NEARLY a fifth of Primary 1 places in the last two years were taken up under registration phases which give priority to school alumni, parent volunteers and community leaders.
In response to queries from The Straits Times, the Ministry of Education (MOE) last Friday said about 7,500 out of 40,000 places were taken up at phases 2A and 2B of last year's exercise. The figure was similar to the year before.
With the annual registration exercise starting on Thursday next week, MOE's policy to give priority to alumni and parent volunteers has again divided opinion.
Some parents feel the scheme is unfairly weighted in favour of alumni, some of whom may not play an active role in the school.
Others have called for the parent volunteer system to be scrapped so more places can go to Phase 2C, where priority is given to those who live near the school.
Mr Kuan Choon Shiong, a manager, is worried about the chances of getting his son into a school close to his Novena home. His son will register for Primary 1 in two years and he hopes to get him into St Joseph's Institution Junior or Anglo-Chinese School (Junior), which he has no ties to. "After siblings are admitted, the remaining vacancies should be allocated equally among the various phases; this will ensure direct and fair competition," said Mr Kuan, 45.
There are several phases in the registration process, with siblings of those already in a school getting top priority. Next are phases 2A and 2B, which are for the children of alumni, parent volunteers, those with church or clan associations, and community leaders.
Phase 2C is for all other Singaporeans and permanent residents. If any phase is oversubscribed, Singaporeans are given priority over PRs. Those who live closer to the school also stand a better chance. Non-citizens come last.
More brand-name schools have been raising the bar for parents wanting to volunteer because of the overwhelming response.
Some schools are asking parent volunteers to commit longer than the required "40 hours" - or come up with specific projects.
"The spirit of volunteering diminishes if the parents' sole objective is to secure places for their children in a school of their choice," said Mr Nah Soon Huat, a parent who wrote to The Straits Times Forum Page last month.
But studies around the world, including Singapore, have shown that the more engaged parents are in their child's schooling, the better he performs.
Last year, when addressing concerns about the scheme, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat noted that many parents continued to give their time even after their children had gained admittance into a school. "This is part of our effort to build a community of parents who can come together and work together with other parents in order to help all our children to develop," he told the media.
Meanwhile, some parents who did not benefit from the policy said they understood its merits. "I do believe that these parents have contributed to the school in some way or another, so it's not unreasonable to give them some priority," said physiotherapist Felicia Seet, 33, who got her son in through Phase 2C last year.
When similar calls were made in the past to change the priority scheme, MOE said proximity to schools was an important consideration - but it was not the only factor. "Key stakeholders such as former students, members of the school advisory committees and parent volunteers are important as they help build up and strengthen the school's tradition and ethos, and support its students."