Singapore school life…updates from Primary Two

This week, we breathe a little sigh of relief as the June school holidays begin! It’s hard to believe a year and a half has flown by since Miss Chu started primary school here. Has her experience of local school been the soul-crushing experience we feared? Time for Miss Chu and I to share a few thoughts about her school life in Singapore so far…

Let’s start with the most important question.

Is school enjoyable?

Actually, yes – most of the time. She says: sometimes she loves it, but she has bad days too. I’d expect that would be the case in any school. All in all, it’s nowhere near as brutal as we’d feared, and I don’t have any trouble getting this girl out of the door in the mornings. She has enjoyed being a class monitor for the first two semesters of P2, has made some good friends and can now switch on a little Singlish when she needs to!

What is particularly reassuring for me is that Miss Chu adores her class teacher. Having a kind, well-respected teacher is surely the foundation of a happy classroom, so that is one big tick in the box. I love that her current teacher uses Class Dojo to regularly share photos and videos of school life so we get a little peek into their day…and generally they look to be a cheerful bunch!

And the actual workload?

So far, I’d say the workload is not particularly onerous. Homework is still a relatively light 30 minutes a day (or less), and Miss Chu has been managing fine on her own with everything except Mandarin, for which tuition is still very necessary. Keeping up with the Chinese has required hard graft and a few tears, but she’s been doing better than expected! Her favourite subject is maths. So far, she has not brought home any fiendishly hard questions that I can’t answer, but I’ve heard that might be coming up in a year or two. I do find it surprising that they get no assigned reading homework at all for English or Chinese.

So it’s all good?

Well, the early mornings are still painful, and on hot days, Miss Chu struggles to concentrate in the non-airconditioned classrooms. She almost fainted one day in P1, but is slowly acclimatizing. But these aren’t serious issues. There are, however, a couple of things that do bother me.

Worksheets, tests and grade comparison

Most of Miss Chu’s homework is filling out worksheets. I don’t object to a certain amount of worksheet practice, but there seems to be a real absence of creative / project-based work. Is it because these are hard to mark objectively in a system where almost every bit of work is graded and tallied towards end-of-year results? Miss Chu has already become somewhat fixated by grades, worrying about half-marks lost here and there over (what I would regard as) slightly pedantic marking. Testing is frequent and grade comparison is rife.

I don’t know whether kids here are primed to compare by parents and tutors asking… Who was the top scorer in your class? Did you do better than so-and-so? Miss Chu told me she’s had her graded test paper snatched out of her hand by curious classmates.

I take great pains to explain to Miss Chu that these exam papers only narrowly test a student’s understanding or aptitude; that at this early stage, test scores do not adequately reflect true ability in a subject area. I mean, they’ve barely scratched the surface of maths or english at this point… and they are already saying “I’m good at this or bad at that”.

The worst bit is, I worry that all this is already impinging on their ability to be different, to take risks. Even when discussing ideas for show and tell, Miss Chu was unsure about straying too much from the given example as it might risk bringing her grade down. And every percentage point counts. At the end of P2, the students will be streamed into ability classes. There is no safe space to fail, which is ridiculous when you’re eight years old. If this goal-oriented, performance–driven culture doesn’t change, I fear Singapore will not be nurturing the creative, innovative generation it desires to lead its future.

Not enough break time

I’m very protective of my kids’ free time. I try to make sure they have a few hours of unscheduled free time everyday to play, do their own stuff, think their own thoughts, be bored, and learn to occupy themselves. At this age, I limit afterschool activities and don’t take them to any classes that involve traveling more than ten minutes from home.

Especially since the school day is so tightly scheduled. There are only two breaks; a 30-minute recess mid-morning and a 5-minute midday snack break on days that end at 1:45pm. There is no proper lunch break, and children who live further away from school may only eat a full meal at around 2:30-3:00pm when they get home after a long bus journey. It’s hard going, when you consider they might have eaten breakfast at 6:00am.

Recess is only 30 minutes, and even then, the school manages to rope in a lot of parent volunteers to run various activities during this 30-minute window. I thought recess was for eating and playing, but students are offered craft activities, storytelling, short films, math workshops and all sorts. I really think the girls could do with some downtime without being constantly offered an organized activity. One day, when I happened to be in school during recess, a couple of Miss Chu’s classmates were “bored” and asked me to suggest what they could play!

A local parent blogger posted an article (entitled No time to eat, no time to sleep) bemoaning the current life of primary school students in Singapore. Their example “timetable” is likely typical of many families here and shows how little free time children have, especially when you add in all the tuition and enrichment classes kids take after school.

I’m sure these issues are not unique to Singapore, although prevailing mindsets here may exacerbate the situation.

So far, I’m happy that things are going pretty well for Miss Chu. At the same time, I’ve noticed a few problems arising and am trying my best to mitigate against the pitfalls. Teachers and tutors say the curriculum gets harder every year; parents further along the line tell me standards jump up in P3.

So much to look forward to ?. But for now, we’re off to enjoy the holidays!

*featured image credit:



  1. I’m aware kids in Singapore do extremely well in international comparisons, but the price seems to be hard! In Finland kids have a 15 min recess after 45 minutes class and they are served a warm lunch every day. Starting this year the the curricula are phenomenon-based. In practice this means that e.g. when my 8 years old relative studied plans she had her own topic to research and she was to build an artifact for a fair where she shared her findings on her stand to other kids and learned from others, what they had learned. There has been a misconception that no traditional “subjects” are taught in phenomenon-based education. That is not the case, but when the kids work on a project, many subjects are conbined to examine the phenomenon from different angles.

    Luckily miss Chu gets to do all kinds of fun experiments with you! Have a nice and relaxing summer break!

    • I think there is a lot about the Finnish school system we would love to adopt over here! But it would take a huge cultural shift. I remember doing a lot of topical projects in primary school too and I loved that kind of work – it really puts meaningful context around the different subject areas. Singapore is trying to make small changes in the right direction, but its difficult to make a radical overhaul when narrow definitions of achievement are being constantly measured. 25% recess time would be amazing!

  2. Hi Tammy! Good to hear how it compares to here. I, too, worry about the competitiveness and volume of activities our kids are involved in. Assessment galore at our school too. Hard not to get sucked into it all though! Lisa

    • Yes – it’s hard not be a bit paranoid when you’re in this environment. Am constantly second guessing my decisions! Hope all well with you and family ?.

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