Inside the ‘Oxbridge factory’ Singapore school… that only costs £160 a month

·8-min read
Raffles Institution, where out of the 263 pupils who applied to Oxbridge last year, 52 won places
Raffles Institution, where out of the 263 pupils who applied to Oxbridge last year, 52 won places

It’s not generally a source of great controversy – the league table ranking schools by how many pupils they are sending to Oxbridge. All the usual suspects are there: Westminster, Eton, St Paul’s and a couple of very good selective state schools. But in new figures published this month, one school stood out for its unusual geographical location: South-East Asia.

The Raffles Institution (RI), Singapore’s oldest school, has scooped fifth position – 52 of its pupils won places at Oxbridge between 2018 and 2021.

It begs the question: how is it, and in a time of Covid, that a school on the other side of the world can get more offers from Oxford and Cambridge than so many closer to home? What’s happening at RI that out-Harrows Harrow, or Marlborough?

Singapore has always been known for the quality of its education, with British head teachers scrabbling to understand its success as UK schools slide down the OECD’s global education rankings – this year described as an “average performer” and lagging behind countries including Singapore, Japan, China, Estonia, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

And now RI is pushing out our schools in the race to secure Oxbridge places.

The Raffles Institution: those children who do get in are almost guaranteed a fast track to success
The Raffles Institution: those children who do get in are almost guaranteed a fast track to success

The expat explanation

What’s going on? Well, first it’s important to understand the dual carriageway education system driving Singapore, with its population of just over five million, of which 41 per cent are expats. Largely barred from entering the Singaporean education system by a government focused on educating its own people, they have turned to the oversubscribed international schools; Swiss, Dutch, Canadian, Australian, along with recent arrivals from England like Dulwich College, and the very popular United World College, all carrying high fees consistent with UK independent schools.

“Basically, you cannot get in unless you pay your way in,” says Lulu, an English mother who lived there for two years. Big companies like Shell and BP would buy up school places for their expat employees. She ended up sending her children across the border to Marlborough in Malaysia. The round trip took four hours, she says, “but we still did it because we had no choice.”

And then there are the local Singaporean schools run by the government, with RI and its main competitor, The Anglo Chinese School (ACS), topping the list. Their fees are much lower, around $300 (or £160) a month – though three times more for the rare foreigner who can get a place – yet, globally, they are considered to provide the best education in the world.

“Singapore tries to churn out as many human talents as they can, having no other natural resources to offer,” explains the mother of a pupil at RI. The boys school was founded in 1823 by Sir Stamford Raffles, the British founder of Singapore, and girls were introduced in 1879. Today, the younger years are all boys, with girls joining the school in Years 5 and 6. Curiously, the first headmaster, John Henry Moor, was the great-great-great-great grandfather of Canadian PM Justin Trudeau.

No walk in the playground

Many of the school’s traditions and attitudes will be recognisable to parents of British public school students. Competitiveness is at the centre of the Raffles world – there is a focus on maths, coding, the sciences and commercial business, especially with relevance to neighbouring China. Leadership skills are strongly emphasised, which might explain why several Singaporean prime ministers are alumni, including Lee Kwan Yew, widely recognised as the nation’s founding father. Today, there are whispers about “tiger mothers” and private tutors being the secret to many a Raffles student’s success.

When not in lessons, children are encouraged to study in a vast, university-style library. In its literature, the school claims to place great value on “character development”. From age 13, pupils study philosophy to mould them into “critical, rational thinkers with sound moral beliefs”. Aged 15, they are required to board for a seven-week residential programme, where they sleep in brightly-lit dormitories. Children are encouraged to pursue enrichment programmes, including one on water sustainability and another on “technology incubation”, in which they “learn how to turn their tech dreams into reality”. Aged 16, it’s time for a term abroad, studying in Vietnam, China or Malaysia, with an emphasis on conservation and photography.

Every pupil is put in one of five houses named after a former headmaster, each with themed T-shirts and chants, and a colourful mascot. In their free time, they are encouraged to play badminton, water polo, rugby and “floorball”, a version of indoor hockey. Non-sporty children can try their hand at chess, guitar, military band or orchestra. Mentorship is stressed and pupils are offered opportunities to display their work at local trade fairs. Pastoral care is excellent, there is limited bullying, and the food is delicious, with halal and vegetarian options.

Little wonder, then, that the school’s motto is Auspicium Melioris Aevi, or Hope of a Better Age.

“It’s been the top school for as long as I can remember” says alumnus Linda*, “most politicians went to RI”.

But Singaporean education is no walk in the playground. “It’s tough,” as Linda puts it.

GCSEs have been eschewed in favour of a straight six-year programme without testing. This is no exam factory. But 16-year-old angst has been replaced by pre-teen anxiety as the school’s pupils are selected based on the results of their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which all Singaporean children take upon leaving junior education aged 12. “The best will be creamed off to go to RI or the ACS and all Singaporeans know that this will determine their future. It’s a very linear route,” says Linda.

“It’s so stressful. Some parents even take unpaid leave for the last month [before the exam] to support their children,” she adds. “This year, parents wrote into the government, complaining. It was in the papers. Kids were coming out of their exams crying and vomiting. It was all over one maths question. It’s hushed up but every now and again there’s a suicide.”

‘Afraid to lose’

Those children who do get into RI are almost guaranteed a fast track to success. It’s enough to excite the parent of any child going there and dishearten those whose children don’t make the grade. RI pupils are being taught the skills required of the leaders of tomorrow from the off. Citizenship, politics, community, environment and sustainability and service are stressed but children are also taught independence, self-sufficiency and awareness; they are sent on foreign trips and encouraged to do charity work.

Discipline is important but no more so than in normal Singapore life. “You can’t buy chewing gum except over a pharmacy counter. Jaywalking is illegal. Taking drugs carries a death penalty, which is enforced,” says expat mum Lulu, while acknowledging that things are changing as a younger, savvier ‘iPhone’ generation is beginning to challenge the status quo.

“As someone raised in a modern Asian household, I would say that many traditions are no longer present but traditional mindsets are,” says a recent RI student. “Many parents rule with an iron rod and drill their children to strive for excellence academically and in their future careers, with fewer encouraging children to pursue their dreams,” he says.

“There is this phrase ‘kiasu’, which means ‘afraid to lose’. Singaporean parents are often described as ‘kiasu’ – pushing their children in every way with enrichment classes, to study harder and doing anything they can to give their child a leg up.”

L to R: Principal Frederick Yeo and deputy principals Chen Ziyang, Ng Mei Sze, Edward Ng, Brian Lagman Ang, Reavley Munn Ye, Dr Theresa Lai - Raffles Institution
L to R: Principal Frederick Yeo and deputy principals Chen Ziyang, Ng Mei Sze, Edward Ng, Brian Lagman Ang, Reavley Munn Ye, Dr Theresa Lai - Raffles Institution

That RI has produced so many of the nation’s politicians naturally leads to accusations of elitism. Former pupils speak of a school where they and their peers were the children of taxi drivers and hawkers (food stall workers) and went on to work in business and politics. Now, with many sending their own children there – should they make the required exam grade – the school is populated with more students from affluent families. The school has an outreach programme, dedicated to reaching potential pupils in local schools, offering scholarships and financial aid, but many still feel that an RI education is ‘not for them’. To this end, the school condemned the “irresponsible behaviour” of three RI students who posted a video on Instagram showing them throwing a $50 note from the top of a building and flushing another down the loo, with the caption ‘our toilet paper’.

Linda has sent her two children to one of the two new international Singaporean schools established with permission of the government: St Joseph’s School and Anglo-Chinese International. “It’s not so competitive,” she says. “I can say to my children, you don’t have to be defined by the PSLE route. They can do Art and PE, which were considered ‘doss’ subjects [at RI], and I can say to them, look at all these other avenues which could open up for you.”

Yet for many students of RI, the avenue that really seems to count is the road to Oxbridge – though not all. As one anonymous former pupil wrote in an online blog: ‘As a result of bearing the lion’s share of pressure, the school on A-level results day can be an emotional place, with people sobbing in corners, berating themselves after failing to secure perfect scores, or crowing jubilantly and celebrating with friends after receiving their ideal grades.’

Some things, wherever you are in the world, never change.

*Names have been changed

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