Being Singaporean,  Family and Parenting

Every School a Good School – But Which One is Best?

The atmosphere is infectious. And not in a good way.

Young parents stand nervously around the school porch waiting for their number to be called. Those who’ve volunteered their time to help handle the crowd at last year’s registration will know, the timing of your number being called is crucial. If your number is called too early, it usually means a document is missing, or a qualifying criteria wasn’t met. If your number is called late, there’s likely been a hitch in administration, and your agonising wait is made even more agonising by the delay.

It doesn’t help that the parents come to register in pairs as a safeguard in case one parent is holding information or documentation that the other one wouldn’t have on hand. The waiting crowd visually inflates the actual number of registrants vying for the vacancies (and, based on the registration phases progress chart helpfully posted on a makeshift whiteboard nearby, not much more than the 20 reserved seats for just this phase).

Aside from the school administration staff handling the paper shuffling, who have to put up a brave front during these events, no one else is smiling, even though some of us know each other from our parent volunteering stints over the past year.


Our number gets called up. We submit the one and only form we were asked to fill out in triplicate indicating our family’s information and that we fulfilled our parent volunteer obligations as a pre-requisite for Phase 2B. About 15 minutes later, our number was called again, and we were handed one of the copies of the form indicating that the results of our application would be announced on Friday.

The next day, a fellow parent volunteer messaged me to tell me we’re going into balloting.


Phase 2B this year has turned out to be more tense an affair than last year, with a record 31 primary schools oversubscribed compared to 24 from last year. It also puts to rest once and for all any speculation that parent volunteering ensures you a place in the primary school of your choosing. There’s been rising dissent to the phasings of the Primary 1 registration process, so much so that stop-gap measures had to be put in to ensure certain groups get priority over others (right down to who gets to go in the balloting box: first priority to Singapore citizens, followed by closest distance between applicant’s residential address to the school). Unsuccessful applicants from a previous phase can try again in the next phase, but again, this is by no means a guarantee of a spot; if anything, the competition will only get stiffer with every unsuccessful play because you’ll be contending with a new, larger batch of applicants together with the spillover from the previous phases.

When Education Minister Heng Swee Keat first came up with the tagline “Every School a Good School”, parents of young children across the nation let out a collective, sarcastic snigger so loud he had to re-explain the phrase he tried to coin. Top school principals were reshuffled into heartland schools, school banding was eliminated, and the MOE Facebook page started regularly publishing features on neighbourhood schools that, in the Minister’s own “let-me-clarify” words, “good in its own way, seeking to bring out the best in every child.”

But the reputation of the really good schools precede them, and that precedent has so far only managed to overtake the efforts to play down their worth. And having brought us all up to judge our peers, our environment, and ourselves based on the logic of meritocracy, one simply cannot expect to stop a nation of self-respecting parents not to want the best for their child. No one has ever faulted the Singapore education system for being sub-standard (in fact, we’re actually complaining that our kids aren’t failing enough),  but with a list of 187 primary schools, all segregated in clusters, inevitably parents will seek to do some banding of their own. Therein lies psychologist Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice, creating his similarly-implied anxiety to both the parent shopping for a primary school, and, as it were, the national education provider.

I know of parents that have refused to partake in this anxiety, choosing to be allocated a school in their immediate vicinity; they have the Blogfather’s full respect for being able to resist what we could not, but even they will tell you the only reason they took the stance was because they, too, were afflicted with the same anxiety when it was time to take on the Primary 1 Registration monster. As I said in the beginning, the atmosphere is infectious, and not in a good way.

Ultimately, the only thing you can be assured of is that your child will go into a primary school, thanks to the government’s long-standing no-child-left-behind policy.

The primary school of your choosing“.

Interestingly, my son, who is the centre of our whole ordeal with the registration process, has absolutely no idea what is going on. Until things are firmed up as to which school he will ultimately enrol in, we’re just going to let him lead his almost-carefree kindergarten life for the next few weeks…

… while we continue to infect the atmosphere with our anxiety as parents of a child going into Primary 1.

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