Gearing up to start primary school in Singapore

December is the equivalent of UK’s summer holiday season in Singapore; a six-week school break at the end of the academic year. Which means we’ve got just over a month before Miss Chu starts school! So, after an extremely long hiatus from “real” school… we’re gearing up to kick off in P1 (again) this January. I’m feeling relatively confident that Miss Chu will be fine. She has been through the whole “starting school” thing in the UK before. Routine, uniforms, lunch at the canteen, assemblies…hopefully it will be a straightforward transition. But, as to be expected, not everything will be the same! Here are ten things which are definitely different about starting primary school in Singapore:

1. The Big Book List

Prior to starting P1, pupils have to order their books and stationery from approved suppliers. We were handed a detailed order form on Orientation Day and have now come home with this rather hefty box:


In Singapore, children have to purchase their own supplies and carry them back and forth from school. On top of the prescribed textbooks and exercise books, the list even includes items such as a mini whiteboard, subject ring binders, and art materials like paint palette, oil pastels and glue.

When Miss Chu started Primary One in Edinburgh, all she had in her schoolbag was her lunch! Everything else was supplied by the school, even pencils and erasers. After a few weeks, she was given a lightweight homework folder with an exercise book and reading book, but rarely had much to carry. From the look of this pile, I guess it’s going to be a little different here. Which brings me to my next point:

2. Backpack…or trolley bag?!

Yes, seriously, some primary school kids here use something akin to a suitcase to lug their books to and from school. (Although certain schools in Singapore discourage them as they are difficult to carry up stairs. No kidding.) Apparently, although guidelines recommend that children should be carrying bags which are no more than 10-15% of their body weight, the average packed schoolbag could weigh around 4kg, so there is a huge market for “ergonomic” (read: expensive!) school bags here. We have yet to find Miss Chu something suitable.

3. White shoes

All schoolchildren here wear white canvas shoes. This seems seriously impractical to me – why would you put kids in something that is going to get so dirty, so fast? Or am I missing something? Am really hoping that Sunday evenings will not be spent scrubbing shoes.


Miss Chu finds a white pair of shoes with a discreet Hello Kitty logo. But they don’t have her size!

4. Neat hair

Singapore has relaxed its rules on school hairstyles considerably over the years. In the past, all girls had to have short hair, no longer than “one inch below the ear”. Can’t imagine quite how “uniform” everyone would have looked with that rule! Even though girls are allowed longer hair now, there are fairly strict rules, monitored by prefects. At Miss Chu’s school, these are as follows:

  • Hairstyles should be neat and appropriate.
  • If hair reaches the collar, it should be tied up neatly.

This is Miss Chu on her first day of school in Edinburgh. Her hair would not have passed the test in Singapore!


Miss Chu age 5, starting school in Edinburgh

  • Long hair should be neatly plaited.

Sadly, even with two daughters, plaiting hair is really not one of my top skills. Especially early in the morning. Better start practicing.

  • Fringes are to be kept above the eyebrows.

Oh dear. Bobby pins at the ready. We are growing out her fringe but it does take time!

  • Those with long fringes need to wear a hairband or use hairclips to keep hair away from the face.
  • All hair accessories should be dark green or black.
  • Fancy haircuts/hairstyles and hair colouring are not allowed

5. Learning to order and pay for food

In Edinburgh, school lunches were paid for termly in advance, and the kids could just order at the canteen without bothering about money. Here, schools have a canteen with several stalls (like a food court) from which children purchase their snacks at recess.

I photographed the menus from every stall during our recent school visit so that Miss Chu can familiarise herself with what’s on offer – otherwise it will take her the whole of recess just to choose what to eat! And there is a lot on offer, from Yaki-Udon and Laksa to Duck Rice and Pizza…not to mention the fruit and drinks stall! But we’re going to have to practice handling money before term starts. I don’t want her to be holding up the queue whilst counting change because…

6. Recess is only half an hour

I still can’t quite believe this is true, but it seems that out of their 6-hour school day, the kids only have a single 30 minute break. I’m sure Miss Chu had about 1.5 hrs of break time in a school day (split into 3 sessions) back in Edinburgh! Hasn’t it been shown that children (or anyone, for that matter) work more effectively with regular breaks? Perhaps in reality, there is more downtime than the schedule reveals. Meanwhile I’m wondering whether Miss Chu (who often used to tell me she was one of the slowest at the lunch table) will manage to queue up, order, pay, eat and get to the loo within 30 minutes. Not to mention…play?

7. We need to buy Miss Chu an alarm clock.

Unlike me, Miss Chu is a morning person. She readily bounces out of bed, eyes bright and ready to go. But even Miss Chu doesn’t usually get up before 7am. And as school here starts at 7:30am, I guess we’ll be needing to be up and about by 6:30am at the very latest to make it there on time (I feel pain just having typed that out). But we’re lucky – we should be able to walk to school in under ten minutes. Many children will be arriving from much further afield, and waking before 6am to catch the school bus.

8. Managing dual languages

Two of Miss Chu’s core subjects will be English and Mandarin. On Orientation day we were handed a list of 250 (English) words, along with instructions to assess whether our children could read/write these prior to starting school. I’m not sure whether (reading between the lines) this actually means “please make sure your child can read and write these words before starting P1”! Thankfully, Miss Chu can manage the English just fine.

We were also handed a sheet of Mandarin words and phrases that the children should be familiar with before starting school…and yep, we’re working on those! As well as making sure she can write her name and the date quickly in Chinese characters.

9. A very big class

Primary school classes are much larger here. I think Miss Chu had about 25 children in her P1 class in Edinburgh. The Ministry of Education guidelines here stipulate that P1 and P2 classes should have 30 kids, rising to 40 (!) in P3 and above. But it doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule; we have been told that the P1 classes at Miss Chu’s school will have 35 per class. Can’t imagine what classroom management for a class of 35 will be like! And how much personal attention any of the children could possibly hope for.

10. P1 prep classes

Just kidding, we’re not actually doing this! But there are many enrichment centres around Singapore offering courses to prepare children academically prior to entering Primary One in the three core subjects : English, Math and Mother Tongue (Mandarin, for us).


But why do students need to cover the syllabus before starting school?

The official line is that no preparation is needed for P1, everyone will start with the basics. However, many parents wish to give their children a “headstart”, and want them to have practically covered the P1 syllabus before they start school to ensure top grades. One popular learning centre here recently advertised a ten-week intensive course involving “three days a week after preschool, from 3-7pm (with one break given) to fill in any gaps in learning and give your child the boost they need. Covering English, Chinese and math, there is a heavy emphasis on core skills.” Wow. Four hours of after-school prep for a 6 year old! And there I was thinking it was quite acceptable for a 6 year old to have some gaps in their learning. Silly me.

I have no idea what awaits in January. But this December, we are definitely going to relax!


Fingers crossed this month doesn’t mark the end of a carefree childhood.


  1. Sounds like the prep for school lunch times is more than enough to do while enjoying the holidays.

    Perhaps you could get the equivalent of a girl’s world to practice your plaiting techniques. I’m seriously considering playing with Ava’s when she’s asleep, as I can only manage a really basic plait so far.

    • Tammy! Love your blog! Lets hope things will go all very well for Miss Chu ): And I have to agree! The class sizes are big to begin with. ):
      Love reading your blog hehehe and you really love being a mum! (: so honoured to meet you.

  2. I remember back in Poland I started school at 7:15 My school was so big we had “late shifts” every second year and then my lessons started 12:45 There was 6 P1 classes about 30 kids in each. We had to buy everything like you do so my bag was very heavy. I can see some similarity here 😉
    I’m sure N will be fine!

    • 7:15! Ok I shouldn’t complain. Interesting that schools in Poland and Singapore sound quite similar! I’ve never known anything except the UK school system – so it’s all so different to me.

  3. Loving the blog Tammy, and missing you. N will be just fine!

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