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The Big Read in short: Getting your kid into Pri 1 is no child’s play

Each week, TODAY's long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how the annual Primary 1 registration exercise has become a major source of stress and consternation for parents in Singapore. This is a shortened version of the full feature.

There are at least nine ways – including by joining the alumni association or the school management committee, becoming a community leader or a parent volunteer, among others – by which parents can seek priority entry to a school if their child doesn’t already have siblings who are schooling there or had studied there.

There are at least nine ways – including by joining the alumni association or the school management committee, becoming a community leader or a parent volunteer, among others – by which parents can seek priority entry to a school if their child doesn’t already have siblings who are schooling there or had studied there.

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Each week, TODAY's long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how the annual Primary 1 registration exercise has become a major source of stress and consternation for parents in Singapore. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • Over the decades, the annual Pri 1 registration exercise has morphed into a complicated scheme comprising seven phases and a multitude of rules
  • This year’s exercise is particularly competitive, as it involves the SG50 cohort starting Pri 1 next year —  the bumper crop of 33,725 citizen births in 2015
  • Parents say they have to go to great lengths, putting in vast amounts of time, money and energy into navigating the system
  • Experts warn that it is crucial for schools to not become “closed circles”

 

SINGAPORE — The perennial issues surrounding Primary 1 registration — including whether the system is fair and simple enough for parents with limited means — got a renewed airing in Parliament in March when Members of Parliament (MPs) called for a review during the debate on the budget of the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Then Education Minister Lawrence Wong acknowledged that the competition for spaces in more popular schools has intensified in recent years, as he announced that MOE was reviewing how the number of spots for children with no prior connections to the school but live nearby can be increased.

Over the decades, particularly in the last 10 years, the Pri 1 registration system has morphed into a complicated scheme comprising seven phases and a multitude of rules.

Indeed, it is a major source of stress and consternation for parents, with some already making preparations and plotting a strategy when their child is yet to be born.

This year’s exercise is particularly competitive, as it involves the SG50 cohort starting Pri 1 next year —  the bumper crop of 33,725 citizen births in 2015, which was the highest in the 13 years preceding it, helped by the feel-good factor of the enhanced parental perks handed out in conjunction with Singapore’s jubilee celebrations.

For Mr Ong Jun Da, 38, a self-employed mobile app developer, he started his research on prospective schools in 2018, when his daughter, Kate, was just around three years old.

In December 2019, he approached Chongfu School, located just outside the 1km radius from his home in Yishun, but was told that he lives too far away.

Next, he tried to get a spot at Northland Primary School. While he managed to qualify for a ballot, he was not among the 20 applicants – out of a total of 80 – who were selected.

It was only when he was rejected the third time – this time by Anderson Primary located in Yio Chu Kang, that he called and emailed the school to appeal, saying that he could do much more than serving as a traffic warden.

To secure a spot for his daughter in this year’s exercise, Mr Ong spent close to 80 hours last year coding an e-open house website and an art gallery microsite for the school, on top of providing technical know-how to support the live streaming of the school’s National Day celebrations that year.

Mr Ong Jun Da with his daughters Kate (left), six, and Jade, one. He had gone to great lengths to secure a place in Anderson Primary School for Kate during this year’s Primary 1 registration exercise. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Meanwhile, his frustration over the lack of digestible information publicly available led him to start a website SGSchooling.com in 2019 that collates all the information and analysis that a parent might need, including every school’s balloting history.

PARENTS SPARE NO EFFORT 

There are at least nine ways – including by joining the alumni association or the school management committee, becoming a community leader or a parent volunteer, among others – by which parents can seek priority entry to a school if their child doesn’t already have siblings who are schooling there or had studied there.

Some parents would plan early to come up with a strategy that would help their child to get into the school of their choice.

Some parents even send in their curriculum vitae (CV).

Mrs Ho GL, 41, a freelancer in the financial industry, said that, when she was still pregnant with a boy in 2012, she and her husband paid S$100 to join the alumni association of his school, a well-known boys’ school in Bishan which she declined to name.

And when preparing for her six-year-old daughter’s Phase 2B admission, she had sent in both her and her husband’s CVs to two girls’ schools, when the child was still young, to be considered for parent volunteering.

“We don’t want to be caught in a situation where we wanted to join a phase but missed out because of a cut-off date,” Mrs Ho said.

Earlier this year, public relations manager Rachel Ho, 31, and her lawyer husband attended a Zoom interview so that they could join the alumni association of Nanyang Primary School, to prepare for the primary school admission of their son, who is one year old this year.

To get started, they would have to pay a one-time S$1,000 payment for a lifetime membership with the alumni association, attend a “values talk” and two sessions of volunteer work as a traffic warden.

‘LOGISTICALLY DEMANDING, EMOTIONALLY TAXING’

But the alumni route doesn’t mean that the registration journey will be smooth sailing either.

The competition has become so intense that balloting took place even at Phase 2A1 at five schools this year: Catholic High, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’, Nanyang, Pei Hwa Presbyterian and Rosyth.

Marketing manager Alethia Lee, 34, was one of the 102 parents vying for 81 spots at Rosyth under the priority phase.

“I didn’t expect to be stressed about it at Phase 2A1,” she said, adding that she paid S$350 to join the school’s alumni association in 2019.

Then, there are parents like marketing executive Evelyn (not her real name), in her late 30s, who decided to relocate so that her six-year-old son would stand a better chance at the ballot under Phase 2C after failing to find a way to do parent volunteering.

It is logistically taxing as it meant renting out her family home to live in a rented apartment within 1km from St Andrew’s Junior School since November last year, but still having to send her son to his kindergarten in their old neighbourhood.

The gamble did not pay off, however, and she is now waiting for confirmation that her son has gotten into Montfort Junior School through Phase 2C Supplementary.

CAN THE MONSTER EVER BE TAMED?

The jostling for entry into more desirable primary schools is by no means a new development. In fact, it has existed since the late 1960s.

In 1971, then Minister of State for Education Lee Chiaw Meng remarked in Parliament that long queues at some schools registering children for Pri 1 classes was “the most perplexing phenomenon”, and “occurred year after year”.

The year before, parents queued for “many days” to sign their children up at Raffles Girls’, while there were hardly any queues at all at other “established schools”, Mr Lee noted.

The need to curb excessive demand for places in popular schools led to the birth of the inaugural version of the national Pri 1 registration system in 1972, as policymakers sought to make the process transparent and orderly.

Despite the acceleration of changes in recent years – at least five tweaks were made in the past decade alone – an academic paper published in May this year criticised the system for being “not transparent” and too convoluted for it to be fair.

The study, by Yale-NUS assistant professor of social sciences (psychology) Cheung Hoi Shan and Yale sociology lecturer Mira Debs, had analysed posts on popular online parenting forum KiasuParents from 2015 and news articles from 2010 to 2020.

They found that even savvier parents who could access the portal were confused and anxious, needing to make a series of complex calculations to exercise preferences, such as proximity to school and ease of entry, before they were able to narrow down “safer” choices.

Contrary to the portrayal of parents being “kiasu”, or scared to lose and competing among themselves, Asst Prof Cheung and Dr Debs told TODAY that they in fact seek to help one another with the process.

Indeed, even parents who set out not wanting to be caught up in the game said that they could not resist poring over the various schools’ ballot history, just so they could pick the closest school with the highest likelihood of a vacancy.

Mrs Cheryl Grange, whose son started attending Pri 1 at Tanjong Katong Primary School this year, said: “We did a quick back-of-the-napkin kind of calculation just to get a sense of roughly how difficult it might be and what might be the worst-case scenario.”

Even so, she felt like she was making a decision in a vacuum due to the many unknowns, such as how many children in her area are applying.

“In the absence of that data, it kind of feels a little bit like a lucky draw,” said the communications executive in her 30s.

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PARENTS’ WOES

Pioneer MP Patrick Tay, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, has a simple wish: For more places to be allocated to those living nearby.

He said he had encountered many residents who were given a place in a school much further away because the one just downstairs was already heavily subscribed or had its slots taken up in initial phases.

Mr Tan Kar Hui and wife Katie Lin are among those who had raised the issue with their MP after failing to secure a place for their girl at Kong Hwa School, located about 500m away from their home in Mountbatten, in Phase 2C earlier this month. The couple, both 42, are working as consultants.

“On paper, it looks like we have a lot of choices to fall back on, but they are an illusion,” Mr Tan said, pointing out that this is the first time that the next three schools in their consideration – Geylang Methodist, Tanjong Katong and Haig Girls’ – were filled up by Phase 2C.

“Even balloting historical records did not prepare us for this.”

They ended up signing their girl for Marymount Convent 10km away, which had quite a high number of places up for grabs.

Mr Tan Kar Hui and wife Katie Lin failed to secure a place for their girl at Kong Hwa School, located about 500m away from their home in Mountbatten, in Phase 2C earlier this month. They ended up signing their girl for Marymount Convent 10km away, which had quite a high number of places up for grabs. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Even so, it is now uncertain if they would get in, as MOE’s update on Wednesday (Aug 25) said that citizens living outside a 2km radius of Marymount Convent will need to undergo balloting for 74 spaces as it had received 92 applications by the end of the exercise.

Ms Lin added: “The Government should give extra support for full-time working adults. They place such heavy emphasis on the alumni and the volunteer work, which makes it challenging for the working-class people who may not have the flexibility to do so.”

Administrative executive Iris Leong, a working mum in her 30s who juggles caring for three children under the age of seven while working from home, said: “Those with ample time to volunteer have ample help at home too. Of course they can afford the 40 or 80 hours. To me, it is unfair.”

MAKING ‘EVERY SCHOOL A GOOD SCHOOL’ — A SOLUTION ONLY IN THEORY?

Dr Vincent Chua, an associate professor in National University of Singapore’s (NUS). Department of Sociology, said it is hard to come up with an ideal Pri 1 registration system given the multiplicity of groups, interests and considerations, especially where solving one problem introduces another.

For example, while allocations based on home-to-school proximity and siblings solve the “practical problem of everyday logistics for parents”, it also reproduces advantages for wealthy families in top school areas, where the “whole family” gets to go to the same school, he said.

In the short term, increasing the number of Phase 2C slots might help, but it still doesn't eliminate the uneven playing field.

To reduce competition for top schools in the long term, the only way would be to “make every school a good school” by putting more resources to the other schools so that the schools are more equally desirable, Dr Chua added.

Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan said that while maintaining alumni relations is desirable, it is crucial for schools to not become “closed circles”.

Hence, he would rather see the number of vacancies available after Phase 1, the sibling phase, be equally divided among Phases 2A (the sub-phases combined), 2B, and 2C, he said. Currently, only 40 places are set aside: 20 for Phase 2B and 20 for Phase 2C.

A no-holds barred review of eligibility for each phase is also due, including a reconsideration of whether a member of the primary school’s school advisory committee should be given priority, he said.

He added that the parent volunteer scheme should be discontinued as the process of who gets selected to be a parent volunteer becomes “controversial” when demand often outstrips supply of volunteering opportunities, featuring CVs or even tacit appeals for donations to the school.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that the fairest way may well be to put everyone through a ballot, where every application has statistically a more or less equal chance of being selected.

But parent of three Christopher Gee, 52, believes this would spark an uproar.

“If everyone goes through a random ballot, how would you make a decision? Imagine if that was the scheme tomorrow. There would be confusion. I’d argue that very few people would be for it,” said the academic.

Hence, any alternative system would still end up with some form of preference, which would inevitably favour some people more than others. “How is it different from the current system?” he asked. “What we have could well be the least worst of the systems.”

But he said the mantra of “every school is a good school” needs to be backed up.

“You might need to differentiate them a bit more, or else they are just neighbourhood schools... They need to be seen as really good schools that parents want to send their children to, not just ‘any other school’,” he said.

Related topics

MOE education primary school Primary 1 registration

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