Enright said.
While it is clear that the system is intense and the workload is heavy, all interviewees agreed that compared to SAS, there was not a huge emphasis on doing homework. Instead, local school students are much more motivated to excel in their test scores.
“In the local school, your homework isn’t in your grades. Only your end-of-year-exams are. Although there was a lot of homework, most of us didn’t do it,” Junior Sean Lau said. Lau attended Temasek Primary School before transferring to SAS.
“There would be one exam every quarter, and nothing would matter except that one exam. You wouldn’t do anything all year, not even your homework, until that one exam,” added Galey.
But not doing your homework, disobeying the teacher, or ignoring school rules could lead to harsh punishments. According to the Ministry of Education, “In severe cases, schools are allowed, under the Education Regulations, to impose corporal punishment. Punishment is always complemented with counselling and follow-up guidance.”
Although it is not as common, caning is still a legal practice used at local schools. Galey experienced physical punishment first hand during his years at his local primary school.
“My form teacher was the Discipline Master of the school. One time, he left the room with a kid by the collar, and was gone for about an hour. When he came back, he told the class that he had just caned the guy three times, and that he had bled,” Galey said. “I’ve never been caned, but I was slapped in Grade 2.”
As a student at a girl’s school, Enright never experienced or heard about instances of caning. Nonetheless, she agreed that teachers definitely held the power at local schools.
“Most of my teachers were really good, but they were more just there to present the material. There’s around 30 kids in a class and individual relationships with teachers are seldom formed. At SAS, teachers really value you as a student and person for your insights, and that’s something that really struck me,” Enright said.
In terms of its facilities and the amount of extracurriculars offered, SAS certainly holds some advantages over local schools. Lau especially appreciated the variety and intensity of the athletics program at SAS when he first got here.
“The sports season here is very good. In the local school, you do one sport for the whole year, and you only practice on Fridays. Here, you practice every day and form bonds with your team,” Lau said.
While SAS may have a larger campus and more after school activities, all interviewees agreed that if they were a parent, they would still choose to send their kids to a local school before transferring to an international school. Previous local students at SAS hold some obvious advantages.
“In local schools, math is really accelerated, and because of all the outside tuition students do, people really get ahead in terms of their studies,” Lau said.
“I have a huge advantage coming here. The local system teaches you the capacity to handle stress so that you have – if not a better work ethic – at least a more exercised one,” Enright added.
Galey saw a different benefit to attending a local school.
“Apart from work ethic, it’s more of a cultural thing. As opposed to someone who’s attended SAS since kindergarten, I feel a lot more in tune with the culture here. Also, it just felt more like a community there. Walking around the two fields, huge stadium, and track at SAS, it just doesn’t feel like a community as much,” Galey said.
Clearly, there are pros and cons to the local and international school systems. Perhaps in the end, those who have attended both become the most educationally proficient, culturally competent, and overall well-rounded students.