August 1

Top secondary schools in Singapore, for greater success in life

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The traditional PSLE score rankings are no guarantee

Full disclosure: I studied at Hwa Chong Institution for 6 years, after graduating from a neighbourhood school, Xinghua Primary School with a score of 262. 

top secondary schools in Singapore
Studying in Hwa Chong was great fun, and great after graduating. (I’m the one in the centre.)

Most articles start with the traditional PSLE score rankings for the best secondary schools in Singapore. But entering the school with the best PSLE score rankings (based on the official list from MOE) is no guarantee that your child will do well in future.

An example of the list from MOE
An example of the list from MOE

How do I know?

Well, I entered Hwa Chong Institution with a score of 262 for PSLE, and yet ended up at the Alevels with a score of BBAD, or a University Admission Point of 81.25. This was by no means high, and I ranked amongst the last few in my cohort for the A Level grades.

That’s why I’m writing this article. Because choosing the top secondary school in Singapore is not necessarily choosing the best school for your child.

Your child thrives in different environments, and you, the parent need to best understand how your child thrives.

As a Registered Social Worker who formerly worked with many youths at risk, who were regularly skipping school, I’ve come to see that choosing the school with the closest PSLE points match with that of your child, may not be the best.

Here’s what you may want to consider instead.

Is your child better as a big fish or a small fish?

This concept of being a big fish in a small pond is very important to note. As someone who moved from a neighbourhood school called Xinghua Primary School to an ‘elite’ school like Hwa Chong, I realised that I didn’t do well under that much pressure. Daily, I was told that I was the cremé de la creme of Singapore, and I would hear of the international awards and competitions that my peers participated in.

As someone struggling to even pass his exams, this didn’t work well.

Hwa Chong gave me experiences like climbing this mountain

Understanding whether your child does well when everyone else is as smart (or smarter) than him is very important. An easy way to observe this is to see how your child does in his current school. Is his class an over-achieving class? How does he react? Does he come home complaining of stress, or does he find it motivating to have competition?

That can give a clue.

There is no rule to this, but I personally found that moving to the University of Nottingham in the U.K., one of the top 20 universities of the U.K., was where I truly thrived. I chose deliberately not to go to the more famous schools like Cambridge, or the London schools, because I knew from my experience in Hwa Chong that I didn’t do well in a big pond, filled with other better fish.

Being a big fish in a small pond can raise the confidence of your child, and also bring him more opportunities from the lower intensity of competition. This can help to nurture your child into his best self.

The school’s pedagogy

There is a syllabus most schools have to follow, and a set method they have to teach and assess. I credit much of my entrepreneurial drive to how Hwa Chong taught me, with its focus on Oral Participation in class (which comprised 10% of the final grade) and ACE (15% of the final grade) encouraging me to learn beyond the books. Whilst it felt that those museum visits to do reports were a waste of time, it reminded me to look beyond the classrooms. And to write well.

Understanding the school’s pedagogy can come through the open houses, where you ask the teachers how they assess.

But often the Independent Schools in Singapore, here being:

  • Singapore Chinese Girls School
  • ACS Independent
  • St Joseph’s Institution
  • Raffles Institution
  • Raffles Girls
  • Methodist Girls’ School
  • Nanyang Girls’
  • Hwa Chong Institution

Independent schools have the flexibility to set their own fees and develop their academic and non-academic programmes

Some independent schools are also Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools that are committed to nurturing bilingual and bicultural students who are immersed in the Chinese language and culture, and are equipped with a global outlook.

This means that there’s a greater latitude in terms of how they determine their teaching. This can work both ways. It can mean that your child learns more at an earlier age, but it can also mean that its hard for him to find external support from tuition centres. For example, when my school taught JC Chemistry when I was Secondary 3, I found the chemistry teacher no help.

You need to understand how your child learns best, whether in a structured or non-structured environment, and whether your child will thrive in a less than conventional learning system.

Your child’s need for structure

The Alevels was the first time in 6 years I prepared for anything this major. I didn’t know the size of the task ahead of me until 4 months before.

My only reference point was the PSLE, which I had aced.

That was nothing like the Alevels. The Integrated Programme, whilst allowing students to skip past the O levels, may not work best in the longer run, especially when students find themselves staring down Alevels. The O Levels is a good practice run.

I still have nightmares about the A-levels, with many nightmares coming from the absolute terror of realising that I ran out of time for studying for the Alevels.

Does your child need greater structure?

Top secondary schools in Singapore
Do you know what your child needs? Freedom like a bird?

All these questions may be hard to answer when your child is 12

How do you decide what the top secondary school for your child is when he’s only 12?

It really matters that you spend time to understand your child, regardless of how busy you may be.

At that age, they may not know what’s the best decision for them. Whether you should push them to their fullest potential or protect them from being ravaged by the competitive nature of schools, is a balance only you can strike.

And however big this decision seems to be, it isn’t finite. It will not limit your child. Not if you and your child choose not to.

It’s not education that makes the child. It’s your child makes the best of his education, wherever that is.


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  • John, thanks so much for this brave and honest sharing. As I choose a secondary school now for my son, I am stuck between knowing whether I should push him to something greater, or just put him in a place where he’s comfortable. Any thoughts?

  • Hey John really appreciate the honest sharing here – as a parent myself, having recently seen my daughter’s grades, I really didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. It was really bad (for me). But I think I appreciate your insights, especially in realising the child’s potential, rather than my potential.

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