For me, this is by far the most important criteria.
For the Child:
If she is on the school bus, the further away the school, the earlier the pick up time. Schools which are very near or quite near the home have a pick up time of around 6am. Schools that are much further away might even have a 5.30 pick up time. My 3 older kids were lucky as their entire school bus was filled with kids from our same condo, so their pick up time was 6.45. Do check with neighbours or friends with kids in the school, or you can get the bus company's number off the school's website to get an indicative timing. Such early hours are really tough on the children, as they might end up not getting adequate sleep at night and can't concentrate well during class. A lack of sleep also affects their immunity which makes them more prone to picking up viruses going around. When the bus picks the kids up at 6am, they usually arrive in school around 6.30. That is a whole 45 minutes sitting in the hall waiting for assembly to start (some arrive even earlier). Compare that with being able to wake up at 7am, have a quick breakfast and walk to school just in time for assembly. It has also been found that walking to school increases the child's focus for a few hours thereafter, so that's another plus. I know of 1 or 2 schools where the principals push the timing back to a more decent hour of around 8am. That allows the working parents a bit more time to spend with the kids at night and before school. If you live far away, the journey back home would also be longer and not only will it be a waste of time, but the child might be very hungry.
In the P5/P6 years, they may be starting to take public transport. This would help them to learn some independence, free up the parents from their chauffeuring duties, or to save some money as school bus fares increase every few years. For me, I needed to get them independent because I wouldn't be able to juggle ferrying so many kids at the same time. The older ones were able to take the public bus home from the time they were in P5, after their CCAs or supplementary classes (which are compulsory)*. I was comfortable with that because our house was just 3 bus stops away and they did not have to cross any roads.
* Most schools do have a school bus service at 4pm for the kids who are staying back, but that monthly fee is paid on top of the normal to and fro journey, and it costs more than the daily trip.
For the Parent:
If you are ferrying your child, the further the school, the longer the time it will take you, especially during the morning peak hour traffic after dropping your child. Don't forget that you have to do this everyday for the next 6 years. A friend was just asking me how I managed their daily schedules. With 2 kids, she is already finding it very difficult to juggle their pick up times and sending them to tuition after school. By 5pm, she's usually very highly strung due to rushing here and rushing there getting everyone on time. For me, I eliminate a lot of the stress by keeping school and any other activity as close to home as possible to cut travelling time. It's also easy for them to get home themselves if need be.
Project work in upper primary:
In some schools, they require the students to do group work occasionally in the upper levels. If no one stays near the school, they usually end up staying in school to do it together. If your child is on the school bus, and you are working, you will need to arrange for her to go back on her own. For us, as we live near their schools, I encourage them to invite their group of friends back so that they would have a safe place to do their work and so that I can get to know who they are mixing with. If you live far away from school, all these logistic issues get that little bit more tricky, especially if you have more than 1 child, so just something to keep in mind.
Another plus point:
We used to live in a condo very near the school and there were many kids going to the same school. When they were sick, their bus-mates or classmates living in the same condo would come and drop off their homework. They would do the same for their friends. Once, when one of their classmate had her leg in a cast, they baked a batch of cookies for her and visited her. There's also a sense of camaraderie in the playground as they are all from the same school. It's like the old days when the kids played together and went to the same village school, and everyone looks out for one another.
CCAs will play a big part in your child's life in primary school for several reasons. Not only does it encourage friendship and inculcate a lot of other character values not learnt through lesson time, it also allows an opportunity for your child to participate in activities that would not be found via outside enrichment courses such as scouting, being part of a marching band, or learning to be an entrepreneur to name a few. And of course, it is more convenient as you don't have the hassle of taking them to an external vendor for the classes. Another very important point is that in secondary school, for most schools, you have to choose 1 CCA and stick to it for 4 years. So it is during the primary school years where the child should try out different CCAs to see where their interests or talents lie. Or having tried out a particular CCA, to know that they really do not enjoy it so they won't choose it in secondary school.
Some schools have very limited CCAs, as they would rather concentrate on those few areas where they are strong in (so that they can win more medals). Some schools have CCAs which are only open to students at the competitive level, so only those who pass the try outs will be allowed in. Some other schools only encourage students to join CCAs at the P4 level, unless you have prior experience in a particular sport. On the other hand, some schools encourage the children to participate in CCAs from P1, and even allow them to take as many CCAs as they can handle. So try to find out what sort of CCAs the school offers, and the CCA policy of the school and see if it fits your needs.
3) Elite school vs heartland school
The great debate. Firstly, all 'elite' schools are not equal. Secondly, what actually defines an 'elite' school? And thirdly, should all schools in the top 10 list be automatically classified as elite? After having my kids in 'elite' schools, missionary schools, and heartland schools, I think we should look past these labels and get to the heart of the matter. Instead of viewing them as elite vs heartland schools, if you really want to do your homework, regardless of what sort of school it is and what reputation it had in the past, you should find out if the school has these attributes which should be the hallmark of a good school.
Something to bear in mind if you do want to consider putting your child in an 'elite' school. Would you rather your child be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? It's the reality in most schools whereby they allocate the best teachers to the top few classes in a bid to boost their top scorers. Also, we have heard of many stories whereby students fared averagely in an 'elite' primary school, but when they went to a heartland secondary school, they were placed in the top class and shined.
Another very important point is that contrary to popular belief, teachers in heartland schools put in much more effort in teaching the students. They are aware that most of their students may not have tuition, and are very willing to give them extra help. In contrast, most kids in 'elite' schools have already learnt a lot of the material from their tutors, so much so that there is an incredulous refrain amongst parents of such schools that "the kids go to school more to be tested than to be taught". The classic chicken and egg situation.
4) The Principal
Who the principal is sets the tone of the school. If the principal has the welfare of the teachers and the students at heart, I'll say that is a great school to put your child in. Because where her priorities lie will filter down to every aspect of the school system. Is she concerned only about achieving academic success? Or is she passionate about making the school a vibrant environment for holistic learning? Is she very focused on chasing awards? Or is she keen on developing every child.
The MOE has done yet another round of rotating the principals. Hopefully, that has eased the pressure off entry into some very popular schools. And it is great that new life and expertise can be injected into heartland schools. So don't harp too much on what the school has done or achieved in the past, but have an open mind on what the school is currently doing, especially if it has a new principal to helm the school.
By watching my kids, I realised that there's a strong sense of bonding by going to the same school. Wearing the same school uniform, taking the same school bus, talking about the same teachers. During the holidays, they get the same charity drive cards, which is so much more fun and less intimidating to do together, and they even get the same homework. For example, on the first day of school, both #4 and #5 received the same worksheet whereby they had to draw and write some things about themselves. I have never seen #5 so eager to do homework before! They shared ideas, and the older one was proud to teach the younger one a better way of colouring and decorating the page. During our daily dinners, they also have so much to talk about that went on in school that day as they will be sharing with each other some exciting tidbit about their friends or teachers. It also makes everything easier for the younger sibling to adapt to. #1 used to take #2 home with her on the public bus after their CCAs when she was in P5 and the younger one was in P3. Then it was #2's turn to teach #3 to take the public bus home.
6) Opportunity for play?
This point may be seen as trivia to some parents, and will probably not be one of the main criteria in choosing a school, but it could be a tie-breaker. The transition from kindergarten to primary 1 is significant, not only the extra hours spent at school, but work becomes more 'serious'. When I asked a lot of children in P1 from various schools if they liked school, I noticed something very telling. The kids who were happier tell me that they have fun with their friends during recess and before assembly in the mornings. The kids who tell me they dislike school or that school is boring usually come from schools whereby once they arrive in school, instead of going to the classrooms where they can mingle while waiting for the assembly bell to ring, they have to head straight to the hall for silent reading. And during recess, some schools have very restrictive rules, such as no playing in the field, no playing at the exercise equipment (in case accidents happen), and no staying upstairs in the classrooms. However in some schools, the kids are running around happily in the field, on the basketball court or even in the playground. Yes, some primary schools do have proper playgrounds for the kids to enjoy!
Another benefit of active play during recess is that the number of kids with ADHD or problems with focusing is rising. I think this can partly be attributed to the increased usage of gadgets coupled with a high intake of colouring and preservatives in our food. One way to alleviate it is to allow the kids to move and expand their energy during recess so that they can focus better.
Besides, after going to school for 6 years, I don't just expect my child to emerge with a certificate. I expect her to have formed many good friendships and memories which will perhaps last her through her lifetime. Don't we remember the good ol' days of playing zero point during recess? I think it was the highlight of our school day!
At the end of the day, whichever school your child gets into, the best thing you can do for your child is to partner the school. I made this mistake with my older kids. The hubs and I decided to put our kids in the nearest school to our house, which happened to be a SAP school. However, over the years, there were so many problems with the school. A lack of communication, no standardisation with the delivery of syllabus, and even getting untrained teachers for the whole year, just to name a few. I kept mentioning how disappointed I was with the school in front of the kids. I realised that I shouldn't have done that. I should either try to find a solution for things which I could, and for those that I could not, I should just live with it as it doesn't help the kids for me to mention all the negative things about the school.
If you are trying to get into a school which you feel is 'better', perhaps you should keep the plans to the adults. Because if the child gets the idea that you are trying to get into the 'better' school, but in the end failed and she has to go to the '2nd choice' school, who knows what the child might make of that? We all want them to start on a positive note, so you might want to keep the child in the dark, and when the results are out, then you tell the child which school she is going to and point out the pros of the school.
Sane tip: It doesn't matter what type of school it is. Look at each school as it is, without any biases, take a piece of paper, draw up the pros and cons of the 2 or 3 schools you have narrowed down, then make an informed and wise decision based on facts. There's a strange phenomenon in #3's school. Year after year, there is fierce balloting for places. People are fighting to get into her school as it has a good reputation for grades. Yet, after the kids enter the school, the parents have many dissatisfactions with the school and then they ask "What is so good about this school?" So don't just follow the crowd based on popular demand, but make an informed decision.
Save tip: Besides the obvious savings of cheaper school bus fares if you live nearer the school, or even free, if it is within walking distance, I also realised another thing. For the humbler heartland schools, your child will ask you for money less frequently. If you are in a school where there are more affluent families, your child will ask you for money for all sorts of things. It could be donations, expensive CCAs like sailing or golf, or subscription for magazines delivered via the school. Of course you are not obligated to join or buy any of it, but if everyone else is buying the magazines or if your child's best friend is participating in it, your child might keep insisting on it. So find a school which fits your requirements.
#4 is in an 'elite' school, and she tells me that she's the only one in class without a phone and most of her classmates have the latest iPhone 5. I told her that's great, she has so many friends to borrow a phone from in case she's ever in an emergency and needs to call me. And of course, before the year end school holidays, they will invariably chat about their holiday destinations. It's common to hear of Club med ski holidays, or even trips to the States or Europe. So just bear in mind that will be the peer environment your child will be exposed to.
I hope the above tips were useful, and for parents with kids already in the school system, if you have any other suggestions which might be helpful to other parents, do share with us via the comments!