Is going to the right primary school so important?

Above: Parents looking on as their children who are attending Primary 1 assemble in the school hall at St Hilda’s Primary on 2 January 2013, the first day of the new school year.

SINGAPORE - The end of July usually marks a peculiar change in the season for Singapore.

Fully-grown adults sit and wait with bated breath, hoping against hope for their names to be picked out of a ballot box.

If they are successful, there are tears. If they fail, there are also tears. And I'm not talking about tickets to the National Day Parade or the National Day Toto Grand Draw.

The nationwide exercise for Primary 1 registration is a rite of passage for all Singaporean parents.

Like many things in this country, everyone wants the best but the best is available only in limited quantities.

And unlike trying to get a COE for a car or that high-floor, pool-facing condo unit, you cannot settle things by simply busting out the cheque book.

Which leads to plenty of frazzled nerves as parents try all ways and means to get their children into the school of their choice.

The preference given to children staying within 2km of a school prompted one former classmate to move house four times to get her two eldest children into Anglo-Chinese School and Methodist Girls' respectively.

It was exhausting but well worth it, she said, because it meant that her other two kids will enjoy a higher level priority for entry given to siblings of existing students in the two schools.

Another rule allows parents who volunteer to zoom ahead of the queue. A doctor friend told me the primary school he wanted for his daughter was so popular, he had to submit a proposal to the principal of the primary school stating exactly how he would volunteer and why this was valuable to the school.

"It felt like a job interview. Only worse, because I have never felt that sort of blind desperation before," he said.

Yet another business contact set her sights on the mother of all preferential entry rules, eyeing the places set aside for the school's alumni.

But neither she nor her husband were alumni, so she did the next best thing: write personal letters to as many prestigious and well-known alumni as she knew, asking them to endorse her son for entry into the school.

Faced with this kind of peer pressure, it's easy for parents to feel lousy about themselves if they didn't even try to game the system.

A good friend who volunteered her time and got her kid into Pei Hwa Presbyterian told me afterwards: "I've done my duty as a parent. It's ridiculous but you just get sucked into it nonetheless."

When I hear all these stories, I often wonder whether it's really that important which primary school you go to.

Lots of people talk about their former secondary schools or junior colleges, but no one in my adult life has ever asked me which primary school I attended.

Yet there is an interesting story there.

Back in 1978, my own parents were also frantic about getting me into a good primary school. We were a Catholic family, so they would have preferred a Christian school.

But they had left it all too late in terms of applications and I ended up getting posted - along with my cousin of the same age - to a little-known neighbourhood school called Henry Park Primary.

I remember this vividly because my cousin and I even knew which primary class we had each been assigned. And there was already talk of which school bus to take.

Somehow, my parents pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Through some contacts in church, they squeezed me at the very last minute into St Michael's School in the Moulmein area, which has been renamed St Joseph's Institution (SJI) Junior.

Now, a generation later, any parent reading this will feel the irony of that move.

Today, Henry Park Primary is one of the most sought-after primary schools in the nation and SJI Junior, though good, is much less popular.

The change apparently happened in the mid-1990s when the Ministry of Education decided that Henry Park would be one of the few schools to offer a "gifted" education programme.

I don't have children, but if I did, I guess I would have been annoyed at this twist of fate, given that children of school alumni almost always get in.

Still, there are many others who have received that sort of unexpected "windfall".

Recently, at a class reunion, one classmate who is now a high-powered lawyer revealed that she went to another supposedly lowly neighbourhood primary school called Rosyth School. How happy she is today that she did so!

Of course, parents will say that while these are lovely stories with fairy-tale endings, what matters is not a school's performance in the future, but now.

I understand the argument, especially given the way the education system here has evolved. With the top secondary schools now preparing students for the A-levels, it is essential to get into a good one and that, to some extent, is determined by how well you do in primary school.

Yet looking back at my education from the other end of the tunnel, I remember so precious little from my St Michael's School days, much less how it could have helped me academically.

I remember going to school with a blue Ultraman tumbler that occasionally contained rose syrup as a treat.

I remember playing football a lot, but on a small field with the smaller boys, not on the big field with the bigger boys.

I remember being bullied in school because I was slightly weak and effeminate and making friends on the school bus with a boy called Stanley who protected me somewhat.

If there was anything at all life-altering about primary school, it was the realisation that being physically strong and popular was somehow central to being happy.

That showing kindness to a fellow human being goes a much longer way than you think.

That sharp 2B pencils are the key to filling out the PSLE multiple choice examination neatly and that your water bottle speaks volumes about who you are.

But those lessons, I guess, could be learnt at just about any school.

ignatius@sph.com.sg


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