Many Singaporean parents strategise, often years in advance, to get their children into popular schools at primary one. This sense of competitiveness surrounding primary school registration is fuelled by the idea of having a child study in a brand name primary school, versus a seemingly less popular heartland primary school.
Why is this so? How do brand name and heartland primary schools differ? And are these schools really so different?
On the surface, brand name schools have recognisable names and distinct school cultures while heartland schools seem nondescript. However, parents believe that the differences run much deeper.
Stereotypes & Perceptions
Many brand name schools have come to be associated with good academic results as well as a prestigious, top-quality education for youngsters. The general impression is that they produce high-achieving students.
The children who graduate from brand name schools are thought of as being ‘more refined’. In contrast, heartland schools are generally perceived to offer a poorer quality education, with graduating students being rougher-round-the-edges.
However, over the past decade, this perception has been questioned by the increasing number of top students hailing from heartland schools in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). For example, Rulang Primary, a heartland school, produced top-performing students in the PSLE in 2009 and 2011. Another heartland school, Greenridge Primary School has also seen some of its students coming out tops in the PSLE.
So why the continuing perception that heartland or neighbourhood schools are inferior to more well-known ones?
Carol, a working mother of two girls in primary school, suggests, “The notion of ‘branded’ and ‘neighbourhood’ schools could have stemmed from how parents select pre-schools. The pre-school sector is private, and parents often decide on a pre-school based on how popular it is. They may assume that a popular pre-school is a better pre-school, which may not necessarily be so. Thus, there is a hangover effect when parents choose primary schools.”
A Sense of Identity
Brand name schools often have a strong (and long) history. Tradition and a unique school culture foster a sense of belonging among students. Parents who are alumni of brand name schools cite this sense of identity as powerful motivation for wanting to enrol their children in those same schools.
Says an ‘old boy’ of a brand name school, “There is such a strong sense of brotherhood, evident in sporting events and other school activities. I love my alma mater, and my son will be going there in the future. There is no question about it.”
Many brand name primary and affiliated secondary schools are well-known for their sporting rigour and achievements. Many parents believe that this emphasis on sports fosters values like team spirit and sportsmanship, making for a well-rounded education.
But heartland schools are catching up. The Ministry of Education (MOE) introduced the Programme for School-Based Excellence in primary schools and Niche Programme in secondary schools to recognise and support individual schools in developing their niche areas and strengths.
These areas cover a broad range of activities, such as sports, information and communications technology (ICT), and character education.
So heartland schools may offer unique activities that other schools do not. For example, Hong Wen School offers rope-skipping, while North View Primary offers guzheng as a CCA.
The MOE’s programmes as well as individual schools’ efforts level the playing field between branded and heartland schools, adding weight to the argument that every school has its strengths.
Parents who prefer brand name schools feel that the friendships their kids form in these schools will help them later in life. One father is assured of the leverage his child may get from these contacts, while another believes that networking to a solid career begins in his son’s primary years.
On the other hand, heartland schools draw kids from the surrounding neighbourhoods, and from a variety of family backgrounds. There are parents who favour this mix of youngsters, believing it will help their children learn humility and the social skills necessary to interact with individuals from all walks of life.
A mother of a six-year-old girl shares, “I want my daughter to know that we are all humans, maybe from very different sorts of families, with very different sorts of ideas. I want her to experience this real-world mix of individuals from a young age, instead of growing up believing that she is somehow different.”
Different Teaching Methods?
Parents wonder if brand name schools have better teachers and more progressive teaching methods. Teachers from brand name schools have more recognition among the public, and it seems that children from branded schools think outside-the-box.
Rest assured, however, that teachers at heartland schools are equally competent. In fact, many have won awards for their creativity in teaching methods. These innovative methods have helped weaker students, and those who do not have the means for tuition, to excel and progress.
Reaching A Decision
When deciding between a brand name or heartland primary school, consider:
• How do you define success in life? Personal fulfilment? Accomplishment?
• What are your markers for a quality education? The learning experience itself, or academic achievement and end-results?
• What are your goals for your child’s primary schooling?
• What is your child’s temperament and individual needs? Does he or she have any particular talents that can be further groomed in school?
• What are your family values, considering your parenting philosophies and religion?
Regardless of whether parents choose a brand name or heartland primary school, the fit between each individual child and the primary school determines whether the child will grow and thrive holistically in school. As educators and parenting experts continually remind us, parents and home environment are the most important influences in a child’s life. This, despite the fact that children spending many hours in schoo and away from home everyday.
So whether your child attends a prestigious school or a heartland school, it is your involvement in his schooling, and a home that is conducive to learning, that will enable him to thrive.