Aside from the price tag, the next thing most expats seems to notice about Singapore’s preschools and primary schools is the intense focus on academics. The pressure for kindergarteners to perform well is high. It’s has us wondering, while Primary 1 preparatory courses are hot, are they a worthwhile investment? Does your child really need all that extra academic coaching before he enters P1?
Judging from healthy enrolment numbers in P1 preparatory courses offered by enrichment schools here, it seems many parents are still leaving nothing to chance, despite little emphasis on exams in lower primary school these days.
Julia Gabriel Centre and Molin Tutorial Centre, for example, have experienced a consistent enrolment for their English and Chinese primary-school prep classes respectively over the last few years. And Crestar Learning Centre has seen a significant jump in the number of pupils for its maths prep programme, despite having started it only around three years ago.
While some enrichment centres have traditionally offered short-term courses ranging from 10 lessons to 10 weeks, others – like the ones at the three centres mentioned above – span a year or more. In fact, preparation in Molin starts as early as N2, because constant and regular coaching is seen to be more effective, a spokesman tells Young Parents.
While a Crestar spokesman observes that some working parents choose to enrol their children in prep classes because they are unable to consistently coach them at home, other education experts point out that the updated syllabi and skills to be learnt in schools may overwhelm the average family.
Mala Sundram, Julia Gabriel Centre’s head of department (Speech and Drama, and Readers and Writers), explains that bite-sized assessments are now held on a regular basis to determine each pupil’s competence in the areas of reading, writing and speaking.
“(Parents) get feedback on their child’s learning on a termly basis, and often act to close the gap in their kid’s learning by choosing preparatory classes in the initial primary school years. “Bite-sized assessments continue to exert some pressure on parents, if they feel that their child may not be coping as well in these tasks as his or her peers.”
The young and the stressed
Veronica Denise Goh, an early childhood and special-needs consultant and curriculum developer who works with preschools in Singapore as well as in the region, sums it up: “Just because schools have taken examinations out of the lower primary levels does not mean that there is less stress for children.” She notes that over the years, what primary schools expect children to know is increasing, and at an earlier age. “What kids used to learn at, say Primary 3, is now learnt at Primary 1, and so on,” she says.
However, she is against sending young children for additional classes. “We do not see what our children have to give up in order for them to keep up – playtime, outdoor time, rest time, earlier sleeping hours. All these things are important to developing a holistic child. “If preschools provide the right curriculum to children – which is play-based – kids will be ready for primary school when they reach that stage.
“And if what parents want is to ensure that their children are capable of meeting the stress of primary school, to retain and memorise information, be obedient, to sit down and listen, then academic-based preschools are already preparing them for that.”
Daphne Yeoh, principal of Sengkang Green Primary School, acknowledges that there are variations in what is taught across preschool centres, but agrees with Veronica that kids who attend a kindergarten programme are generally prepared for P1.
Now, here’s a controversial thought: could some prep classes actually reduce stress in the long term? Some parents Young Parents interviewed feel that prep courses have helped ignite their children’s passion in some subjects, particularly in languages.
A spokesman for Molin explains that in the past, while the focus in learning Chinese was on memorising words, spelling and dictation, K2 pupils are now expected to be more creative and confident – skills that come naturally when your kid enjoys the subject.
“Motivation is an important factor in preparing a child for primary school,” explains Mala of Julia Gabriel. “The child needs to work on developing reading and writing skills with a positive attitude. Drilling a kid in the mechanics of reading and writing would be a rather daunting process of preparation.”
Turning fear into confidence
So perhaps this means that effective prep classes now work more on motivating the child with the right environment, and less on drilling?
Lakshmi Nagappan reckons that the English prep class her elder son, now in P5, attended will also help her younger one, who will start P1 next year: “The programme created a passion for reading in my elder son that continues to this day.” It also gave her kids greater exposure to writing and reading, compared to kindergarten, the 38-year-old claims manager adds.
Belinda Lim, on the other hand, enrolled her five-year old in a Chinese foundation programme because the girl was reluctant to converse in Mandarin or have anything to do with the language at home. “I had hoped to build up her confidence in dealing with the language by exposing her more to Chinese culture,” the 43-year-old stay-at-home mum explains. The positive change came quickly and painlessly. “After enrolling her in the programme, she is now more willing to speak in Mandarin when being spoken to,” she observes. “She (even) shows a keen interest when we switch to Chinese programmes on TV.”
In cases like this, where kids don’t have enough exposure to a particular language, placing a child in an all-Mandarin preschool, for example, would be a better solution, suggests Veronica.
So the bottom line is, while some kids have certainly benefitted from prep classes, there’s really no need to rush into one just because everyone is doing it. Daphne of Sengkang Green Primary puts it this way: “The best thing to do is to spend more time with your children to foster closer ties with them; to build their confidence and inculcate a love of learning and good values such as discipline, self-motivation and resilience.”
Stella Law, 37, a lecturer whose daughter, Tanya, is in P1 this year, couldn’t agree more. “Her four years of preschool were sufficient,” she says. “We feel that there is no need to focus on her academic strengths at this point in time. We want to nurture her love of learning and prioritise her socio-emotional skills.”
Still deciding on a school? We can help sort you through local vs. international schools.
By Tang Mei Ling, Young Parents, June 2015