[Updated 2017, includes 2013-2015 changes.]
So. It’s that time of year again. Where a cohort of Singaporean parents get stressed up trying to secure a primary school place for their not quite 7 year olds. Wonder if this even beats PSLE stress (for the parent, which tends to exceed the kid’s in most areas of schooling).
Come to think of it, it’s a sign isn’t it? That it all starts with a stressful process to get one’s child into an institution where he/she can look forward to the peak of childhood stress 6 years hence. : (
Anyway. Being the dutiful mum I am, and being a strong believer in the fact that knowledge is power, I trawled the net for information years before my own child was due for registration. It was good to know how far ahead one needed to make plans, since certain procedures [like parent volunteering (PV)], requires the parents to apply two years before the child is due to start school. I know of parents who realised too late that they have missed the boat to even apply to be considered for PV, which closes off one option in this complex web.
Being also a believer in sharing knowledge, I decided to chronicle what I’ve learnt, to save other busy young parents some legwork. Being prepared is not always being kiasu. Being prepared and having the right information saves a lot of unnecessary stress, as opposed to having certain impressions, and realising that you’ve been wrong all along, and having to scramble at the last minute.
Here are my five steps towards attaining a measure of relative calm with respect to this phase of life. I will be assuming that parents reading this do not have an older child already in primary school, since that means that you probably have gone through this crazy process before, and qualify for Phase One registration, i.e. a guaranteed place for your second child (whee!), regardless of how HOT the school is.
1. Are you (or your spouse) an alumni member of a school you would like to send your child to?
If the answer is yes, you SCORE. You qualify for Phase 2A1 (if you are a card carrying – read: alumni fee paying member), or Phase 2A2 (if you intend to simply produce your report book, PSLE cert/slip or proof from MOE HQ that you went to that school).
Many friends I know who are alum of very popular schools will go ahead and pay the (high) alum fees anyway, just for peace of mind ($1000 for NYPS, $540 for RGPS as of 2015).
Before 2015, no one ever needed to ballot or worry at Phase 2A2, and could save the money, qualifying for Phase 2A2 just by producing one’s old report book. However, after it was announced in 2013 that 40 spaces will be reserved for Phases 2B and 2C (20 spaces each), it seems that 2015 may see the first year of balloting at Phase 2A1 [Update: as indeed it did, but that did not recur in 2016, and it’s anyone’s guess if it’ll happen again thereafter. But in some senses, the mental barrier has been breached.]! If that happens, then the usual distance priority will be applied (see point 5). In summary, if balloting is required, and is over-subscribed even when just considering those who live within 2km, then alumni who live more than 2km away will not even get a chance to ballot.
Note: If you are not alum, it does not matter how near you stay the school. You will not qualify for this phase. If you are alum but stay 20km away, you could still get in if balloting is not required.
2. Are you willing to Parent Volunteer?
Parent Volunteering earns you a chance in Phase 2B.
Much has been said of Parent Volunteering. Some say it’s not fair, it’s “using effort to buy a place”. Others say it’s fair and square – give up 40 (or in some schools 80) hours of your time, and you deserve the place because you’ve worked for it. Meritocracy and all that, you know. Many parents are happy to do it because it offers a very glimpse into how the school really is. Some parents even decide that they didn’t want to send their kids to that school after experiencing it through PV.
However, these days, too many hearts are willing, but too few PV spaces are even offered by the school. For reasons best known to school leaders (perhaps in the name of having better distribution or variety in the means of entry), most schools offer around 20 PV places. In very popular schools (i.e. Nanyang, St Hilda’s, Ai Tong, Tao Nan), history has it that firstly it’s very very difficult to get selected as a PV (tends to be 6-10 times oversubscribed). Secondly, you could fulfil your PV obligations of hours and hours of service to the school, and STILL get balloted out because you do not live within 1km of the school. In the past, those who lived within 1km and PV-ed could STILL have to ballot, i.e. could be balloted out. There is no guarantee, if there are too many Phase 2B applicants.
Perhaps it is for that reason that many popular schools do not even offer PV any more. These include MGS, ACS (both), Maha Bodhi and Rosyth.
3. Are you willing to go the grassroots route?
That lands you in the same Phase 2B as PVs, but from what I heard the commitment level (read: hours spent) is significantly higher. You would have to be in grassroots for a number of years, and active enough to qualify. On the plus side, you’d qualify for Phase 2B in any school in that constituency. If you serve long enough to get into the central executive committee of your local grassroots, you could even qualify for Phase 2B in schools in another constituency. But you’d have to be willing to plough in the time to do grassroots work (which is very different from volunteering in a school, could involve ‘RC politics’ and does not offer a glimpse into the school of your choice). That would get you “endorsed as an active community leader“.
[Update of 2014] For children registering for Primary 1 in 2016 and thereafter, parents who become grassroots volunteers in the hope of getting priority for their children in the Primary 1 registration exercise will have to do at least two years of grassroots work, not one, to qualify for the benefit. They will also be restricted to schools in the constituency where they live. Prior to this, grassroots leaders could get priority for their children in schools near their homes as well as in the constituencies where they volunteered.
This seems to be a step to curtail the number of parents who serve in grassroots for a year before registration, and then flit off into obscurity and non-service thereafter.
4. Do you qualify under clan/religious associations?
Some of the most popular schools are affiliated with dialect clans (Tao Nan and Ai Tong with Hokkien Hui Guan), or religious denominations (ACS, MGS with Methodist churches, St Nicholas, CHIJ family with catholic churches). Joining the Hokkien Hui Guan is not totally straightforward either – one needs an existing member to be the “sponsor” to endorse your application, and of course there are attendant fees.
For Christian churches, most require you to be an active member for a reasonable number of years to get endorsed. Some people have changed churches to qualify for their desired school under this phase, but my husband and I have strong personal views against that.
[The 20 spaces set aside for Phase 2B in every school only makes a (positive) difference to you, as compared to pre-2015, if there were fewer than 40 spaces left in your school of choice after Phase 2A pre-2015. You will need to check the historical charts at the MOE website to find out.]
5. Are you willing to move house?
I used to think (as with my many other pre-mummy notions), that I’d never move house for something as banal as primary school registration. I now have to eat my words since we are seriously contemplating moving into my in-laws’ since it’s near our school of choice (which is not even a very popular one, i.e. none of those listed in this post thus far). [Update: We decided not to move.]
Aside from ridiculous housing prices at present, it does make a lot of sense to live near the primary school. Travelling long distances in a school bus is just not ideal for a child of primary school age. And school buses have limitations.
Unless there is the mum-chauffeur (or selfless grandparent chauffeur), school buses might not be able to bring the child back from school after various CCAs and the like.
Living within 1km or 2km of the school gives you an edge whenever there is a need to ballot. Proximity grants priority. I’ve not heard of balloting in Phase 2A [update: SNGS made history in 2015 by having 78 girls vie for 73 spaces at Phase 2A1, resulting in balloting for those outside 2km. I have since heard of at least 1 case of parents moving across the road in Ang Mo Kio to get from 1-2km to within 1km of the school – talk about kiasu! But I suppose no one can begrudge them from wanting to ensure certainty, if not maximise their chances at least. More thoughts on Phase 2A here.], but from Phase 2B, if there are more applicants than places for that phase, balloting ensues. This is also highly dependent on the profile of applicants for that phase.
Allow me to illustrate. So if there are 60 places, and 80 applications, out of which:
- 50 live within 1km, the 50 get in, and the other 30 (assuming they all live within 1-2km) have to ballot for the last 10 spaces.
- 70 live within 1km, 70 have to ballot for the 60 places. The final 10 don’t even get a chance to ballot.
- 20 live within 1km, the 20 get in. If the next 30 live within 1-2km, they also get in without having to ballot, and the next 30 have to ballot for the final 10 spaces.
It is important to note that proximity is a second order factor. The phases come first. If you live 1-2km of the school, but only apply at Phase 2C, you might not even get a chance to ballot, if there are too many Phase 2C applicants who live within 1km.
However if you live 1-2km of the school and also PV, or do grassroots work, or qualify under clan/religious association, then you might not even have to ballot, since that’s an earlier phase. Under earlier phases there are usually fewer applications that live within 1km or 2 km from the school.
[At present, Phase 2C places will still be balloted with priority accorded to distance. Some are lobbying for Phase 2C to be a total free for all, without distance priority, so that places will not be skewed towards the rich who have the means to purchase a home within 1km of whatever school they desire…]
[Update as of May 2015] Children who have secured places in primary schools under the home-school distance priority (regardless of phase – i.e. it could be in Phase 2B or 2C,
since there has yet to be balloting based on distance for Phase 2A) will be required to stay at the address for at least 30 months from the start of the Primary 1 registration exercise in 2015.
Those with a yet-to-be-completed property also have to live at the new address for as long, but this can start only from when they move in (e.g. Jan 2016) and not from the registration (i.e. July 2015), subject to certain limits.
This is geared towards minimising cases of parents who buy/rent a home within 1km of the school for instance, and then move out soon after getting into the school, thus making a mockery of their ‘distance priority’. I suppose there must have been enough instances of parents renting a home, changing the residential address on their NRIC before the registration exercise, then cancelling the rental thereafter to minimise cash outlay in return of securing that coveted P1 place, for the MOE to take notice and implement this ruling.
Every year around P1 registration period, mainstream media will publish a case or two, or parents who lied about their addresses and the like, to warn others against doing the same. This year, the case was of a lawyer who was jailed for 2 weeks for lying about his address in 2013. This daughter was also kicked out of the school.
One note – doing more than one ‘activity’ under the same phase does not increase your chances. Someone actually thought that, and went to sign up for two. If you are already PV, then joining the clan and/or joining grassroots does not give you three ballot slips, if you even get a chance to ballot to begin with (since you might not, if those living within 1km and under Phase 2B outnumber the spaces available in that phase, and you are not one of those living within 1km).
To get a sanity check on your chances and options, it is always wise to check the recent historical registration experience in the schools you are considering. This site archives the best information. After looking through that, if you are a parent in genuine need of some advice, feel free to drop a comment below, and I’ll try to answer it to the best of my ability.
After writing so much about the process, I feel like writing another post on selecting primary schools per se. How the best “elite” school might not be the best school for your child, and how it might be best to take a calm, cool look at one’s options and make rational moves instead of running helter-skelter like a headless chicken.
Till then, all the best!