Thursday, August 07, 2014

What to think about when choosing a school? Here's my list...

It's time for Trevor to register for Primary 1. His Montessori pre-school days are coming to an end... I wish there is a Montessori School all the way up to High School. But no... not here in Malaysia. The last time I 'shopped' around for Primary school was 2 years back when Tristan was entering Primary (just in case we didn't get a place in Marsiling for him and if there are any better options)

I'm not going to review every school in detail. I'm just going to randomly comment on the school and jot down my personal experience of the school. Most of the points were taken during my visit/s to the school and through talking to parents who have enrolled their child in those school.

In brief, here are my criteria 
[Here are my criteria for schools in my options, but I have another set of criteria for the 'dream' school (will write about it in another post). This school does not exist here in JB... so here are my 'lowered-expectation criteria'.]

School learning philosophy & curriculum.
- Traditional class room base learning?  Are there exams? If yes, how much  emphasis are placed on exams? Homework?
- International school I would expect a different method of teaching and learning. No good way to put this, it going to sound like I'm a demanding parent but I'm going to say it. Since school fees are so much higher, what is my child learning that is different from the local schools?

School's priority? -Character building, how? Holistic development, how? theses terms are over used but not many school really take measures to do it properly.

The teachers are the most important part- what qualifications do the teachers have? Minimum requirements for a teacher. How do the teachers carry out the various different methods/philosophy/curriculum that the school offers. I'm not being bias against local teachers but most of us grow up with the traditional school method of learning and schooling. Its hard for us to break out and believe that children can learn without fear of exams and without material reward. To create and cultivate the love of learning and to believe and encourage children that their own work, the sense of fulfillment and accomplishment is the best and only reward they need. A mix of teachers from international setting may help. Continuous development and education of teachers is crucial for teachers to carry out the various method of teaching. (IB, IPC, Cambridge.. etc)

-Library  I love books, so library to me is or if not the most important part of the school. Looking at the library itself, you can tell a lot on the school's emphasis and philosophy. Self directed learning through books is not encouraged if the library is small, uninviting and has limited books. How do you create the thrist for knowledge if the resources(books) are limited? Although most would argue that internet will replace the need for books, but I still believe in the good old physical books, especially for the younger kids.

-Class Room  Should be clean, inviting, airy (preferably no air con / an option of no air con)- I am pro-natural environment than artificial environment, virus and germs spread more easily in an enclosed environment. Bright - preferably natural light and cheery & spacious.

-Music & Art facilities. Music and art is one of the more important thing that I look for in the school too, if holistic learning is to occur, this part of the education must be emphasized. I love music and art, and I strongly feel that if a school has great facilities and pay attention to this area of learning, this school has a stronger indication of moving towards holistic learning. 

-Reward and punishment Lets talk about punishment first- physical punishment - canning? Standing on chairs, doing push up/crossing arms, poo ull ear and squatting up and down for x no. Of times. I dont approve of physical punishment. It induces fear but child does not understand or learn from their mistake. Only making them more resentful and  rebellious. Disobedient children are discourage children. To me spending some time with them,  caring for them and counselling will help improve behaviour.

How are the kids assessed/graded? How will parents know the progress of their child? How are the children motivated to improve? I have seen reward sticker systems, demerit points system, shame system: name writen on board...etc. But as I said earlier, the reward should come from self fulfillment and satisfaction from hard work and achievement. No material reward is necessary. But in real life, this system hasn't come into effect, so we have to make do with some material reward system for now.

Distance from home, Travelling time ,Transport


Living in Johor Bahru, here are our options ( this list is not complete, only contain the schools that I know of) : (As of 6th August 2014, this is only a draft, will elaborate more later on.)

1) Singapore Government Schools
- Always moving forward
Both me and Chris are brought up in Singapore School System, there are pros and cons but we are generally pretty happy with the system. Not perfect but I admire the fact that they are ever changing and moving forward, keeping up with times, always changing for the better.

The most important asset a school has is it's teachers. I came across an article during one of the PTC meeting at school that Singapore has abolished the school ranking system and their goal is to make every school a good school. They have also increase the budget for training of teachers. We are assured of quality teaching from very qualified teachers. ( I know because I tried applying to be a teacher and it's not easy. If you don't have a degree in Education or Post Graduate Diploma in Education it's impossible to be a government school teacher in Singapore).  This of course doesn't guarantee every teacher is a good teacher, it is dependent on individual motivation which is something we can't control, but at least there are great measures taken to improve the quality of teaching. 

- Parent & School relationship
There's good communication between teachers and parents and so far all our enquries, concerns and feedback/suggestions were responded in a timely manner and the teachers treated our concerns seriously. Email and Watsapp are used to communicate between teachers and parents.

- Everyone is entitled a great education
Singapore school system aligns with my personal philosophy of every one is entitled to a great education regardless of whether you come from a wealthy background or not. Unlike schools here, not everyone is treated equally. In local schools, you may be discriminated because of your race. In private & international school, only the well to do families can afford to send their kids there, so you are looking at a social environment of very fortunate children, which may tend to be quite spoiled. (This is just a generalization, there may be exceptions but quite likely the circumstances made the social environment will be as such.)  In Singapore school, children are in a good mix of races, religion, children from families who are well to do and who are not so well to do, which in my opinion is quite a true representation of what our society is. I feel it's very vital that a person is able to communicate and connect to the humble man on the street and yet be able to speak with eloquence to the president. This is what true social education should compose of.

- Well funded and have a good wealth of resources to tap on
Singapore is a small country, from many years ago, it knows that to grow it needs to capitalize on human resources. You can trust that Singapore will not reduce it's budget to fund schools. Every classroom has high tech projectors, smart boards, computers, dance /music studios, library, hall..etc.. Even some of the international school do not have these facilities.
My son came back from school today and told me that the Singapore Chinese Orchestra/Symphony came to the school to perform and he saw the Er Hu (10-20 of them, a Giant Glokenspiel ( not sure what instrument he was referring to) and Pi Pa... and many more. How often does a school in JB get this kind of visit? They always have excursion to the science centre, botanic gardens.. etc. Outside classroom learning actually take place outside the school. :)

Well it's not all heaven, coming back to earth - 
The cons are 
- the traffic jams (bearable for now, school buses gets some priority at the Singapore customs), 
- the school bus environment (Not the best environment as kids bring technology to school and they are learning stuff without adult supervision- the only adult is the driver who is busy driving through the massive traffic. Your child need to know what is right or wrong, self discipline and daily communication with your child is very important here.)
-need to wake up super early for morning session (4:30am have to wake up, bus arrives about 5:10am) (Afternoon school hours are ok, leaves about 10:50am, school begins from 12pm-5:30pm/6:00pm, return home by 6:45pm unless exceptionally crowded long weekends. The latest Tristan returned home was 7:30pm.) Having said that we live 10mins from the Woodlands customs and the school hours are according to Marsiling Primary Schooling hours- if you live further away, and goes to different school the pick up timings are different.
-still exam based learning style, but good news is that they have abolish exams for Primary 1 &2, and are actively moving towards holistic assessment.

Dollars & Cents $
We are currently paying PR fees for Tristan (We are Singapore PRs but Boys are not, so we are given PR school fees for first 2 years, thereafter it will be S$350.00 per month)
School Fees: S$100+ a month ( RM250.00)
Transport: RM390.00 (a recent increase of RM70.00 due to the toll charges)
Allowance for food: S$2 a day, about S$40 a month (RM100.00)
Total per month : RM740.00 (PR fees) / RM1365.00 (Malaysian fees)

+Uniform~S$50, School books ~S$200 a year 

2) Malaysia Government Schools ( Malay Medium)
- Because of politics, the direction of the education system its curriculum are always changing.
- Quality of teachers are questionable: I heard rumors of teachers teaching bare minimum during school hours and encourage student to go for his/her tuition classes, can't blame the teachers totally, they don't get paid much. Many a time there' not enough teachers. 
- Discrimination may be experienced ( I shall not elaborate on this, sensitive issue)

3) Malaysia Chinese Government Schools ( Chinese Medium)
- I have seen schools with great facilities- mainly from donations and fundings from various sources.
- Schools are generally managed well
- School is conducted in Chinese
- The level of Chinese in Malaysian Chinese School is high, command of Chinese will be very good.
- Class size - Depending on schools, about 25-40.
- Traditional class room, route learning, memorization and copy writing. Creative thinking is not developed.
- Discipline - Canning is still widely used.
The one that I am considering is Foon Yew 4, as it's a less popular school compared to Foon Yew 2 and it has a smaller class size. It appears to be less stressful but I don't know.

4) Malaysia Private Schools (Private School offering local Malaysian syllabus)
a. Omega Private School 
b. Seri Ara Private School
c. Sri Utama Private School
d. *Matahari Private School - I went through the website, it sounds like it has a great phillosophy, fees are reasonable. Will pay a visit one of this days.

5) Malaysia International Schools
a. *Fair View International School ( IB ) - great philosphy and an upcoming new campus, however I have heard feedback from parents who sent their kids to the school having bad experience with incompetent teachers.

b. *Austin Height International School ( IPC ) - great campus, bright, clean, classrooms are brightly lit, great facilities: library is inviting, spacious and has a great collection of books. We went for the open day 2 years back, there's an exhibition of their work and the students themselves were explaining to us what the project was about and they were confident and ready to answer our questions. I was very impressed by this. From my understanding: they have a 'thematic-intergrated-project based learning'. Interesting! Only thing is the distance from my home and the school fees + a lot of other miscellanous fees, and it's increasing yearly. If I have one kid maybe I will consider, but I have to multiply everything by 3, need to budget for their tertiary education.

Another downside for me is Chinese is only once a week, so if you are thinking about bilingual education... pretty tough to learn a language if it's only conducted once a week.

c. *Tenby International School - nice campus, cozy atmosphere, library is inviting and spacious and beautiful, teachers comes from international background, they seem qualified and happy, students are happy. A 14 year old girl gave us a tour of the campus, she spoke well and presented herself confidently. The cons are same as Austin, distance from my home, ( I don't want to have to drive up and down twice a day to ferry the kids, takes about half hour without traffic each way, bus services are not well established as yet- the same bus takes kids from all over JB, travelling time is increased.) Chinese is also conduct very little each week. 

d. Excelsior International School - yet to visit but fees are quite high~RM2000 a month
e. Raffles American International School -  yet to visit but fees are pretty high too, going into more than ~RM2000 a month

f. R.E.A.L. International School - Fees are ok, but facilities are fair- I am expecting more for international school, class room doesn't look inviting, carpeted, students look gloomy, taewando teacher is fierce and old school teaching style - caught him saying " school is not for playing" and he punished a girl who was laughing while running up and down doing warm ups. he made her cross her arms, pull her ear and squat down- stand up x...times. having said this he is an external teacher and Taewando is only a small part of the school or  maybe he is having a bad day. It just happended that I chance upon him saying saying such things. The lady at the admission was very kind and straight forward. No hidden charges. 

Campus quite small, still up grading, will be building a new 6 storey building next year. ( will be pretty noisy for the next couple of years.) Exam based-half yrly internal exams and external Cambridge exams are conducted at year 6, 9 & 11. Pretty much a class room learning style.

Library is uninviting, sad and small, no interesting books. If I were a child, I wont want to go to the library. 

Music and art. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the more important thing that I look for in the school too, if holistic learning is to occur, this part of the education must be emphasized. I love music and art, so this is the part that I always look out for my children, but if the school doesn't provide it, it's still ok, we can easily find other supplementary classes outside. But sad to know that REAL has no proper music programs, no instrument playing kids just learn signing and basic solfege (do re me). Never managed to ask about art. 

I never manage to see the international syllabus kids in class or meet their teachers. This would be the most important factor.  This Sat there's a open day. 9 August.  9am -3pm. 

Not sure if I'm going since the distance and the facilities and the curriculum doesn't meet our criteria.

g. Omega International School
- went for the open day, the owner splurged on the best food in town, lots of durian, ice cream, briyani, mee rebus, naan, expensive coffee...etc.. I am thankful and I enjoyed the food, but inside I feel something is wrong. Why the emphasis on the food? Omega always come across as a very China man -business style way of operation. The admission office and the 'sales' ladies reminds me of the sales office of some of the new condominium projects here.  No nonsense discipline. Dont get me wrong, they have great teachers, just that I feel the philosophy might be a little old school and rigid. A downside is the curriculum, they have no text book and each teacher prepares their own lesson notes and test papers..etc. What each student learn will vary from class to class, teacher to teacher. I feel it's a little messy, a standardization of syllabus will be better. Of course, if we are talking about Montessori/Self-directed learning style- each child take on their own course of learning and they are highly independent, motivated and guided by trained teachers to do so. But we are talking about traditional school here... a set syllabus will come in better for these kids.

h. Marlbourough - Dont need to mentioned too much, great school but the fact that they charge so high shows that they believe great education is only for those who can afford it, and for those high in status.

i. Seri Ara International School
j. Sri Utama International School

There's going to be a Private & International School Fair in JB 4 Oct 2014, although my mind is almost made up, no harm to explore a little more and see if there's a hidden gem in JB that I didn't know of.
04 Oct 2014
Traders Hotel, Puteri Harbour, Johor Bahru

** Disclamer: - The above comments and opinion are my personal views and does not represent the school and is not a paid review. Please kindly use your own digression to way out the pros and cons before making the decision to enrol your child to any school.


bliss said...

Thanks for sharing such great information on schools. I myself having such dilemma too, it's really a tough decision to make.

Anonymous said...

Your comment on Marlborough is naive; Marlborough's fees are higher because they recruit qualified international staff from abroad who are well versed in the curriculum and are cognizant not only of the teaching methods required to deliver it, but are highly skilled in achieving the high standards which you yourself would seek.

The overwhelming majority of the other schools to which you refer (despite their glossy images and market-driven websites) comprise virtually exclusively local hire teachers most of whom have had little to no training in the IGCSE courses, and - owing to their own monochromatic education - deliver lessons in the same uninspiring manner, and with no grasp of ESL principles which are essential in teaching a curriculum designed for native/near-native speakers of English. Their pay is low and so the fees are cheap. Malaysia is awash with poorly/dictatorially managed so-called international schools, and the Department of Education should hang its head in shame that it allows thousands of children to be educated in this manner.

If you are looking for the best school for your children then you need to ask far more probing questions about, for example, the precise methods of assessment which are being used, and how those assessments relate to the curriculum itself. Similarly, it is not a fancy swimming pool or (seemingly) good library which are the hallmarks of a quality school: what methods are being employed in the classroom? Are the teachers being observed regularly? Is there frequent training? Are teachers given professional targets? Is the school aware of current educational trends? They might use impressive educational phrases - but are these realised in the classrooms? You will find, sadly, that in most cases they are not.

In response to one remark you make: that an ostensible international school such as Omega does not permit textbooks is outrageous; the UK based textbooks - together with resource materials, assessments, teachers' notes - are fully integrated into the curriculum and national standards. That Omega does not use them shows they are more interested in saving money than providing what is necessary.

Shirin said...

Thank you for your comment, appreciate your advice on things to look out for when looking for a school. I am just speaking from a mother looking for a school for my children perspective and it's just a personal opinion. I have no doubt Marlborough is a great school, however majority of the locals would not benefit from it.

The list of things to look out for are my personal list for looking for a school, it's not according to any official standards. It just came to my mind and I wrote it down to share it. It is not at all a comprehensive list. Some are superficial I guess but you might be surprise some school does not have a proper library for students to research, books are old and not updated. The look of the library itself is so sad, badly ventilated and lighted. I wouldn't visit it if I were a student of the school.

Anyway, schools here and many schools in the world are far far from being ideal for learning. It would be wonderful if professionals or schools who have the expertise and monetary means to share their expertise and improve others schools in the community. However I understand many schools are 'competitive' and runs as a business and mostly inward looking.

Please do share more and enlighten us, your comments are valuable.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

can I have some table comparison?

Anonymous said...

It would be good if there is some comparison table for the criteria.

Anonymous said...

hi very good review. i m glad that i came across this blog.
do you have any comments about hilltop international school. i m new in this area. pls advise.

Shirin said...

Hi, Thanks for your comment: not that I dont want to do a comparison table, but I dont think I have enough information of each school to do it. And main issue is no time!

About hilltop, it's a preschool for about 2+ to 6+.
My brother use to study in that school and enjoyed learning there. However when I visited the school some years back, my experience wasn't that satisfying. That was in 2009.

I love the old colonial building and the grounds to run around. They use to have rabbits and I remember visiting my brother there and bring some carrot sticks to fit the rabbits. Kids really love it. When I asked the teacher in charge what happened to the rabbits, it seems the dogs kept coming into their school grounds to attack the rabbits and they stop having them.

However when I pass by one of the classrooms, the teacher threaten the children with lollies if they do not quiet down and listen. There was one teacher to a big group of children. Maybe about 20+. The school do give out quite a bit of junk food to the kids.

Curriculum not updated. It was ok 30 years ago, but the kids nowadays are capable of so much more. My first son had a good memory and was strong in language. he was capable to picking up more stuff from school. But if he had went to hilltop, he might have been bored. I decided on montessori curriculum because it's very comprehensive and the founder Maria Montessori belief that children are able to absorb so much more. And its not by pushing them to learn but creating an inviting environment to engage the children and respecting them as individuals and belief that they have latent potential not just empty vessels to be filled.

My suggestion is to visit the school and take a look and ask questions.

Good luck! hope you find a great school!

Ada said...

Thanks for your information. I strongly agree with your views about Montosorri and small class...

About Omega, I think they are expanding their school and they recruit a lots of new students nowsaday. Can u imagine 42 students in a small classroom for primary 2? That made me unsatisfy because they promised to keep class size at about 35, not more than 40 ppl in the beginning...

My kid love books but he have not chance to go to library. He said the library is small and teachers don't let them go... Beautiful facilities seem for marketing purpose only...

Do you know about Alpha Omega Centre Of Excellent? Please advise. Thanks.

boo doo said...

I would avoid Sri Ara at all costs.

My kid got out in one month. There's a bully at school targetting her and the school said she has to continue for another term before we can collect our deposit back.

Continue for one term when there is a bully targetting you?


Shirin said...

I believe bullying is an issue in almost every school. When my eldest son start primary one, he encountered a few instances of bullying. I was very worried at first and wondered how I should handle the situation. I tried not to interfere first as I thought I cant be there all the time for him physically, and he has to learn to solve the problem by himself. Of course I reassure him that I am standing by him and that he can always talk to me. I listened as he describe his encounter and ask him if he liked how he was treated? And I actually ask him what he should do. He didn't have any idea at first, so I told him to think about it first and if it continues I will speak to the teacher and the bully's mom.

He came back from school the next day looking very happy and told me that he has told the bully off that he was not going to be his 'shawdow' kind of like his 'servant' as the bully insist that my son follow him around and open and close the doors for him. He said to the bully that "I dont want to be your shawdow anymore and if you do it again I will tell your mummy."

I was very proud and happy that he stood up for himself and the problem was solved. I guess we cant always be there physically for him, but we can equip them with skills to deal with situation like this.

If the child cant solve it himself, you can try to talk to the teacher or student counselor in school. But do give him a chance to solve it by himself and listen to him, support him. Children are capable to come up with some solutions.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Sri Omega, the facilities are just for marketing purpose also they have many number of Vice Principles and Principles and I feel that defeat the role of their position. They emphasis on canning and that is one of the issue highlighted when you meet the marketing team there, they even ask you if as a parent do you cane your kid for comparison purposes. No parent teacher communication. Only weak/problematic student parent will be called in. Any issue on education, you will need inform the admin staff, admin staff will investigate and later, when called for a meeting the teachers will not be in the meeting and all discussion will be done with the admin staff.. this lead to Simon say.

their CCA is a compulsory .. if kids do not attend it will lead to punishment, sport day.. the whole week you kids will be requested to attend sport training fail to do so will lead to punishment, but end of the day your kid will not be selected to join any sport competition. After sending 5 days for sport training its not practical that your kid is not in even one sport tournament.

Parent not allowed to present or invited on sports day...

Parents are not allowed to be in school compound, even when you drop your kids, the whole teaches and guard in duty will be standing around the drop off area in a line , gets the kids out of the car and parents have to leave the school compound .....

lai minnn said...

Thanks for sharing. Can you please share where did you send your kids for schooling? Am going through the same struggle now


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