10 December 2012, by Tan Yi Lin
Dan and I have been pencilling quite a few dates in our schedules recently. Not just with each other – but with complete strangers…
Sounds kinky? Well, no (sorry to disappoint! No sordid details here – refer to Dan’s regular entries for those.)
Together with a friend who lives in the same neighbourhood and whose little girl is the same age as Coco, we have been calling up selected playschools to make appointments with the teachers to visit the schools.
Hang on…. since when we did become annoying kiasu parents?
Just not too long ago, Dan came home and asked me:
“My friend has already registered her kid, who is younger than Coco, to start school when he turns two. Hearing that made me feel bad that we haven’t done anything. Are we bad parents?”
Back then, I had snorted and chided him for worrying too much. “We still have an entire year till she turns two! And that’s assuming that we even want to start ferrying her to school at such a young age. Don’t worry lah. It’s not as if we need additional help with child care.”
But the fear-mongering amongst parents is INSANE:
(1) “The waiting list for playschool is SO LONG! I had to register my baby when he was nine weeks old!”
Well, you chose a popular school. Don’t complain!
(2) “School fees for a half-day programme: $1,500 per month. This is the price of pre-school education in Singapore.”
Again, you chose an expensive school. You must have done the research and decided that there is value in the curriculum that it offers. You signed up because you can afford it. Don’t complain!
(3) “ALL the playschools have a waiting list! ALL of them are full!”
Really now? Did you call ALL the playschools in Singapore? All 1,000 of them? If not, don’t complain (yet)! Some centres take in a very small number of kids for the playschool age-group (see our findings on Sparkle Tots later), perhaps preferring to focus on preparing older kindergarten kids for primary school. It’s important to consider “full enrolment” in context before descending into a state of Chicken Little panic.
Everybody loves to complain – but selectively. When it comes to forking out money for other items or services purchased, nobody complains, for example, “Omg, the hotel room cost $600!” Or that the dress cost $200. Or that a vacation package cost $4,000.
It’s because you have assessed that there is value worth paying for – and you are willing to pay that particular price for it. Not happy with the price? The answer is obvious: choose cheaper options.
Worse, statements like these are a misrepresentation of the actual cost of preschool education, which in reality, hasn’t blown through the roof (more on that later.)
And somehow, responses to complaints about preschool are a class of their own. The audience gasps, or agrees, or tut-tuts, or worse, pass comments like, “See? That’s why it’s better not to have children! So expensive.”
Why don’t people step up and say, “That’s not true. I pay $500 total for my two kids to attend a half-day preschool programme run by PCF and we’re all happy with the school.” (This is real feedback from a colleague, by the way.) People are willing to share good deals when it comes to shopping and travel — why not education?
With all those justifications running through my head, I resisted being washed up in this tsunami of panic and resolved to keep my head firmly planted on my shoulders, and my feet steadily rooted to the ground.
So if I’m rebutting kiasu parents on all accounts on the need to start chope-ing a spot in a playschool so early, what made Dan and I decide to start hunting around for a suitable school for our own child?
For one, Coco is keen for the company of other children her age. She doesn’t have any cousins as neither Dan’s nor my siblings have children — my brother and sister are considerably younger and aren’t even close to getting married. The kids at the neighbourhood playground are much older and seldom show interest in playing with her. Sure, we do arrange for the occasional play date but essentially, she spends a substantial amount of time in the company of adults.
She gets excited when she sees other little girls her size and runs up to them. She reaches out to gently touch their hands and clothes, and even generously offers them her snack or toy. But those brief encounters alone can hardly count as interaction with real playmates.
Plus, we found out that Coco’s little girl buddy may be starting school next year. Since both girls live in the same neighbourhood, it would be great if they could go to school together — for company, as well as the convenience of carpooling.
With that, I relented and accepted my husband’s suggestion to visit some preschools together with our friend.
So after we sussed out a few schools in the vicinity (proximity to home is a key factor), here are our humble findings:
1. Her reaction
Both little girls were interested in the school environment and comfortable exploring the classrooms on their own, which is GREAT! If either of them had expressed apprehension in the new environment, we wouldn’t be pushing them to start at such a young age. THIS, by far, is — for us — the most important factor in choosing when and where to enrol a child for playschool.
Amongst the schools that we considered, the fees for half-day programmes (approximately three hours of structured activities per day, excluding time for free-play if you decide to drop your child off at the centre earlier) ranged from $235/month (after subsidy) to $900/month (without subsidy).
(Both working and non-working mums are accorded a Government subsidy of $150 per month for half-day childcare: http://www.childcarelink.gov.sg/ccls/uploads/Subsidy_Brochure_Orange.pdf)
This works out to be from $2,800/year to $11,000/year.
The Ministry of Family and Social Development recently reported average half-day fees at $622 and median half-day fees at $580, both before subsidy. i.e. a range of $5,500/year to $6,000/year after subsidy (http://www.childcarelink.gov.sg/ccls/uploads/Statistics_on_child_care(STENT).pdf)
Through our playschool-hunt, we also learnt that parents are only eligible for the childcare subsidy if the school that they enrol their child in operates a full-day childcare programme.
4. Class size, school environment and programme
Amongst the handful of schools that we visited, all of them promised small class sizes and Teacher : Student ratios of 1:8 to 1:10, supplemented by a teaching assistant i.e. two teaching staff for every class of eight to ten kids.
With regards to physical environment, we leaned towards spacious, brightly-lit centres with properly partitioned rooms separating the younger playgroup kids from the older kindergarten students. We visited a couple of centres located in semi-detached houses within a private landed housing estate and were not impressed with the dark, dingy, stuffy and cramped conditions.
We aren’t particular as to whether the kids ran about on grass or concrete: we were attracted to one school for its large grassy open field complete with swings, slides and play structures but the interior proved to be a huge disappointment (classes were combined into a cavernous hall and the kids were assigned pens according to their ages — not unlike animal pens on a large farm! Plus, the acoustics were awful — we couldn’t even hear ourselves talk in there.) It was more important to us that the school we would eventually choose struck a balance between creating a clean, well-organised classroom environment that facilitated learning and offering a safe, spacious, open area for outdoor play.
Programme-wise, the schools that offered Montessori-type curriculums sounded the most impressive — but were also the most expensive. At the same time, we were also intrigued by alternative learning systems, approaches and methods, such as the “thematic approach” offered by a less expensive school. Until we start Coco on a programme, it’s hard to pre-empt which teaching / learning style she would best take to, so we’re not too concerned about whether we pick a Montessori or non-Montessori type school.
5. Waiting lists
We found that the PCF-run Sparkle Tots centre nearest to our home was already full for 2013. We put it down to the centre limiting their playschool cohort to only eight new kids per year — probably due to a physical space constraint.
Other than that, none of the other schools we visited had a waiting list. The teachers took down our particulars for what they called “expression of interest”- just so that they could refer to our details should we call up again. One school was ready to offer a firm placement to parents who were ready to pay the deposit. Another school said that they were only opening for registration in January 2013. We didn’t see any cause for concern about long waiting lists or schools being full. At most, instead of starting Coco at 18 months, we could start her at 24 months or 30 months when more spaces open up, no?
While we liked what the Montessori-style schools offered, we questioned the necessity of paying $900/month for such a programme. After all, simple baking activities could be done at home. Opportunities for outdoor play, water play and nature education abound in neighbourhood parks and playgrounds — for free. If the key objective of enrolling Coco in playschool was to let her socialise with children her age, then wouldn’t a less expensive school offering basic preschool education and opportunities for social interaction suffice? Furthermore, savings from the school fees could go towards other enrichment programmes, such as swimming lessons, drama school, etc.
We don’t need to go for the cheapest deal but we don’t want to be extravagant either. While we aspire to provide Coco with the best education that our money can buy, we don’t want to have to resort to scrimping and saving just so that we can afford to send her to one particular school. Money can be squeezed. Cash flow can be adjusted. But, even with education, there is a limit to how much we are willing to tax ourselves financially. After all, Coco may be our only child for now — but not for long.
This (two-person) jury is still out. We haven’t put our money on any school yet (literally). But I am confident of finding a suitable preschool for Coco. This may mean having to change our assumptions or manage our expectations of what makes a perfect school — we’ll adjust as we go along.
Ultimately, as long as Coco is happy, we are happy.
In the meantime, the search continues… at a (somewhat) leisurely pace.