SingaporeMotherhood | Parenting

July 2015

Choosing a Primary School for your Child: Consider the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect

It’s once again that time of the year that drives parents of K2s into a frenzy. Yes, it’s time for Primary 1 registration and the stakes are high. Brand name primary schools are highly sought after and with rule changes in registration, some parents may have to make changes to their game plan.

The reputation of a primary school is one of the obvious factors to consider when choosing a school for your child. However, there are also others to consider — same sex school? Distance to school? Religious values?

I know, because I went through all this. You almost feel as if you are playing chess with a grandmaster, except you feel like all your moves are tantamount to either securing your child’s future success or ruining it. Perhaps I’m being too dramatic, but I have no doubt about it — ask any parent who has gone through the primary 1 registration without help — it does feel that way even if your rational mind tells you no.

Now, I would add another factor to the whole conundrum — the Big-Fish-in-Little-Pond effect.

Big Fish, Little Pond?

I’m sure you have all felt this effect at some point in your life — hopefully as the Big Fish. Say you are reasonably internet-savvy, you know how to set up a FaceBook account, you can easily come up with one of those D-I-Y websites.

In your previous company, these were considered normal skills to have. You change jobs. Now, your colleagues are a good 15 years older and none of them carry a smartphone. Guess what? You’ve just turned into THE Internet guru.

Your boss thinks you come from Asian branch of the Gates family line. Suddenly your self-esteem takes on such a boost that you are actually learning even more ‘Wong Fei Hong’ Internet skills than you’d ever thought your brain could absorb. You have just became the Big Fish in the Little Pond and it feels good.

Similarly, a child who is surrounded by very bright children would feel less confident about her abilities whereas a child who finds that her ability is better than those around her would feel more confident.

So in choosing a school, a parent has to be aware of this effect — is your child academically confident? Understand what her strengths are (one way is to categorise them through multiple intelligences). Does she or he have any learning disabilities that you need to take into account? This is something to consider as well because performance is affected by confidence.

Does Confidence Matter?

Image: Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels

Yes! Psychologists refer to this confidence (see 5 Ways to Develop your Child’s Confidence) in your ability as “academic self-concept”, and researchers have found that students’ academic self-concept at about age 16 is a very good predictor of what they can achieve educationally five years after finishing high school. In fact, academic self-concept is a better predictor than school grades, intelligence, and socio-economic status1.

(See also: Choosing a Primary School: Brand Name or Heartland School?)

Is the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect found in Singapore?

Yes! Dr Gregory Arief Liem, a prominent motivation researcher, has found evidence for the Big-Fish-in-Little-Pond Effect right here in Singapore2. His research showed that if you consider all things else equal, a child surrounded by high-ability students in a stream would have lower academic self-concept compared to a child surrounded by lower-ability students.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath has also found the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect at university level. With regards to universities, Gladwell stated that “the best students from mediocre schools were almost always a better bet than good students from the very best schools”.

In one example, graduates who had studied economics were analysed and the results showed that the very best students at a non-top 30 university (the big fish in a little pond), did substantially better than everyone (the little fish in a big pond) — except the very best students at top universities such as Harvard, MIT, Yale, and Princeton.

So, think about it as you are making your choice for Primary 1 registration — would you prefer your child to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond?

Dr Cecilia Leong has PhD in Communications and teaches tertiary students life skills. She also conducts Emotional Intelligence workshops. Her book, Perfect Match Health Education for Primary 4, 5, and 6 is being used by many primary schools in Singapore. You can read more parenting tips at Cecilia’s blog.


1 Marsh, H.W. & O’Mara, A. (2008). Reciprocal effects between academic self-concept, self-esteem, achievement, and attainment over seven adolescent years: Unidimensional and multidimensional perspectives of self-concept. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 542-552.

2 Liem, G.A.D., Marsh, H.W., Martin, A.J., McInerney, D.M., & Yeung, A.S. (2012). The big-fish-in-little-pond effect and a national policy of within-school ability streaming: Alternative frames of reference. American Educational Research Journal, 50, 326–370.

Header image: Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash

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Choosing a Primary School for your Child: Consider the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect