International schools expand, improve facilities to woo students

International schools are being built faster in recent years, even though there appears to be no pressing demand for them.

Between 2015 and 2020, at least six new building projects for international schools, including expansion of existing campuses, are expected to be completed.

The pick-up in building comes despite a slowdown in the growth of Employment Pass (EP) holders from 9,000 in the year ending December 2015 to 1,700 currently.

Operators of international schools contacted suggest the existing pool of foreign students is still big enough to justify the expansion, but the number of new students enrolled yearly has slipped.

The building expansion is part of a plan to halt the drop and attract more students, according to the operators.

Data from the Ministry of Education (MOE) show there are 33 foreign-system schools in Singapore.

They are private education institutions offering full-time primary or secondary education based on a foreign curriculum.

While these schools have consistently enrolled more than 40,000 new students yearly from 2012 to 2015, the numbers, according to operators, have dropped instead of rising with the increase in EP holders over the same period.

Unlike many other countries, Singaporean students are not allowed to enrol at international schools here, except when approved by MOE under special circumstances.

Thus international schools here depend almost exclusively on expatriate demand.

This demand appears to be flat or declining currently because of the tighter control of foreign-worker inflow in recent years.

But Yvonne McNulty, a senior lecturer at SIM University who specialises in global human resources and expatriation, thinks the expat population here is still likely to increase in the long run as the expat numbers rise globally.

She said: "The tricky part is how Singapore defines 'expats' - it's not just EP holders.

Anyone not holding Singapore citizenship is technically an expat, and the difference is low- versus high-skilled expats."

Dr McNulty said a factor in expat numbers is localisation, as expats increasingly accept localised, open-ended contracts and hold work passes other than the employment pass.

They forgo then traditional expat perks such as company-funded housing and schooling, but maintain a higher level of control over their employment.

They also tend to stay in Singapore longer, since they are not tied to a particular company and can change jobs locally.

Singapore is a leader for this practice in this region, if not the world, with many multi-national corporations here hiring such localised expats, or "lopats", said Dr McNulty.

They may not be included among EP holders, but still contribute to the growing expat population.

Some of the schools have noticed the lopat trend, such as the German European School Singapore (GESS).

Maclean Braganza, director of marketing and admissions for GESS, said: "We observe that existing expats may stay in Singapore for longer durations or accept assignments in Singapore on local contracts. These factors bring about a level of demand stability for international schools."

However, because the lopat model may make it harder for parents to afford international school fees - which can average S$20,000 per year - its growing popularity also explains why schools are working harder to impress with their offerings, said Dr McNulty.

She said: "Lopats are now funding their own school fees, have a long-term plan to remain in Singapore, and they are savvy consumers - they are looking for the best bang for their buck for their child's education."

Andre Casson, principal of Australian International School (AIS), agreed: "We have a number of students in our school whose parents are on such contracts, and I'm sure they are making sacrifices in choosing to prioritise their children's education. We look to delight parents by providing a quality education for their children."

Meanwhile, some international schools say they are expanding or rebuilding to better serve existing students.

An example is the Early Learning Village (ELV), a joint project between Stamford American International School (SAIS) and AIS.

The project is currently under construction on the latter's Ang Mo Kio campus.

Mr Casson said: "In larger schools, early learning is often tacked on as an afterthought. We wanted to have a unique, purpose-built facility to cater to children aged six years and younger."

Besides the desire to provide an innovative approach to learning in such a facility, SAIS superintendent Eric Sands said that local interest also played a part in his school's decision to build the ELV.

He said: "We are already seeing a keen interest growing from the Singaporean market amongst families who are looking for a more holistic education with facilities and a curriculum which spans opportunities beyond the traditional classroom. Together with expatriates, there is confidence that this increased supply will meet demand."

Unlike primary and secondary school enrolment, enrolment for Singaporean children in international schools at the preschool and kindergarten levels does not require approval from MOE.

When fully operational in July this year, the ELV will provide a dedicated environment for SAIS and AIS to conduct their separate early learning programmes.

It is expected to nearly double preschool capacity for both schools, to about 800 students for AIS and 1,200 to 1,300 students for SAIS.

Both schools said that they plan to improve facilities and programmes at their current campuses for existing primary and secondary cohorts, before any move is made to enrol more students.

Tanglin Trust School, which in 2015 began a campus development plan on the Portsdown Road campus it has occupied since 1981, is one school that has steered clear of expanding capacity for now.

Instead, the school has focused on building specialised facilities for existing students, such as art and media technology spaces.

Chief executive Peter Derby-Crook said: "The new buildings will bring many more facilities to the school to provide our community with outstanding spaces and resources that match our aspirations for the future."

A few schools have built new campuses because of expiring leases and growing student populations.

The Overseas Family School moved from Paterson Road to its Pasir Ris campus in 2015, after a wait of more than 20 years for a permanent location.

By the time the school secured its current site, it was operating above capacity in the Paterson Road campus.

Today, the new campus serves approximately 3,000 students with a maximum capacity of 6,000 students.

GESS currently occupies two locations at Bukit Tinggi and Jurong Kechil with a combined capacity of 1,700.

As the leases for both campuses will expire soon, the school is building a new campus at Dairy Farm with plans for the next 30 years.

In 2018, it will consolidate operations in the new campus, which will be able to accommodate 2,000 students.

Chatsworth International School, which has branches at Orchard and Jalan Tembusu, will occupy the Bukit Tinggi site vacated by GESS in 2018.

The head of the school, Tyler Sherwood, said Chatsworth is expanding capacity in response to demand, adding: "Younger years and primary school normally receive more inquiries than the secondary school, which is largely due to the nature of families with younger children moving to Singapore."

In 2018, the school will close the Jalan Tembusu primary school campus and reshuffle operations between the other two campuses to retain their current format of one primary school campus and another campus for K-12.

Overall, capacity will increase by 450 at the primary school campus and 150 at the K-12 campus, which will be the Orchard and Bukit Tinggi sites respectively from 2018.

Meanwhile, the Global Indian International School is building its first fully-owned campus in Punggol, adding to its existing campuses in Queenstown, East Coast and Balestier.

The school said the new campus will help shorten waiting lists and provide more tailored facilities, but it declined to reveal exact details until closer to its completion by the end of 2017.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, chairman and co-founder of the Global Schools Foundation Atul Temurnikar said that the overall slowing of demand for international schools played a part in his school's decision to build an improved permanent facility.

He said: "During such times, parents have more choices than before, and we are seeing an even greater emphasis on quality of education and facilities for students."

So despite the ebbs and flows of the expatriate population here, international schools seem to be taking a long view on their role in the Singapore community.


This article was first published on February 27, 2017.
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