Disclaimer: If you come by expecting an analysis of the Singapore education system as offered in elite or neighbourhood schools, you have come to the wrong place. This is my view on what is (to me) the most important thing to note in nurturing a child. Would you rather they be 'book-smart', or 'street smart'?
Caden is in Nursery 1. When we sourced for a preschool for him, we did not take into account how well-known or popular the school is, nor did we base our selection on the track record of the school. We believe in a well rounded education, and we wanted to expose him to a place where he will be able to mingle and interact with kids from all income groups, regardless of race or family backgrounds.
The husband and I have had the opportunity to experience school years at both elite schools and neighbourhood ones, and we know first hand how different things can be between both communities. In fact, I am almost embarrassed to admit that when I was enrolled into a co-ed school (after almost ten years of being in a single gender one), I had a culture shock. I was thrown into a limbo, and I remember begging my Mum to send me back 'where I belonged'. I had to change schools because we moved from the East to the West in the midst of my Secondary school years - and the transition was not easy.
Looking back, I only started becoming exposed to 'life' and its harsh realities when I made that move. I was like a fish out of water. Not many understood the way I speak, and there were unkind ones who thought that I was a snob for only speaking English when I am a Chinese. Nobody thought to ask if I *could* speak Chinese, they shunned me first, and only slowly warmed up when they saw that I went to Malay 2nd Language classes instead of joining them.
The experience made me smarter. More savvy, somewhat, and helped me break out of my protected bubble. I was introduced to tolerance - to not look at a person differently or judge if they don't understand what was taught during English lessons, or did not speak well. Of course, I'm no saint. Even now I still cringe inwardly when I read a grammatically challenged sentence on social media, or a badly phrased sentence with wrong usage of tenses - but I do not form an opinion of a person just based on that alone!
I began to realise that not every family have the means to go for trips during the holidays, and a faded too-small uniform doesn't mean that a person is unkempt; it could be that it was handed down from an older sibling or a relative. There are people who do not have the luxury of wearing new shoes even though they have outgrown their old pair, and they really don't care who has a brand new pair of (branded) shoes. It awed me that they are accepting of their circumstances, and instead of wallowing in self pity (like some of the girls in my previous school who couldn't get that pink L.A Gear high cuts for some reason or other), they made the best of things and focused on other things instead.
What stood out the most, though, was the realisation that these things do not make them different. They are all individuals, and I like each and every single one of them for who they are, regardless of everything else. If anything, these kids, whom I was fortunate enough to count as my schoolmates for a period of time, are more down to earth. They are real, and have not had the opportunity to even think, for a moment, that the entire world should revolve around them. They come from all walks of life, from all kinds of circumstances, and knowing them has made me aware that these things are immaterial when we are just hanging out, creating mischief, or discussing New Kids on The Block (the boy band, in case you aren't old enough to identify).
They also did not lead sheltered lives. Most, if not all - were far more independent than the girls I was used to back in my previous school, probably because they didn't have much of a choice. They fought their own battles, and life has made it necessary for them to learn how to get by virtually unscathed by working their way around things. They taught me plenty of things, but what I took away at the end of it all, is that I learnt not to be gullible. I learnt to never take things at face value, and to be discerning. Nothing in life is ever given without strings attached, especially if it comes from unfamiliar sources. I learnt to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I was never caught by surprise should they prove to be devils in disguise.
I mingled with everyone. I slowly caught on and identified various swear words in every imaginable Chinese dialect or Malay slang. I didn't find it necessary to use them (not till I started work, anyhow! :D) but at least I would know if anyone directed them at me. I heard them so much so that I became numb to them - I respected the fact that they are derogatory and unpleasant words, but I did not cringe (and do not, still) if I were to hear it in snippets of conversations.
Perhaps I was fortunate enough to have parents who have given me a strong foundation in social values. While I was suddenly exposed to the colourful side of life, I refused to get influenced by those which I deemed wrong. The teenage years can be wrought with challenges, and often, I am reminded (especially as a parent now) - how our teachings and values imparted to the kids are ingrained in them despite their attempts at proving us otherwise.
I was struck by how different socio-communities approach things at the same stages in their lives. I also realised that the 'entitlement mentality' is pronounced in children whose parents give in to their whims and fancies because they can afford to, while at the other end of the spectrum, the child rejoices in the occasional movie treat and does not take it for granted. It made me appreciate my lot in life a whole lot more.
While the quality of education is important and is the most powerful driving criteria when parents help their children to make a school choice, do bear in mind that there are also a lot of contributing factors which make up the big picture. The focus, of late, has been shifted to character building and shaping students who are all rounders, and I do believe that the school environment makes a big difference because it will be the second major influence in a child's life, after the values taught at home.
To me, as parents, we can only steer them in the right direction and help them make informed decisions. The entire thing about how to handle life - should be experienced first hand. Of course, we will always be there should they fall.
At the end of the day, it isn't only about acing the exams and getting the coveted papers at the end of the school years. What we take away from the entire schooling experience, should be the tools required to help us through life.