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Education in Singapore

A comprehensive guide about the education system and international schools

Picking between public education and international schools in Singapore can be tough: with English as one of the official languages, expat kids have plenty of options. Our guide covers the differences between public and private schools as well as childcare and higher education options in Singapore.

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If you’re relocating with your family and wondering what education is like in Singapore, this is the guide for you. The education section takes an in-depth look at the city-state’s education system. We cover key facts about education in Singapore, including the Singapore school system ages, finding a school, and the application process.

Whether you’re looking at kindergartens or the school system, you’ll need to plan ahead to secure a spot, as applications are usually submitted about a year in advance. Unlike in other expat countries, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to which school to pick in Singapore since English is one of the main teaching languages.

This guide covers the main differences between private and public schools, looking at everything from the curriculum to what fees you can expect to pay.

There are also detailed sections on childcare options and costs and further education in Singapore.

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How is the education system in Singapore?

  • The education system in Singapore has a good reputation.
  • Parents need to register about a year in advance in order for their child to be able to attend preschool in Singapore.
  • From kindergarten to junior colleges, the system offers pathways for all academic levels and interests.
  • The type of secondary school a child attends will determine their career path — those who achieve A Levels attend university, while others may study at technical institutes.

The education system in Singapore aims to support the development of children’s strengths and social skills. All in all, Singapore’s students produce very good academic results and often pursue excellent careers. Still, the government is constantly working on reforms for the education system in Singapore to remain flexible and guarantee a high quality of education.

An Overview of Singapore’s Educational System

Singapore offers many different schools for all age groups and academic abilities, from primary up to college. There are different paths which lead to a university degree or a job. However, the first steps into the education system in Singapore usually start with preschool. Singaporean children attend preschool up to the age of six, getting prepared for primary school.

After six years of primary school, children move on to secondary school. The education system in Singapore allows students to choose a path at this point. They can decide whether they wish to attend a normal secondary school, a specialized school, an express school — which leads to the “O” Level in four years rather than the regular five years —  or another school (such as a privately funded one), which offers a similar education. Post-secondary education usually takes between one and three years and offers a choice of schools, including junior colleges, polytechnics, and institutes of technical education.

Starting on the Right Foot: Early Years’ Education

Preschool education is an essential aspect of the education system in Singapore. It consists of one year of nursery and two years of kindergarten (although some institutions admit children at a much younger age). At preschool, children learn to develop basic language and writing skills, as well as social skills, creativity, and physical activities. At the same time, they will learn two languages (usually English and either Chinese, Malay, or Tamil).

Local kindergartens adhere to the school year as is observed all throughout Singapore — starting in January and ending in November, with a one-month summer break in June. They usually offer three or four hours of schooling per day.

Make sure to apply for your kid’s admission early on. Registration exercises usually take place in March or April for enrolment in the following year. You can contact childcare centers or kindergartens individually to learn more about their programs or admission requirements. Keep in mind that there is a slight difference between childcare centers and kindergartens. While the former are licensed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), the latter are registered with the Ministry of Education (MOE).

If you want to make sure that your child receives the best preschool education the education system in Singapore has to offer, check if the kindergarten or childcare center of your choice is accredited according to the Singapore Pre-School Accreditation Framework (SPARK). The Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) has a list of accredited preschools. You should also check with your doctor in Singapore about which vaccinations your child needs to be accepted for enrolment.

Primary Education in Singapore

From the age of seven onwards, children attend a primary school, consisting of a four-year foundation course and a two-year orientation stage. The goal of this stage of the education system in Singapore is to teach children basic math skills, give them a good grasp of the English language, and to improve their knowledge of their mother tongue.

Primary schools vary greatly in terms of the educational program and extracurricular activities they offer. It is important to take a second look at your kid’s interests and see if the school of your choice matches these interests. Some schools focus on sports, others on arts, or social clubs.

Special Needs Schools

The education system in Singapore has a very high quality, but may leave some children who have special needs in the dust. This is why some schools put a special focus on children who feel out of place at a regular primary school. Most schools have experienced teachers who are capable of taking care of children with minor learning disabilities. However, there are around 20 designated schools that customize their curriculum for children who have physical or mental disabilities. That way, kids who do not benefit from mainstream education receive a viable alternative.

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Daycare and kindergarten

  • There is a wide variety of childcare centers in Singapore, providing care for children between two months and seven years old.
  • All centers must be licensed and are subject to regular checks, giving you peace of mind that your child is in a safe environment.
  • There is a very wide range of fees, and financial assistance is usually only available to Singaporean nationals.
  • Your child will require certain immunizations before being accepted.

Working parents with the right budget do not have to worry about their children’s well-being. In fact, childcare in Singapore is widely available — the city-state ranked 13th out of 45 countries in regard to childcare availability in the Expat Insider 2016 survey — and comes in many forms. Next to the more personal choice of employing a nanny or au pair, there are various educational programs and different childcare centers offer just the right type of care to every expat family. However, childcare in Singapore can be quite expensive: the majority of respondents with kids in Singapore voiced overall dissatisfaction with its affordability.

Childcare Centers

The age ranges of different childcare centers vary, but some accept children from two months onwards with the upper limit of all centers being seven years, when children are old enough to attend elementary school. All centers that offer childcare in Singapore, no matter if they are public or private institutions, must be licensed by the Early Childhood Development Agency (EDA). They are subject to regular inspections and have to abide by certain laws concerning staff and space. As a rule of thumb, the younger the children in a playgroup are, the more kindergarten teachers or nurses will take care of them.

Most childcare centers offer full-day and part-day programs. Some centers offering childcare in Singapore are willing to negotiate flexible arrangements if you have irregular working hours.

The First Steps on Your Child’s Journey through Education

The goal of childcare in Singapore is mostly to provide children with a space for playing, learning, and resting while their parents are at work. The staff will paint, sing, and play with the children, and organize outdoor activities. However, while all of this appears rather trivial at first sight, childcare in Singapore follows an official curriculum. The centers organize the day accordingly.

What all centers have in common is their focus on the child’s physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development to prepare them for primary education. This is typically done by following the concept of learning through play. That way, kids pick up on basic things easily and are not overwhelmed. Often, children are divided into different groups so that babies are not disturbed by more active toddlers.

Fees Could Add Up Quickly

Childcare centers are privately run and therefore not subject to the control of the government when it comes to monthly fees. Moreover, centers can raise their monthly fees once per year after notifying the parents and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) by 1 October of the preceding year. Thus, monthly fees for childcare in Singapore vary greatly depending on the center your child will attend and on the type of program (full-time, part-time, etc.). Generally, fees range from 300 to 2,600 SGD each month. All this will add to your cost of living in Singapore.

As you can imagine, childcare fees tend to add up quickly, especially if you have another child attending a childcare center or a private school at the same time. That is why low-income families can apply for financial assistance through the childcare center. Unfortunately, financial aid is often only available to Singaporean families. Please check with the childcare center of your choice if this is the case.

Minimum Age and Immunization Requirements

Childcare in Singapore is available up to the age of seven. The minimum age, however, differs depending on the center of choice that may or may not offer infant care. Unfortunately, not all centers are equipped to provide care to the very little ones. The minimum entry age is, thus, around 2 months at the very least. Most children begin to attend a childcare center at the age of 18 months.

However, there are other requirements as well. In order to prevent diseases from spreading in the childcare centers, children have to receive immunization as stipulated by the Childcare Regulations. All childcare centers are subject to this regulation. In order to find out which type of immunization your child requires, please get in touch with your childcare provider and/or your doctor in Singapore. The Singapore Health Promotion Board has a great chart as well.

Further Information

Best schools

A More Focused Path: Secondary Education

At the age of 13, students will progress along a variety of different academic routes. Generally, students are placed either in Express courses, or in Normal academic or technical courses, according to their abilities. Secondary education in Singapore lasts about four to five years and usually includes the GCE.

The Express courses enable students to achieve their “O” Level in four years and to attend junior colleges or centralized institutes afterwards. Meanwhile students who take the normal academic or technical route will either have to take an extra fifth year to study the “O” Level, or will continue on to polytechnics or institutes of technical education instead. Co-curricular activities — activities involving clubs and societies, sports, visual and performing arts groups, and uniformed groups — are highly valued throughout secondary school and aim to promote skills that are valuable in the real world. Students are usually required to take part in at least one co-curricular activity.

Some schools also offer integrated programs which combine secondary school with pre-university education and end with a GCE “A” Level examination. These programs usually take between four and six years to complete. In addition, there are lots of specialized independent and private schools which offer their own programs and degrees. Some of them focus on specific talents of their students, in areas like science, math, arts, or sports.

School’s Out? Choosing to Stay at School Before Starting University or Beginning a Career

From the age of 17, students receive an education which prepares them for university or their professional life. Junior colleges and centralized institutes allow students to concentrate on different academic areas, such as math and science, or humanities and arts. These schools are preparatory for higher education and offer two-year or three-year programs, resulting in the GCE “A” Level examination.

Polytechnics, on the other hand, have the purpose of training middle-level professionals in technical and economic fields. Their education is a little more hands-on. The program ends with an advanced diploma. Graduates are valued as knowledgeable middle-level professionals and are sought after by different industries. Singapore’s institutes of technology education also equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary to work in the industry.

Covering the Costs: School Fees and Payment

The amount of school fees charged each month depends strongly on the type of school your child attends and on your residency status. Government primary schools, for instance, are free for citizens of Singapore. However, permanent residents and expats have to pay between 100 and 550 SGD in monthly tuition as of 2016 (not including other miscellaneous and examination fees). International and private schools usually charge much more than that, so make sure to keep this in mind when calculating your cost of living in Singapore.

Some institutions offer financial support to low-income families. However, financial aid as provided by the government is only available for Singaporean students. To find out about methods of payment at private and international schools you should get in touch with your child’s school directly.

International schools

  • In Singapore you have a breadth of choice between the local and international schools.
  • If you choose to send your kids to local schools, they will need to sit the Admission Exercise for International Students.
  • Some international schools offer the national curriculum of the country they represent, while others favor an international or IB curriculum.

While Singapore’s education system has an excellent reputation and strives to constantly improve its public schools, most expat parents prefer to send their children to international schools in Singapore instead. The advantage is that your kids will get in touch with other expat children who speak the same language and all deal with the same difficulties. However, some public schools are ready to accommodate foreign students as well.

If an International School Isn’t Right for You

Expat kids who prefer to attend public schools instead of international schools in Singapore have to take the Admission Exercise for International Students (AEIS). This examination tests the students’ English language proficiency, as well as their math skills. Upon completion, the students are then placed in a suitable school, based on vacancies, their test results, and the students’ place of residence in Singapore.

The AEIS is conducted by the Ministry of Education in September or October each year. It is meant for foreign students who do not have a place at a Singaporean school yet and wish to start the following January. The AEIS is held only once per year and the fees for the test are non-refundable. Make sure that your children are available to take the test and that they are well prepared before applying. Contact the Ministry of Education to learn more about the AEIS.

An Overview of International Schools around Singapore

There are lots of international schools in Singapore, catering to different age levels, nationalities, and educational needs. Because the list of these schools is so extensive, we cannot name all of them in this article. However, we will give you an overview of international schools in Singapore with experience in educating expat children. Keep in mind, that the monthly tuition will significantly increase your cost of living in Singapore.

Schools with a National Curriculum

Some international schools in Singapore target expat children from a certain country and offer a national curriculum. These are a good choice for children who are due to return to their home country soon. That way, they will easily transition back into the local school system without further difficulties. However, they also make it harder for children to adjust to local culture in Singapore. This is why many of them also offer an IB curriculum or international degree courses. Some of these international schools in Singapore include:

International and IB Schools

While most international schools in Singapore offer both a national and an international curriculum, some schools have a predominantly international curriculum. Some of these schools are:

Higher education

  • Singapore has a very well-regarded education system and has plans in place to further improve it by 2020.
  • There are various types of university such as public universities, polytechnics, and foreign university campuses. The latter are often private.
  • Alongside the standard Singaporean qualifications, a variety of equivalent foreign qualifications are accepted by universities in Singapore.
  • Foreign students have to pay higher fees compared to Singaporean nationals.
  • You will need to figure in additional miscellaneous fees on top of your tuition to cover things such as healthcare.

An Education System That Continues to Improve

Singapore has an excellent education system, which encourages students to fully develop their potential. This is also true for higher education: Singapore’s students can choose between various public universities in Singapore and many private institutions. Indeed, more than half of the Singaporean workforce has a university education.

The Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 has set out the plans for the Singaporean education system past 2015. By 2020, there will be 3,000 more places at publicly-funded universities, which would mean that the number of students who continue on to a publicly-funded university would increase by 40%.

Public Universities in Singapore

Despite its rather small size, Singapore is the proud home of various public universities offering different disciplines and degrees. These universities are funded by the government and open to both Singaporean and foreign students. However, financial aid may only be available to citizens and permanent residents. These are the public universities in Singapore:

The Ministry of Education and the Committee on University Education Pathways might decide to establish additional universities in Singapore at some point in the future. The list of institutions in this article is by no means extensive.

Local Polytechnics Offer High-Standard Industry Training

For some students, local polytechnics are a viable alternative to universities in Singapore. They offer a three-year diploma program in various fields, including business studies, engineering, humanities, digital media, and many more. Even more specialized fields of study are available. Local polytechnics are very industry-oriented. Upon completion, students have the choice between entering the labor market or pursuing further university education. Local polytechnics in Singapore include:

Foreign and International Universities in Singapore

In addition to local universities, both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are offered by foreign universities with campuses based in Singapore and international institutions of higher education. These universities are usually private and have a smaller number of students than the local public institutions. Some of them include:

Please be aware that the Ngee Ann Adelaide Education Centre is no longer accepting students as the partnership with Australia has ended and the school is thus only finishing the courses of current students.

General Admission Requirements

Although admission requirements might vary significantly depending on the university you wish to attend, we have compiled a general overview.

Most local universities accept various alternatives to a Singaporean High School Diploma or Singapore-Cambridge GCE A level. These include the German Abitur, the US High School Diploma, as well as the IB and the French Baccalaureate Diploma. What is important is that you have completed a minimum of 12 years of general education before applying to universities in Singapore. Some foreign applicants might be required to submit additional IELTS or TOEFL test results. Don’t forget to find out which type of visa for Singapore you might need.

Pay special attention to the application deadlines as these may vary depending on your university of choice, your degree, and even the program you apply for. If you miss this deadline, you might be asked to apply again for the following academic year. If you have further questions, please contact the university of your choice.

Tuition Fees Could Quickly Add Up

Some universities are subsidized by the government and thus have the option to offer selected students admission at a reduced tuition fee. It depends on the university itself if this is possible for international students as well as for Singaporean citizens. In any case, foreign students are charged a higher tuition for attending university than Singaporeans.

In addition, students are charged additional miscellaneous fees which cover student services, health insurance, and academic expenses. As is always the case, private institutions are much more expensive than local public universities in Singapore. All this will add to your cost of living in Singapore.

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Language schools

  • Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.
  • There are a few different options for you if you wish to learn a new language while living in Singapore — private lessons, university courses, and language schools.
  • Mandarin is one of the most popular languages to learn in Singapore and is also the main household language in the city-state.

Singapore’s Official Languages and “Singlish”

All in all, Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. This shows the diversity of culture in Singapore. Many expats, particularly those on a short-term assignment, do not make the effort to pick up any of the so-called mother tongue languages because English is widely spoken. This is especially the case in business environments. However, the dominant language in many homes is still Mandarin or another Chinese dialect.

The English that is spoken in Singapore is not always easy to understand, though. You will likely encounter the so-called “Singlish” dialect — an English-based creole language. While the government does not officially recognize it, the language is used by many Singaporeans as a demonstration of their Singaporean identity. So don’t be surprised when you hear “shiok”, the Singlish word for great! Younger Singaporeans are often well-versed in different languages. This is also due to the various mother tongue programs in Singapore’s schools.

Language Learning: Where to Turn?

Because of the many different languages which are spoken in Singapore, there are lots of language schools and independent language teachers all over the city-state. Many of them offer lessons in Mandarin, Malay, or other languages like French or Japanese. The advantage of learning a new language, particularly an Asian language, is that in Singapore you have the chance to learn from native speakers and practice more or less on a daily basis.

Which type of instruction you choose is really up to you. Of course, private lessons are very effective because the teacher can adjust the lesson plans to your needs. On the downside, they are also very costly. Some universities offer language classes as well. However, they are designed for students and cater to larger groups. The courses at language schools are usually taught by experienced instructors and are often considered the best choice.

Schools and Institutes: It’s Your Choice!

As mentioned above, Singapore has a variety of language schools, university courses, and independent teachers who will gladly help you improve your Mandarin or learn Japanese. This may also be an advantage during your job search in Singapore. At the end of the day, it is your choice whether you want to take private lessons or choose one of the many language institutes.

Because of the sheer abundance of options, we cannot list all of them. However, we want to list some of the schools which offer Mandarin lessons, as this is one of the most popular and useful languages expats in Singapore choose to pick up.

In any case, it is worth visiting our Singapore Forum to enquire what experiences other expats have had with certain schools.

Do you want to relocate? If you have never moved abroad, the process will be overwhelming, and if you have, you know the burden that lies ahead. Whatever stage you are at, InterNations GO! can help you with a complete set of relocation services, such as home finding, school search, visa solutions, and even pet relocation. Our expert expat team is ready to get your relocation going, so why not jump-start your move abroad and contact us today? Best to start early!

Updated on: September 22, 2016
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