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Singapore's schooling system: everything you need to know

By Talk Education
31 August 2021

If you’re embarking on a global move, getting to grips with a different schooling system can be a challenge. To help, we’ve unpacked the international schools market to bring you everything you need to know about a child’s educational journey in Singapore: find out more below, then read our insider reviews to compare and contrast schools across the city-state and the rest of the world.

OVERVIEW

Singapore’s education system is split into two main sectors: international and local schools.

Local schools are run by the Singaporean government and offer the Singapore curriculum, as set by the Ministry of Education. Entrance is prioritised for Singapore citizens and permanent residents.

Expats can apply to a local school: it’s a relatively easy process for those with permanent-resident status, but anyone on a work or student permit can only apply after Singaporen citizens and permanent residents have finished doing so, subject to space. Despite these schools following a relatively rigid curriculum, they are very good value and offer an excellent education at very low cost.

International schools in Singapore really are just that: local Singaporean students can only apply for a place after receiving special permission from the Ministry of Education, which is no easy task. As a result, they mainly cater to the expat market – each one has FSS (Foreign School System) international status, meaning they can operate totally independently and offer any curriculum they like (some are also known as PEIs – Private Education Institutions).

THE INTERNATIONAL-SCHOOLS MARKET: KEY POINTS

There are currently 50 to 60 international schools in Singapore. The majority are co-ed, day and all-through schools, running from kindergarten right the way through to Grade 12 (those following an international curriculum call themselves K-12 schools). 

The international academic year runs from August to June, in contrast to the local-school academic year, which runs from January to December. Some schools might adjust their term dates and number of semesters/terms in line with the curriculum they offer.

It’s worth knowing that international schools in Singapore tend to be big: some might have anywhere between 1,000 to 3,000 pupils, with up to 10 classes in each year group – this can be fairly daunting to new expats arriving from much smaller schools.

Most international schools in Singapore have a very diverse cohort of students from all over the world. Depending on the curriculum and ethos of the school, one nationality may dominate (particularly those schools with ‘American’ or ‘British’ in their name) – but all are seen as very inclusive.

Schools have different names for their sections (nursery/kindergarten/preschool, etc), depending on their curriculum: a British school will use British year groups, for example. International IB schools use the International Grade System. It’s worth noting that senior schools tend to start at Year 7 (aged 11), not in Year 9 (aged 13), as is common in the UK.

THE EDUCATIONAL JOURNEY

Most new families arrive at an international school in Singapore having moved from overseas (or at the very beginning of their child’s educational journey). Assuming the child is well suited to the school, most tend to stay at the same one for the duration of their time in Singapore – as almost all schools are all-through, there’s no need to move at any stage, and pupils move seamlessly through their school, without any testing. Some schools may encourage a family to look elsewhere if they don’t feel that the pupil will cope with the rigour of their curriculum or exam programme. Additionally, there is often some movement at 13 or 16, when some pupils might return to a school in their home country.

ADMISSIONS PROCESS

Most schools offer a rolling admissions timetable, so if a place is available, it can be taken up at any time throughout the school year. The only time this isn’t true is during exam years (IGCSEs and the IB), when most schools will only take students up until the January of the first academic year of the exam courses. Of course, a few schools will make an exception, so it’s always worth checking.

Each school has its own admissions processes and fees, but expect to pay the following:

  • Registration fee. Required in order to put your name onto the list (sometimes even if you haven’t yet looked around the school)
  • Acceptance/enrollment fee. Payable once you have gone through the admissions process and been offered a place
  • Capital levy fee/building fund. Most schools charge some form of additional fee (either paid on admission or annually) that goes towards ongoing maintenance costs
  • Tuition fees. Calculated by term/semester or academic year. Usually one term or semester is payable in advance
Entrance assessments are rarely as rigorous as in the UK. Schools may set some form of online academic testing (in English, maths and very occasionally science) and a group or individual interview –but for younger pupils, this is usually fairly light. Most schools will also assess English proficiency.

As pupils get older (particularly as they approach IGCSE and IB-level), testing may well amp up in order to ensure they will be able to access the curriculum. For those joining in the sixth form, mock IGCSE results may be requested.

A handful of the smaller schools offer scholarships, including academic, sporting and art.

Some schools have their own fast-track admission processes: most offer priority for alumni, teachers’ children and siblings; others allow individuals or companies to ‘buy’ a place for their employees' children, allowing them immediate entrance or at least a spot at the very top of the waiting list.

THE CURRICULUM

There is a huge range of curricula on offer in Singapore international schools: international, American, British, French, Dutch, German, Japanese, Korean and many more. The majority offer some form of international curriculum (the IB diploma or the IB Primary Years Programme), and others will offer the IB in conjunction with another curriculum (such as A-levels, German Abitur and the US High School Diploma). Outdoor and service-orientated learning are a big deal, mainly driven by the ‘creativity, action and service’ values that run through the IB Diploma programme.

Not all schools offer IGCSEs but many do, as they recognise that parents may well want some sort of indication and recognition of attainment at this stage, in case they end up leaving Singapore before their child finishes school.

Most schools teach in English as standard (except German, Dutch, Swiss and French schools, which have English streams instead). The range of language courses on offer is often huge, and a large number of places offer bilingual IB Diplomas. Mandarin, in particular, is very popular – so much so that many schools compete to show off their Mandarin offering and immersion programmes.

BOARDING

Boarding is not particularly common in Singapore – and even in the very few schools that do offer it, it’s likely that less than five per cent of pupils will opt in. These tend to be international students (generally from ASEAN countries) who have moved over to Singapore for an immersive language experience during their IB years.

WHAT’S CHANGING?

Schools are getting more and more enquiries from Hong Kong, China and the rest of Asia. There’s also been an influx of big British brand names: Dulwich College Singapore opened about seven years ago, and more recently North London Collegiate School, Brighton College and The Perse School all arrived in the city-state too.

AND FINALLY...

In the world of global independent education, the fact that local Singaporeans can’t attend international schools is relatively unusual – and can cause a bit of a divide between the local and expat communities here.

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