It all adds up

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 December, 2004, 12:00am

Most of the expatriates I meet in Singapore look at me with horror and incredulity when I tell them that I am planning to send my children to local schools. 'But aren't you worried about the strict education system?' they ask. 'Don't you worry they'll all come out of the same mould?'.

Beyond the exorbitant cost of the international schools here, which still believe expats are rolling in hay, and my worries that they will be raised as little spoiled brats (one mother recently confided that her seven-year-old had just 'demanded' a mobile phone, because all his classmates had one, while another said she was saving to send her two teenage boys on the annual school trip to New Zealand for a skiing holiday), I have always thought the fact that my son is already learning Chinese, the language of the 21st century, is reason enough.

Now I have another reason to gloat. Singapore's students are the world's best in both maths and science, according to one international study. Indeed, they scored a significantly higher average achievement rating than children in most other countries in both the fourth and eighth grades. American schools are so impressed with the Singaporean maths teaching methods that they are ordering local textbooks in droves. So, what is so special about the Singaporean method? It does not sound radical, but it apparently boils down to the fact that they use diagrams to visualise problems and, apparently, children find it much easier.

Of course, that is not to say that the local system is perfect; far from it. Not enough emphasis is put on the arts, for one thing, and there is a tendency towards 'cookie-cutting' students into a mould.

Singaporean parents will readily acknowledge that they are pushing their children to the limit for fear that they could be left behind in the rat race, which seems to be starting earlier and earlier. My local nursery is already offering my son all sorts of 'enrichment' classes, from English theatre to Chinese and music (for, of course, additional fees).

Yet, to be fair, a lot of changes have been happening in the past six months, especially related to the teaching of Chinese, the bugbear of many local students.

Bilingualism has always been difficult to achieve, especially with two languages as radically different as English and Putonghua. At last, the authorities are recognising the fact that most people cannot become proficient in both, and that it does not mean they are stupid.

As a result, the syllabus is going to get changed (read cut down), as will the methods of testing students. All of this will be in place within the next two years, almost perfect timing for my little boy.