BESSA Alumni: It’s more than just the academics

Today, Singapore’s education system is considered the best in the world. Its students top the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test of 15-year-olds in dozens of countries, in the main three categories of maths, reading and science.  Singaporean pupils are roughly three years ahead of their American peers in maths and the graduates of its best schools can be found scattered around the world’s finest universities.  However, many parents still look to the UK for the last two years of pe-university education.  Speaking to Mrs Michelle Lim, BESSA finds out why.

BESSA:  Singapore schools consistently have the highest achieving students in international education rankings.  Take the influential PISA rankings, for example, Singapore regularly ranks in first place at the top the tables.  Despite these league tables, the considerable expense and long-distance separation they must deal with, why are Singaporean parents still sending their children to UK boarding schools?

Mrs Lim:  Although the academic results of Singapore schools are impressive, parents like myself are starting to realise that there is more to life than a string of A grades.  The boarding schools we looked at for our daughters were equally committed to extra-curricular excellence as to academic teaching.  We wanted our girls to learn crucial soft skills such as collaboration, problem solving, communication and critical observation – these are now necessary to prepare young adults for life.  And we really appreciated how these schools were ambitious in going beyond the rigid parameters of national exams and a purely academic curriculum.

BESSA:  How did you choose a school that would offer this?

Mrs Lim:  We came across an article in which the headmistress of Benenden, an all-girls boarding school in Kent, explained how her school used a holistic approach to offer girls a complete education.  She emphasised the importance of having an “inner curriculum” where the school’s academic, co-curricular and pastoral support would work together to “identify and grow talent, build confidence and resilience together with self-knowledge”.  We were very impressed by this.  She also commented about how she often heard praise for boarding school students who shone at interviews and could tackle the real world with confidence, common sense and the ability to work in a team.

BESSA:  It is true that British boarding schools are very focused on developing life skills generally.  Can you give us some examples of how your daughters have learnt from this philosophy?

Mrs Lim:  Both of them filled their school life with many activities outside the classroom.  Our elder daughter was very much into debating and public speaking.  Even though she only entered her school in the Sixth Form, she started participating in debates and Model United Nations (MUN) from the get-go.  She was even asked to be the Head of Debating in the school after just two terms.  Within her boarding house, she was pulled into acting for the house play and she also got involved in a school drama production – an opportunity she would have never had in Singapore.  Her younger sister is quite different and very sporty. She represented her school in a few sports (hockey, swimming and tennis), completed a Duke of Edinburgh award and also built a solar-powered car.  Needless to say, they were very busy at school – yet their grades did not suffer at all.

BESSA:  It is often said that success outside the classroom frequently translates to success within the classroom.  An example of some unusual extra-curricular pursuits that you may not have come across in Singapore is the CCF (combined cadet force).  This is an educational partnership between schools and the British Armed Forces, providing a mix of military and adventurous training.  Many schools have increasing numbers of female cadets doing CCF and taking on challenges in Foot Drill, First Aid, Map Reading and Fieldcraft.

Mrs Lim:  It sounds like Singapore’s voluntary military service for women!  But I can see the benefits of these skills used in other contexts.  Yesterday’s focus on memorization and rote learning is not going to prepare students for a fast-changing, increasingly automated, information-saturated world.

BESSA:  Yes, many schools are using modern pedagogy to ensure their students are better prepared for life.  Furthermore, just living in a different country and culture will open young adults’ minds and embrace change – and the world is their oyster!