Surviving the Primary One registration exercise

Image credit: iStock

Dad Talk is a fortnightly column where our guest contributor KC Wong muses on parenthood and being a father to his two children.

The annual Primary One registration exercise is to a lot of parents the stuff of nightmares, and a sapping marathon with some heart-stopping moments at the finishing line.

Truth be told, my wife and I did not give this issue much thought. I have always believed that the primary school a child is in has no significant bearing on the child’s future. I know many friends and clients who did not hail from brand name primary schools – which I define as schools that require balloting to decide on enrolment – but still made a name for themselves in their chosen field. And then there are graduates from such schools who do not go on to achieve big things (looks at mirror).

To me, brand name primary schools are over-rated, but that is a topic for another day. Perhaps you know this too, but because of herd mentality, you and I play the game anyway.

We used to live in Tiong Bahru next to a neighbourhood primary school, which I shall refer to as school Z. Every morning, we could hear the chatter, the bells, the school announcements and we could watch the students run and play on the field. However, my wife developed a bad impression of the school's students after spotting some of them loitering and fooling around at the playground after school on numerous occasions.

There were three other schools within a one-kilometre radius of our flat; a Catholic girls’ school and two neighbourhood schools. As school Z was the nearest, we were prepared to enrol our daughter there. One day, I met my friend’s eight-year-old daughter who was studying in a brand name school in the west, which I will call school N. She spoke Mandarin with a slight Beijing accent. My friend told me the school emphasised Chinese values and culture. I was amused and intrigued.

When I told my wife about my friend’s daughter, she immediately perked up and tasked me with finding out more about school N. It was funny how quickly I joined the herd – I signed up as a parent volunteer (PV), went for an interview with the school principal, and spent 45 minutes every morning reading stories to eight-year-olds. This went on for about three months.

Being a PV allowed me a glimpse of the students and staff from the inside. I concluded that kids everywhere are the same. I met students who were mischievous, insolent, arrogant, and deceitful. Teachers, being humans, vary in quality too. There were very dedicated and compassionate ones, but there were also a few who just showed up to punch cards. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable and enlightening experience.

It was with this new insight that I grew philosophical about the whole exercise. “Every school has problem students and mediocre teachers. I think we should just let nature take its course,” I told my wife.

Initially, we wanted to sell our flat and move to the west so we would be eligible for Phase 2B of registration at school N. However, we realised balloting would be inevitable even if we lived within one kilometre of the school. We calculated our chances to be only fifty-fifty, and ultimately did not register our daughter.

If moving from a very convenient Tiong Bahru to the west and getting a fresh mortgage, only to fail at the ballot with no backup plan, then I would rather do away with the stress and opt for certainty.

Certainty was what we got when my daughter was accepted in Phase 2C, without the need for balloting, into a then three-year-old school in Tanjong Pagar, which I will refer to as school C. We were betting on school C’s spanking new premises and youthful and enthusiastic teachers.

Were we disappointed with missing out on school N? No.

Once we decided on school C, we fully embraced it and never once gave our daughter the impression that she was studying in a “lesser” school. In fact, the moment we saw how cute she looked in her school uniform, school N became just a tiny footnote. Over the next few months, we learnt of her caring form teacher who would sit with her charges during recess and eat with them, which I never saw at school N. My daughter loved her and she looked forward to school every day. There were students from all walks of life: kids who came chauffeured in luxurious cars or taxis driven by their fathers, a daughter of a now-Michelin Star hawker, and a mother with shocking pink hair waving at her child.

When the June holidays came around, I received an unexpected call from school N, offering my daughter a place despite the fact that I neither registered her for Phase 2B, nor requested to be on the waiting list! Suddenly I was faced with a conundrum. My daughter was enjoying school life, given many opportunities to shine, and was even tasked with helping the weaker students in class. How could we uproot her from all that?

We asked many people for advice, including her form teacher. Not surprisingly, most of them encouraged us to transfer my daughter to school N, telling us “not to be stupid” or “how lucky we are”. At the same time, we also heard horror stories of friends who haggled for a transfer to a more prestigious school, only to be shocked by the cold and competitive environment.

Today, both my daughter and son are in school N, and both are coping fine. Thankfully, they always go to school with a smile, and they come home in high spirits most days. Of course, there are issues that the school or teacher can handle better, but as long as both the school and parents are on the same page, while the students have the time of their lives learning positive values and their ABCs, should we care if it’s school Z, C or N?


KC Wong is a photographer and father of two. He has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine.

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