Local curriculum for expatriate kids

The Open Primary's classes give their pupils, who cannot enter local schools, a chance to follow the syllabus set by the Education Ministry

When the Guloy family moved from Canada to Singapore in September 2015, one of their priorities was finding a place in a local primary school for their eldest child Zachary, then six. But the boy failed to get a spot.

The family then found themselves in a predicament faced by many expatriate families here: They move to Singapore for job opportunities, but find it tough for their children to get a place in a local school.

Zachary's mother Maureen Guloy, 38, a human resource manager at an IT firm here, says the family is glad to have found The Open Primary.

It bills itself as an education network of private classes, each consisting of between six and nine students.

It was founded by Zimbabwean Andrew Kagoro, 44, who realised the difficulty expatriate parents were facing when he registered his daughter for Primary 1 in 2015. Although his daughter managed to secure a spot to start school last year, he knew of at least 100 others who did not.

Hoping to meet the needs of such parents, the trained accountant, who moved here in the 1990s, founded The Open Primary.

A recent survey by an online support group for expatriates found that more than 60 per cent of those polled were unable to secure Primary 1 places for their children in local schools in 2015. Only 86 out of 250 pupils who applied - or about 34 per cent - were successful.

Some expatriate families are keen on local primary schools, as the fees they charge foreigners range from about $7,200 to close to $10,000 annually - about a quarter the amount charged by international schools here.

A Straits Times report last year suggests that one barrier to entry faced by foreigners could be the Admissions Exercise for International Students (AEIS), which assesses English literacy, numeracy and reasoning abilities.

It was introduced in 2008, but has been made compulsory since late 2015 for international students applying for places in local schools.

In addition, Primary 1 applications for foreigners are in the last phase of the annual registration exercise, after Singaporeans and permanent residents have secured their places.

Mr Kagoro runs the network with the help of his business partner, Malaysian Sandra Welsh, 42. Both of them are permanent residents here.

As the company's head of education services, Mrs Welsh helps with the day-to-day running of the business, while Mr Kagoro handles the network's 10 permanent teachers' contracts as well as IT and finance matters.

Classes began in January this year and the business has six classes at four locations in Singapore, serving about 50 Primary 1 and 2 students.

Each class is headed by private teachers with at least three years of classroom experience in a local school. Classes generally begin at 8am and end at 1pm - similar to local primary schools.

Because classes follow the Ministry of Education's curriculum, the students learn English, mathematics, social studies and character development, and have physical education lessons three to four times a week. Mandarin is an optional subject.

The network's curriculum also offers a component known as non-academic engagement, which allows teachers the freedom to conduct art classes, engage the students with IQ toys or have them create a project from scratch.

Fees range from $7,000 to $9,900 a child a year, depending on the class size and if the child signs up for Mandarin - an amount comparable withwhat local primary schools charge.

After Zachary failed to secure a spot in a local primary school, he enrolled in an international school here, but it was not a good fit.

Half a year later, the family gave home-schooling a shot, as Zachary's father Michael, 40, was then a stay-at-home dad.

Midway through, they chanced on The Open Primary's Facebook page and attended the network's open house event. They liked the small class sizes and were impressed by the nurturing attitude of the teacher who was to teach Zachary.

Classes began in January and the Guloys say they are happy with his progress over the year.

Mrs Guloy says: "Because there are just nine students instead of the usual 30 or so a class in local schools, the teacher can really focus on teaching and helping each child.

"We want our son to develop a love of learning and that has been the result so far through The Open Primary. He loves going to classes."

If The Open Primary opens a Primary 3 class next year, Zachary will continue with its programmes.

The Guloys also intend to enrol their daughter Emma, six, inthe network next year. The couple have two other children - Kyle, four, and Isaiah, five months.

The Moseleys, who are Australian, are also thankful for The Open Primary.

Mr Brett Moseley and his wife Caryn, both in their 40s, have been living in Singapore since 2010. They have two sons - Jack, 11, and Blake, nine.

Jack used to study at an international school here, but switched to a local school after he was successfully placed when he was in Primary 3. Blake, however, failed to get a Primary 1 spot in a local school here.

Then, at a friend's birthday party, the Moseleys met the Guloys and learnt about The Open Primary.

Mrs Moseley got in touch with the network, was satisfied with the way things were run and enrolled Blake.

"Finally, both my sons are learning the same curriculum. Things feel aligned now," says the employee in a global technology consultancy. Her husband, 48, works for the Australian High Commission here.

They do not mind that The Open Primary is a new-to-market concept.

Mrs Moseley says: "This is a company that's breaking new ground and I think what it is doing is quite exciting.

"Things are not done your traditional way, but we trust that the organisation will act in the best interests of parents and their children."

Trinidadian Sara Bertoumieux, 38, agrees that parents like her are "taking a chance" on The Open Primary.

Her son Alexy, eight, is a student with the network. Her husband Jerome, 36, is French and works as a chef here.

The housewife says: "I know it's an unconventional route, but we are open-minded and decided to give it a try. The less-structured approach has worked well so far and we will see how things go."

Because the students do not receive certification at the end of their time at The Open Primary - although teachers issue academic progress reports - some parents say they will have their children re-take the AEIS for another shot at a local school spot.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 05, 2017, with the headline 'Local curriculum for expatriate kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe