children

078 How To Choose Schools Wisely?

A Grave Mistake That Parents Make

On the 21 November, the results of the this year’s Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) were released. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to chose a suitable secondary school for the children.

As the school-posting system is entirely based on the merit of academic results, many parents tend to make their decision around their children’s PSLE score.

But I know one of the gravest mistakes parents make is to allow their decision to be dictated by their children’s PSLE score.

Four years ago, the good news of a friend, AP’s son’s admission to a premier school turned into a story of hectic struggles for the family. They even moved house to be closer to the school to make life easier for their son. My friend reflected, “The first year was rough. My son did not expect tests to cover stuff that the teacher didn’t teach in class. Over the years, he is coping better, but his self-esteem was somewhat dented. I started to question if it was a good decision.”

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Another friend, BQ lamented that her relationship strained terribly after she influenced her daughter to change her choice of school to a premier one where she had few friends. She was heartbroken one day when her daughter made an outburst in tears while struggling with her school work, “You made me choose this school!”

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And there was this friend, CR who revealed, “I resorted to emotional blackmail and tried all ways to make my son choose the school I thought was in his best interest. My boy stubbornly refused. Now, looking at how he has blossomed in the school he chose, I am embarrassed to admit that my son’s judgement was better.”

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Over the years, I have become convinced that it’s prudent to look beyond the cut-off-points of schools, and ask ourselves one question: what kind of school suits my child best?

Know Your Child’s Personality

Last year, I had to confront the same question as my younger son, Conan took PSLE.

Conan’s score of 270 could get him into any school of his choice. It seemed like a no-brainer to choose the most sought-after premier school, the Raffles Institution (RI), that accepts only students scoring around 260 and above. His school teacher also suggested Conan choose RI like the other top boys.

But my wife and I reckoned RI would attract the top students from most primary schools. A fiercely competitive environment like that might not be a good fit for Conan’s personality.

We saw what he was like in the last three years when he was placed in the GIfted Education Program (GEP). The boy loved to be in the company of his smart and boisterous GEP friends, but dreaded being repeatedly told by his teachers to work harder in some subjects like Maths which he paled in comparison to others. Subsequently, he even dipped in Science at Primary five, a subject that he used to excel in.

Conan knew what worked for him. He said, “I thrive better when I am not compelled by others to do their bidding. I do best when I pursue things at a pace that I enjoy. What’s the point of getting good grades if I don’t enjoy the subject and would give up eventually anyway?”

So, we eliminated the obvious choice that everyone thought we would chose.

How To Reach A Consensual Decision?

More important than the decision itself is the decision-making process. My wife and I agreed that Conan must be involved in the decision-making. But we were hesitant to let him have the final say.

So, I set the rules, “You can have a bigger say in the choice of school. But you cannot make a unilateral decision on a matter that may affect the whole family. So, it has to be a consensual decision that everybody agrees as one family.”

Conan agreed. But he had his mind set on only one school — River Valley High School (RV), a reputable school in the furthest western part of Singapore. His rationale was that RV is co-Ed, offers the Integrated Program (IP) that allowed him to study up to senior high school level in six years, and the school was clearly not the choice of fiercely competitive top students.

Source: https://m.facebook.com/River-Valley-High-School-Singapore-Official-352563478111277/

But we had a practical concern— it would take nearly one and a half hour to commute between home and school.

We explained, “The school hours in secondary school are longer. And the workload is also heavier. It will be dreadful to spend so much time on the road, depriving you of your rest time, personal and family time.”

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But the boy was not easily persuaded. He argued, “Travelling time is not a problem to me. I can always find something to do on the move.”

Then he changed tack and made a pitch,

“Dad, didn’t you always want me to be better in Chinese? As RV is very strong in Chinese language and culture, it will be good for my Chinese studies.”

I replied in laughter, “That’s a good sales pitch! But I am not falling for that. Long commute time is a real concern, especially during the rainy season and the exam period. And it affects the quality of your school life more than you believe it matters.”

So I decided, “Let’s keep an open mind to consider at least one more school. Meanwhile, we will travel with you to RV by public transport for the next few days to experience how it is like.”

Who Played Into The Hands of The Other?

On a Saturday morning, our family travelled together to RV. Along the journey, I told Conan anecdotes of students who are studying in RV that I gathered from friends and the chat room of RV students. And we discussed the other schools that meet his requirements of co-ed and IP.

Conan agreed that National Junior College (NJC), which takes 30 to 40 minutes lesser time to commute, is a viable alternative. And the school offered unique and interesting programs like the compulsory 4-6 weeks annual boarding school program.

But Conan still insisted that RV was his first choice.

On the second day, during our commute to RV, I shared my thoughts with Conan,

“Both RV and NJC are good schools. But I think the ethos in NJC may be a better fit for you because the principal of NJC spoke more about their values and the uniqueness of their programmes , while the principal of RV emphasised on their scholastic achievements and results.”

Conan listened thoughtfully but he did not say a word.

On the way back, I remarked, “The journey is tolerable without the weekday crowds. But you may not find seats during peak hours and have to stand all the way for ninety minutes.”

Having stated the disadvantage, I threw in a carrot,

“You know that I don’t like to give monetary reward. But since you did so exceptionally well this time, and I have not figured what to reward you.. I will give you a monetary reward of $500 if you choose NJC.” Then I feigned regret instantly, “No, it’s not right. Forget that I suggested it.”

His mum intercepted and said to me, “No way! How can you retract your words to your son so quickly?”

Then turning to Conan, she suggested, “Since it’s the first time that your Dad is so generous, get him to give you more!”

Conan took cue from his mother and said, “Dad, I can take up NJC, depending on what’s your best offer?”

I laughed, “You are opportunistic. $200 more, that’s as far as I am willing to go!”

“$700. It’s a deal!” Conan laughed heartily. And his mother joined in with laughter of triumph.

“Are you two in cahoots?” I looked at them with suspicion. The mother and son laughed even more.

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Conan said, “Actually, I am fine with both schools. Just wanted to see how generous you can be. You must keep your words now!”

“Okay. A deal is a deal.” I nodded, “But your old man is a poor man. I can only give you in instalments of $100 per month over seven months.”

To me, it was just an extra amount I would probably have to fork out as his allowance anyway. To Conan, however, he told me later that he was actually fine to make NJC his first choice by the second day, so the $700 incentive was actually an extra windfall.

Somehow till today, however, I cannot help feeling that both of us had played into the hands of someone else.

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Important Considerations

Nonetheless, the decision turned out good. Fast forward one year, Conan has made new friends, continues to do well in his studies and has enjoyed the boarding experience at NJC tremendously!

To parents of PSLE students who are finalising on the school choices before 27 November this year, hopefully you find my personal anecdotes entertaining and meaningful.

Find a school that suits your child best. Making a wishful decision can turn a good news today into a nightmare, whereas a good decision can turn even a disappointing news today into a blessing in disguise tomorrow.

Think again:

(1) The kind of school environment – Will you be comfortable with the type of students and their family backgrounds?

(2) The rigour of their curriculum – Will your child’s self-esteem be adversely hit when they are compared to their peers?

(3) The travel time between school and home – Will the child become too tired?

(4) The school culture and ethos – Find out reviews from friends with kids studying in the schools you are choosing.

A good decision is made when your child feels good in his or her new school, not when everyone else, ironically except your kid, thinks that the school is good.

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Bear in mind, children are the ones going to study in the school you choose for the next 4-6 years. Parents, please set the rules, listen to them and find consensus!

All the best!

William W K Tan

25 Nov 2019

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