It is that time of the year. Anxious parents hoping for "good news" at the annual Primary 1 (P1) registration exercise.
But this year, there are more furrowed faces, as spaces at popular schools fill up more quickly within the first two phases. It means more parents have to take their chances by balloting to secure a P1 place for their child.
Over two days last week, when Phase 1 - for siblings of children studying in the chosen school - ended, 13 schools filled up at least half their places compared with 11 schools last year.
On Tuesday this week, the tension notched up even further, when the results of the second phase, Phase 2A1 - for children whose parents are alumni association members - were released.
Some 28 schools had half their places taken up by this phase.
In popular schools like Henry Park, Ai Tong, Nanyang Primary and St Nicholas Girls', only a third of places remain. Other sought-after schools like Catholic High, Nan Hua, Pei Chun and Tao Nan were left with 40 per cent or less spaces.
The stress from balloting
Lesser-Known heartland schools, on the other hand, have 300 to 400 places left to be filled.
The anxious parents awaiting their round know that the handful of popular primary school places remaining means balloting - and the stress that goes with it.
Coming up - next week - is Phase 2A2, for children whose parents or siblings were former pupils of their school of choice.
At Nanyang Primary, for instance, where 272 of the 390 places were taken up under the first two phases, parents who called the school were told another 80 to 90 places are likely to be taken up at Phase 2A2. It means a number of those in later phases that involve proximity - many having moved or bought million-dollar homes near the chosen school - may be left without places.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) can expect even more calls, after this year's P1 registration exercise, to review the priority rule for alumni and parent volunteers and those with church and clan connections.
Giving priority to children whose siblings are already in the school makes sense; it is convenient for parents to have their children in the same school.
But the other priority admission criteria have drawn much flak over the years. Giving the children of alumni, and clan and church association members priority for admission essentially allows parents to pass on their privileged access to their children.
The preference given to parent volunteers is criticised for favouring the rich, such as wealthy couples where the wife can afford to be a stay-at-home mum and has time to volunteer. The average Singapore family has both parents working, leaving them little time to put in 40 hours a year of volunteer service at a school.
Many have called on MOE to scrap the priority given to those with connections to the school, to free up more places for those living near the schools.
Education Ministry's stance
The ministry has argued many times before that key stakeholders - such as former pupils, members of the school advisory committees and parent volunteers - help build up and strengthen the schools' traditions and ethos.
But it is well-known, and clan officials confirm it, that many parents who take up membership just before the registration are hardly ever seen again.
Also, many parents who pay the one-time membership fee to become alumni members do not give support in other ways. And some school alumni groups impose hefty membership fees. Nanyang Schools Alumni Association charges $1,000. Raffles Girls' Primary School Alumni Association and ACS Old Boys' Association charge $500.
Business development manager Sharon Lek, 37, feels such fees are exorbitant. Her husband, an alumnus of Nanyang Primary, must fork out $1,000 to take up alumni membership so their son can have P1 priority. Her husband has not done so and they may send their son to a school in Bukit Batok, where they live.
She and her business manager husband feel strongly that parental connections and money play too big a role in giving children priority in P1 registration. She makes a further point:
Exclusiveness means some schools will lack diversity in their pupil bodies.
Unlike Madam Lek, many other parents are usually driven by self-interest - to secure a place in a school of their choice for their children. Rightly or wrongly, they see a place in a school like Methodist Girls' School or CHIJ St Nicholas as the ticket to a good secondary school and then junior college and university.
To be sure, the heat generated over P1 registration is not new and surfaces each year. But it seems worse this year, as more places get snapped up by those with connections, leaving out those who depend on the dicey but fair method of balloting for a place.
It may be time for the Government to do a serious study of P1 registration, in particular a review of vexatious issues like the rich-poor divide and the student mix in "brand name" schools.
Several suggestions have emerged to ensure a more equitable way of allocating P1 places.
Most parents have no gripes over Phase 1 where priority is given to siblings. The priority given to those living near the schools is also sound as convenience is an important factor. Children shouldn't have to wake up in the wee morning hours to get to school.
So keeping Phase 1 is not an issue. But thereafter, as some have suggested, all parents should be allowed in Phase 2 to register their children at any school. Balloting will determine who goes to which school. Of course, if a parent chooses to register at a school that is very far away, the parent will only have himself to blame for the inconvenience caused if the child gets a place.
Another idea: Do away with the priority given to parent volunteers and those with alumni, church or clan connections.
Proximity and privilege
This opens up more places to those living near the school under Phase 2C. The problem with allocating places by proximity is that many popular schools remain in the Bukit Timah belt, which has scant public housing and where private property prices are sky-high. Basing it on distance again ends up privileging the rich.
This problem can be fixed if some of these schools are relocated to neighbourhoods which have a mix of different housing types.
A less drastic tweak is to set aside at least half the places to be given to those living near the schools, and then allocate a smaller, fixed proportion to those with connections through volunteering, alumni, church or clan ties. This way, there is no way those with connections can fill up all the school places.
Now, there is no cap for the earlier phases so if a school has many people with such connections, all the places get taken up earlier, leaving as good as zero chance left for those living near the school, and who depend on the ballot.
P1 registration woes are a perennial issue. In 1993, The Straits Times put the spotlight on the concentration of "good schools" along Bukit Timah - which have become known as the "Bukit Timah belt of schools". Twenty years later, the problem remains.
The MOE has to be more proactive in moving some of the popular schools to HDB neighbourhoods to help rebalance the pupil population mix.
Lack of diversity in schools can widen social inequalities. Sociologists note that in elite schools, peers form exclusive circles. They share resources, hoard opportunities and look out for one another, and these networks yield benefits beyond graduation - in the job market and elsewhere.
They may grow up assuming everyone is like their classmates and them: cognitively able, from well-endowed homes. They are less likely to learn empathy for those who are different.
Revamping the criteria to lessen the advantage for those with school connections will no doubt incur the ire of affected parents. But it is a necessary step to lessen the social stratification already evident in some schools.
And Singapore's children, and society, will be the better for it and the Education Ministry more likely to realise its vision that "every school is a good school".
Phases of Primary 1 registration
Phase 1: For a child who has a sibling studying in the same primary school. All children registering under this phase will get places.
Phase 2A(1): For a child whose parent has been a member of the alumni association since at least June 30 last year, or is a member of the school advisory or management committee.
Phase 2A(2): For a child whose parent or sibling is a former pupil of the school, or a member of its staff.
After this phase, half the remaining places go to Phase 2B and the other half to Phase 2C.
Phase 2B: For a child whose parent volunteers at the primary school, or is either a member of the church/clan connected with it or an active community leader.
Phase 2C: For all children who are eligible for Primary1 in the following year and not yet registered in a primary school.
Phase 2C Supplementary: For a child who is not yet registered in a primary school after Phase 2C.
Phase 3: For a child who is neither a Singapore citizen nor a permanent resident.
There is no cap on the places that can be allocated under phases 1, 2A(1) and 2A(2). Suppose there are 100 places in a school. Say, Phase 1 is filled by 20 students with siblings in the school.
Under Phase 2A(1), there will be 80 places left. If 80 children apply and all qualify, the school will be full.
However, if the number of applications exceeds the number of vacancies in a specific phase, Singapore citizens will be admitted ahead of permanent residents, before home-school distance is considered in this order of priority - within 1km, between 1km and 2km and outside 2km.