The pros and cons of education in Singapore: public schooling versus international

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There’s a local saying in Singapore called: “kiasu” (Hokkien for “over the top” or “afraid of losing out to other people”). Singaporean parents are known for their “kiasu” mindset, placing extremely high expectations on their children to achieve success and climb up the ladder.

There’s no doubt Singapore places high priority on academic excellence, and expats moving to Singapore can select from a good array of public, private and international schools in the tiny island city.

Availability is limited though and priority admission given to its own residents, so expats should make arrangements for their children’s education prior to making the move, and carefully weigh the pros and cons of each option before deciding where to enroll their children.



Local schools are far more affordable than private institutions, and teachers use English as their main language of instruction. Since education is high priority in Singapore, expats have the opportunity to attend some of the best ranking schools found in Southeast Asia.

Managed by the MOE (Ministry of Education), the first 10 years of schooling are divided into: six years of primary education – which starts at age seven onwards – and four (or five) years of secondary education.

Upon completion of primary school, students proceed to secondary school based on their results in the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE). They will thereafter sit for the UK based GCE ‘O’ Level examinations upon completion of secondary school, or the IB program – leading up to pre-college years and university.

Singapore places a strong focus on meritocracy, winning by fair advantage and helping shape leaders out of learners. Their strong focus on academic performance can both be a strength and a weakness however, if taken out of proportion…


Local students in public schools are highly competitive and driven by the pressure to succeed, as top schools often dismiss underperforming or average students. Expat children can feel a bit out of place in this pressure cooker environment, where corporal punishment is legally employed – which can be a culture shock to Westerners.

The Local School Year Calendar

The school year in Singapore is divided into two semesters: the first starting in January and ending in June; the second in July and ending in December accordingly.



With the influx of expats in Singapore, international schools have mushroomed across the city-state. International schools in Singapore are known to have high standards and a challenging curriculum, encouraging all roundedness and critical thinking skills. Most of the schools adopt the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, while others follow the system used in their home country.


Expat parents should prepare for a limited availability and long waiting lists. Many schools have spaces occupied for years, and parents may have to apply for several others while waiting for their preferred spot to open up. It’s a wait and see process! Expats moving to Singapore are advised to bring their children’s report cards from home as well as letters of recommendation, which are required for the admissions process.

The other downside of international schools is the fees – as some charge as much as 50,000 SGD for high school alone! If you’re an expat employed by a a large corporation, do negotiate to get full or partial school fee allowance for your children in your employment contract, as this will help relieve your overall expensive living costs in Singapore.

To get a good head start on your research, check out the following article listing out excellent international schools in Singapore.

Did we miss out anything? Are you an expat parent and which school did you choose for your child(ren) and why? Do share your experiences, thoughts and suggestions in the comment box below!

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