Top 5 considerations when choosing a secondary school:
Congratulations! You, like most Singaporean parents, have successfully steered your child through the potential minefield that is the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) and are about to give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done and breathe a sigh of relief. But do not rest too easily just yet! For another imminent decision will require your stewardship to firmly set your child(ren)’s on the path to future secondary school academic success.
Choosing a secondary school is a critical and pivotal decision that every Singaporean (based) parent encounters as they, together with their child(ren), navigate the increasingly myriad range of MOE regulated schools available to them. Considering the far reaching implications on their child(ren)’s future career choices and lifestyles, this is, without doubt, one of the most important considerations upon which any family will deliberate.
O Level Master presents here (what we rank as) the 5 most salient and practical factors to consider when contemplating which secondary school most suits your child’s individual needs.
- PSLE Cutoff: Eligibility and Suitability
As part of the Secondary 1 posting exercise in late November every year, a list of PSLE Cutoff points (COP) for all MOE regulated schools in Singapore accepting secondary 1 students for the next academic year will be published. The COP quite simply defines the minimum PSLE score required for a student to gain admission to the school.
Perusing the table, it should become immediately obvious to parents, the upper limit of the range of schools to which your child(ren) will be able to access. This automatically forms the upper bound of the range of accessible schools that you would consider.
What about a defining a lower bound to narrow the range of schools to consider? Applying some simple statistical inference on the minimum COP for the Express and Normal streams, we can derive the typical average and spread (standard deviation) of the Aggregate scores of all the students who have sat for the PSLE exam within a particular year. There is usually low variability from year to year (since 2017) around these COP points and the rough historical average of 204 for the mean and 39 for the standard deviation serves as a reliable estimate.
If the prescribed conventional wisdom is for the child(ren) to attend schools with their peers of similar aptitude (say within a 5% percentile band), then parents could work out, roughly, the lower bound of schools to consider with COPs corresponding to this formula, (rounding up to the nearest whole number):
is the minimum COP level for the school to be considered
Where N is the Cumulative Standard Normal Distribution Function
Obviously, this figure should not be regarded as a strict gauge of suitability but rather more of a rough indicative guide. A candidate school should not be immediately excluded even though it falls a point or two short of this recommended band. Other factors, such as those that follow, should be considered to make the final determination of choice.
- School Forte
A secondary school’s forte or specialisation with regards to academic banding, elective programmes offering, talent development or even special needs will, for most parents and students, be the primary consideration for suitability. This single factor will directly determine the breadth of educational pathways available to the student (N Levels, O Levels, A Levels and International Baccalaureate Diploma) and hence is most likely to influence their future post-secondary and career pathways and choices. As such, parents and students should first be cognizant of and fully explore the range of options before them. The following is an executive summary of the educational landscape in Singapore.
Secondary education in Singapore is based on four different tracks or streams:”Integrated Programme“, “Express“, “Normal (Academic)”, or “Normal (Technical)”. All mainstream secondary schools in Singapore offer one or more of the above tracks. The following table provides a brief overview of each course for ease of reference.
|Integrated Programme||• Top 10% of PSLE cohort|
• 6 Year Course
• Bypass GCE ‘O’ Levels
• Direct to GCE ‘A’ Level s, International Baccalaureate Diploma or NUS High School Diploma
• May opt for Higher MTL (SAP Schools)
• May include support for the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) for top 1% of cohort
|Express||• 4 Year Course|
• GCE ‘O’ Level s
• May opt for Higher MTL (SAP Schools)
|Normal Academic||• 4 Year Course – GCE ‘N’ Levels|
• May proceed to GCE ‘O’ Levels at Sec 5
• Post Secondary School (Polytechnic or ITE)
|Normal Technical||• 4 Year Course|
• Geared towards technical vocational education at ITE
In addition, some of these schools run specialised course electives to nurture specific interests and abilities such as the Enhanced Music Programme, Music Elective Programme, Art Elective Programme and Enhanced Art Programme etc. Parents may peruse the range of programmes on offer as well as locate these schools with the convenient school finder search function available on the following MOE URLs.
Other Specialised Schools are dedicated to developing students with prodigious talents in specific academic aptitudes, applied scientific inquiry and innovation, creative and artistic flair, sporting excellence or even special needs.
|Specialised (Independent) Schools||Area of Specialisation|
|NUS High School for Math and Science||Math and Science|
|School of Science and Technology (SST)||Applied Scientific Inquiry and Innovation|
|School of the Arts (SOTA)||Artistic and Creative Flair|
|Singapore Sports School||Sports Excellence|
|Special Schools for Normal Technical||Vocational Training|
|Special Education Schools (SPED)||Special Needs Education|
For more information, parents are recommended to visit:
It is also worth noting, at this juncture, that for students with an eye to pursuing the O Level to A Level progression pathway, the choice of secondary school or elective programme may confer upon your child an advantage in additional bonus points deductions from their L1R5 score. Bonus points are awarded based on participation in particular language elective, co-curricular programmes or just simply through an affiliation as a feeder school to a particular Junior College. More details can be found in Section 3.2 Table 1, pg 12 of the MOE JAE booklet.
Frequently, armed with this information alone and accounting for certain specific educational or developmental preferences of the family, the choice of school seems blindingly obvious. However, it is not always advisable to place an over weighted emphasis on this factor.
- Proximity and Accessibility
A mundane factor which is often discounted but will have a significant impact on your child’s wellbeing is the location of the school of choice. Students will be increasingly expected to travel independently on public transport to and from school as they progress through their secondary school learning journey.
Travel time from one extreme region of Singapore to another (say East to West) can easily require an hour or more, translating into a 2-way journey to and from school that could easily lose your child 2-3 hours of their day in non-productive travel on crowded buses or trains or even on foot. Coupled with inclement weather, hectic CCA demands and school imposed enrichment or remedial class schedules for your maturing teenager, excessive travel requirements will inevitably take a toll on his/her energy and alertness levels and prove detrimental to their learning efficacy and ability to cope with school assignments.
A rough rule of thumb would be to limit a 1 way journey time to just 40 minutes from door-to-door with no more than 10 minutes spent on foot. Transport arrangements such as obtaining a lift from a parent or relative who drives to work or car pooling with a neighbour who attends at the same school are useful strategies to free up precious time for your teen to channel towards academic learning, personal development or even just for rest.
Ultimately, accounting for access to private and public transport options, all told, an optimal choice of secondary school should be ideally located within a 40 minute door-to-door travel time radius of your family residence.
- School Fees
Every cent saved on school fees may be effectively redeployed into further enrichment or tuition programmes to avail your child of an edge in the ultra-competitive Singaporean education system.
Nevertheless, school fees for Singaporean students are heavily subsidised with only Independent school fees being notably pricier. Moreover, when factoring in the financial assistance funding schemes, school fees for Singaporean citizens are not prohibitive.
For a comprehensive overview and comparison of updated monthly school fees for all mainstream schools, parents are encouraged to visit the following URLs:
Singaporean families with low income are eligible to seek financial assistance from the MOE. Parents may check their child(ren)’s eligibility on this useful site:
Parents of high achieving students should have no problem seeking scholarship funding for their students with a wide range of Edusave schemes by the MOE.
The MOE offers scholarships under the Edusave scheme to the top one-third of all Secondary 1 students admitted to Independent Schools based on their PSLE results and also those admitted to language elective schemes. The awards are for up to S$2,400 yearly for 4 to 6 years depending on the length of the programme. These scholarships are again extended to Secondary students who have not already benefitted from this scheme in Secondary 1 and have performed well in the ESIS test.
Alternatively, parents may reference more detailed resources on the MOE JAE booklet Section 1. 5 (Financial Assistance Schemes), pgs 2-3 for information on IP bursaries and specialised school programmes.
- Graduate Results Track Record
Many parents are reassured by the high standards of pedagogy and achievement of former graduating cohorts from premier secondary schools as a benchmark when finalising their selections. Although school specific historical data on O Levels, A Levels and International Baccalaureate Diploma exam results is a little more difficult to mine, most schools do post the exam results of their most recent graduating cohort on their websites which may serve as a basis for comparison.
We canvass a list of the useful key result metrics relevant to each exam for which to look and compare.
(Minimum Achievable L1R5 score of 0)
|Mean L1R5 score of student cohort|
Mean L1R6 score of student cohort
% of students with at least 1 pass
% of students with at least 3 passes
% of students with at least 5 passes
% of students with L1R5 score of 6 and below
% of students with L1R5 score of 4 and below
(Maximum UAS Rank Points of 90)
|% of students with at least 4H2 distinctions|
% of students with at least 3H2 distinctions
% of students with 4H2 + GP pass
% of students with 3H2 + GP pass
% of students with at least 85 UAS Rank Points
Mean UAS Rank Point Score
(Maximum Achievable Score of 45 points)
|% of students scoring 40 points and above|
% Diploma Pass Rate
Mean Diploma Score
A Final Word to the Wise
Having identified a shortlist of at least 2 to 3 candidate secondary schools, it is always highly recommended to visit these schools on their open house dates, with your child, to get acquainted with school management, teaching staff and senior schoolmates to understand more about the school’s programmes and pedagogy and to survey the premises and facilities. Parents should also use this opportunity to clarify any doubts or missing information critical to their decision process with the school administration.
Ultimately, both you and your child should be fully comfortable about the overall learning environment and educational offerings before confirming its nomination as one of the school’s of your choice. A list of secondary school open dates for 2019 may be found by following this URL:
Parents are encouraged not to neglect the holistic factors of your teen’s development and the need to incorporate balance in study, rest and play in their hectic secondary school schedules. Strong communication and close involvement in all aspects of your child(ren)’s lives will enable you to monitor, review and make adjustments to enhance their interests, learning progress and development. Finally, planning for your child’s future education should be based on their performance to set realistic and positive targets.
With that, O Level Master wishes all PSLE graduate students of the class of 2019 and their parents the very best in their secondary school learning journeys ahead!