Despite the government’s promise that Every School is a Good School, parents still race for primary schools that are perceived to give their children an edge. JACQUELINE HO (Cornell University) analyses the complex reasons behind such choices, and suggests that they cannot be attributed to simplistic stereotypes about “kiasu” parents.
Registration for Primary One is about to begin, and with it, another round of hand-wringing about whether parents should try to send their children to “brand-name” schools. The now-familiar phrase “Every School a Good School,” introduced a decade ago by then-Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, insists that this is unnecessary. Part marketing slogan and part policy direction, it represented a vision that every school would have its unique strengths and that parents and students should recognise these.
“Every School a Good School” is in line with the Ministry of Education’s efforts to build “multiple peaks of excellence” — to develop pathways and evaluation metrics that reward not only academic achievement, but also talent in non-academic domains, character development, and more. The vision is of an education system where there is no single definition of “goodness.” Rather, each student finds a pathway and school that is best for them. Parents should therefore feel no need to compete for “elite” schools.
There have been real changes in the information available to parents about schools. PSLE results are not easily available, school websites offer rich information about extracurricular and distinctive programmes, and mainstream media describe schools as “popular” rather than “good,” recasting “goodness” as subjective rather than absolute. Yet the competition for primary schools continues and has perhaps even increased, as MOE recently noted when announcing changes to the P1 registration framework.
Why is this?
During last year’s registration exercise (July-October 2021), I interviewed 50 parents to understand how they went about choosing a primary school. The vast majority were middle-class but they varied in terms of their educational backgrounds. Given that the intent of “Every School a Good School” is to eliminate the perception that there is a hierarchy of schools — a single dimension along which all schools can be compared — I especially wanted to understand whether, and why, parents drew on hierarchical criteria to evaluate schools.
The Ministry of Education envisions a system with multiple paths to success in life.
Searching for schools, searching for security
I remember telling a friend, a week before I conducted my first interview, that I was nervous about alienating the “kiasu parents” I was sure I would encounter. I was concerned that interviewees might feel I was judging them.
Thinking back, I realise my concern was likely a product of how we as a society imagine this “type” of parent. To explain why the competition for coveted schools continues year after year — and more generally, why MOE’s attempts to deemphasise exams and grades have met with resistance — we commonly call to mind pathologising images of parents who “jostle for” and “hanker after” top schools by volunteering or moving, who define success as “being in the top fifth percentile,” or who are simply “kiasu-as-heck.” The stereotypical “kiasu parent” is overbearing, incomprehensibly competitive, and will not settle for anything but the “best school.”
Yet in analysing the words parents use to describe their feelings throughout the P1 registration process, I find that they are more often looking for schools that are “good enough” or “not too shabby,” and that make them feel “safe” or “reassured.” They worry about their children “losing out,” and want to prepare them to “enter society with maximum armour.” Parents also use the language of “enough” to describe their own actions during the registration process: some fret about whether they are “doing enough;” others feel assured that they have done “a reasonable amount.”
These words suggest that for many parents, choosing a primary school may be more about seeking a basic sense of security than about moulding their children into doctors and lawyers (though one parent did explicitly say that this was her wish). Kiasuism, then, is not so much a psychological malaise, but rather one of several ways that parents establish a feeling of security — about their children’s futures, and about the things they are doing as parents to guide these futures. But why must parents do this work?
At the broadest level, this need to construct a sense of security is simply an attribute of modern societies: when one’s future is no longer guaranteed by one’s position at birth, this heightens the perception of risk. Systems like mass education, infused with the meritocratic ethos that “one must do something to make one’s fortune” (Beck-Gernsheim 1998), insist that these risks can be controlled through careful planning. Thus individuals begin to develop their identities around the things they are doing to build a secure future amidst uncertainty (Silva & Corse 2018).
Systems within society, such as the P1 registration process, also govern how these risks are managed. That parents must choose a school means they are designated to manage the risks associated with school (Ball 2003). Given the complexity of Singapore’s P1 registration system, the sheer number of things parents can do to exercise this choice (Debs & Cheung 2021) reinforces the notion that parents are agents with the ability to minimise uncertainties regarding their children’s futures.
How parents experience these risks and interpret their responsibility for managing them depends on their social position (cf. Szabo 2022), including their social networks and past experiences of the education system. As I am finding in my interviews, it is through the narratives that circulate in their midst that parents come to understand whether and how “good schools” matter, and what they as parents can and should try to control.
While some parents find a sense of security in elite schools, others view them as risky.
How parents interpret risk and responsibility
Eva and her husband both attended an “elite,” “super hot” primary school. When friends questioned why they were not using their alumni advantage to register at their alma mater, Eva “struggled” for some time about the choice: “It makes me anxious, oh, so my kid is just going to a neighbourhood school, does that affect him negatively […] Will he be missing out on better teachers, better materials, better exams? And ultimately, tsk, am I being a good parent if I don’t maximise his potential?” After reflecting extensively on her “values” and “definitions of success,” she eventually opted for a new school near her home. During the interview, she was able to share a coherent list of what she prioritised in her children’s education. These included developing character traits like “resilience” and “kindness,” and nurturing a love of learning that would help her children find their passions and skills, rather than “how much money [they’re] going to earn next time.”
Siew Ling also chose a neighbourhood school near her home, but the decision process caused her less angst. Once she registered her son at the school’s affiliated MOE Kindergarten, she saw no need to look into other schools (“case closed”). She does not believe that primary school matters to a child’s outcomes, because “even if you have the best teacher in the world, [if] the kid really doesn’t want to study, you can’t force a horse to drink.” Guided by her belief that “ultimately it’s still depending on the kid,” she says that she will “of course […] try to encourage and help the kids to learn and to complete their homework,” but also says she will “just kind of leave it to fate lah.” Describing her approach to parenting, she said she believed in “放羊吃草.” By allowing her children to explore and mix with different people, she believed they would learn the “EQ” that would serve them well in the workplace, as she had experienced herself.
Some parents interviewed believe that that a school should help their child grow in qualities like kindness and resilience, and not just gain good grades.
This comparison offers a couple of takeaways. First, parents experience the choice of a primary school as either risky or not. This depends on how they interpret the school hierarchy. That is, when they look at indicators of hierarchy — say, a school’s balloting history, or its reputation in the neighbourhood WhatsApp group — do they see these as indicators of risk? Whereas Eva worries her child might miss out on better opportunities if she sends him to a neighbourhood school, Siew Ling does not believe that differences between schools will matter to her child’s educational outcomes.
Digging deeper, we see that for parents like Eva, their interpretations are built from everyday encounters with social difference. As they narrate these experiences, they come to believe that the inequalities between schools are consequential. Molly, for instance, avoided choosing a less popular school despite being impressed by its website, CCAs, and niche programmes, because her “anxiety as a parent kicked in.” Having previously taught at a school that was the “lowest ranked” in its neighbourhood, she said she used to feel “very shy” when asked where she taught. Her teaching history at this school also lost her prospective clients when she worked as a private tutor. She worries that her “shy and awkward,” “not very confident” son might feel even less confident if he receives similar reactions when introducing his school.
Depending on parents’ experiences, however, less popular schools can also signal security, while elite schools can signal risk. Justine has heard about a parent being told by a teacher at a well-known school that if their child could not cope, they could transfer her to another school. She avoids choosing popular schools, for fear that she as a parent “can’t keep up” with the homework load and that her child will be “left behind.” Lisa also avoids “top brand schools.” She does not want her children to become “arrogant” or “yaya papaya,” like the students at such schools whom she encountered during her schooling years.
Whether they target schools that are higher or lower on the hierarchy, it is narratives of how school inequalities matter that lead some parents to derive their sense of security from a school’s hierarchical position. By contrast, Siew Ling draws on a meritocratic narrative that outcomes depend on the individual child. Since the differences between schools do not matter to her, she pays no attention to the school hierarchy when making her choice.
Second, as parents make sense of the risks facing them, they develop varied understandings of what it means to be a responsible parent. Among parents who interpret the school hierarchy as a measure of risk, being responsible means judiciously choosing the schools that will minimise these risks. They are “proud” of the “homework” they have done, “scold” their friends for not acting sooner, or comfort themselves that even if they do not succeed in getting into a certain school, “at least [they] did something.” Given how dominant this definition of responsible parenting is, parents who do not do this “something,” like Eva and Siew Ling, must develop alternative narratives of security to affirm that their children’s futures will be secure regardless of their choice of school. These narratives contain different notions of parental responsibility, and which ones parents draw on is partially shaped by their class-differentiated experiences of the education system.
Siew Ling believes her choice of school does not matter because “it depends on the kid.” This was a common refrain that I heard. For some parents, this notion is appealing because it reflects their own experience of social mobility. Charmaine, who attended neighbourhood schools and was raised by a single mother, qualified for the Express stream despite not receiving homework help and being “very very much on [her] own.” This leads her to believe that “it’s very much based on character or your interest in studies.” Her sister also embraces this notion and incorporates it into her parenting approach. As she tells Charmaine, “Why worry? Just let them be what they want to be, they will do well if they can do well.” In this, she echoes Siew Ling’s emphasis on allowing her children to explore on their own.
In contrast, the narrative that Eva draws on involves her playing a more active role as a parent. While Eva believes primary school does make a difference for certain outcomes, she anchors her sense of security in alternative “values” like character development and joy in the learning process. She comes to understand her “job” as “[helping] them see what are their options” given what they enjoy doing, in order that they may have a “fulfilling career.” Stella is another parent who believes that “it’s ok if a child is mediocre in results,” as long as they “find something that they will enjoy and be passionate about.” As students, both Eva and Stella felt they were pushed to do well academically but did not enjoy their studies, explaining their current emphasis on finding joy and passion in the learning process.
Some parents who do not compete for good schools believe children should be allowed to explore at their own pace.
Inequalities, old and new
In the coming weeks, we can expect to see familiar reports about the number of oversubscribed schools in each phase. This competition for primary schools persists not simply because of the “mindsets” or “parenting styles” of grade-obsessed kiasu parents, but because P1 registration is a social process through which parents learn to be responsible for managing risk. By comparing parents who choose schools in different ways, we see how it is narratives of how schools matter, built on lived experiences of inequality, that lead many to interpret a school’s hierarchical position as an indicator of risk.
As these parents tap into their own memories of school and canvass their friends for “live reviews” or informal rankings, they hear about their friends’ children “turning 360” because of “bad company,” remember how “very proud” they were when their “normal” secondary school was granted autonomous status, and regret not receiving better language training when they struggle to write grammatically correct work emails. Having grown up in a hierarchical school system, parents have learned the meanings of fundamental social differences — “neighbourhood” and “elite,” “disciplined” and “paikia,” “autonomous” and “government,” “EM3” and “EM1,” “EQ” and “IQ” — through experiences that have made them feel anxious, proud, or ashamed. These emotions remind them that certain schools carry risks while others afford security, driving them to sort into different schools, and fueling the unequal competition that continues to stratify schools.
Yet this sorting, while the focus of much public discourse, may not be the only way that parents’ risk management strategies contribute to educational inequality. Choice processes like the P1 registration system hold parents responsible for managing educational risks. Parents therefore learn to account for their choices to their friends, themselves, and sometimes even their children. In the process, they develop varied understandings of responsible parenting, which could shape their involvement in their children’s education outside of choosing a school.
For some parents, being a “good parent” means doing the necessary “homework” to secure a “good school.” Others who do not participate in this competition develop alternative narratives of security: that it “depends on the child,” that it is more important for children to find their “passion,” or that they will be able to “make do” with any school because they can seek out enrichment courses elsewhere. This narrative work is particularly necessary for parents like Eva, who do believe that school inequalities are consequential and who face pressure from friends to choose a “good school.” As discourses like “Every School a Good School” and “Life Beyond Grades” draw some parents away from conventional definitions of responsible parenting, like gunning for good schools and grades, this raises new questions about how such parents are channeling old anxieties into alternative enactments of good parenting, and how this might contribute to new types of inequality in parental involvement and educational outcomes.
Jacqueline Ho is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Cornell University. She would like to thank the parents who shared their time and stories for this study. She welcomes conversation about the ideas-in-progress shared here.
The author presented her research at an AcademiaSG Junior Scholars Seminar in March. Watch it on our YouTube channel.
Ball, Stephen. 2003. “The Risks of Social Reproduction: The Middle Class and Education Markets.” London Review of Education 1(3):163–75.
Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth. 1998. “Life as a Planning Project.” Pp. 140–53 in Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology, edited by S. Lash, B. Szerszynski, and B. Wynne. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Cech, Erin. 2021. The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Debs, Mira, and Hoi Shan Cheung. 2021. “Structure-Reinforced Privilege: Educational Inequality in the Singaporean Primary School Choice System.” Comparative Education 57(3):398–416.
Lan, Pei-Chia. 2018. Raising Global Families. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Lareau, Annette. 2003. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Polletta, Francesca, Pang Ching Bobby Chen, Beth Gharrity Gardner, and Alice Motes. 2011. “The Sociology of Storytelling.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):109–30.
Silva, Jennifer M., and Sarah M. Corse. 2018. “Envisioning and Enacting Class Mobility: The Routine Constructions of the Agentic Self.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 6(2):231–65.
Szabo, Julia. 2022. “‘I Just Didn’t Want to Risk It’: How Perceptions of Risk Motivate Charter School Choice Among Latinx Parents.” American Educational Research Journal 00028312221078579.
 I categorised as “middle-class” parents who are working a professional job and possessing at least a diploma. All but five of the interviewees registered or would register their children for primary school between 2019 and 2023 (i.e., within two years of the date of the interview). I recruited parents using various methods, including through my personal networks, asking preschools to disseminate my study information, handing out flyers in public spaces like playgrounds, and snowballing from these initial contacts.
 In cultural sociology, the concept of “narrative” is used to describe a socially circulating story or story form that contains plot and characters, implicitly draws causal links between actions and events, and often conveys moral judgments of the characters (see e.g., Polletta et al. 2011). An example of a common narrative in the P1 registration process is that of the “hardworking” mother who assiduously does her “homework” and tries to boost her chances at a school known for its academic rigour, which will help ensure her child’s educational and occupational success later in life.
 All names are pseudonyms.
 Mandarin. As Siew Ling describes, “You just let the goat out and then graze on the grass then it will come back itself. Just, just let him go and explore lor.”
 Lan (2018) finds similar narratives expressed by Taiwanese middle-class parents. She uses the term “orchestration of natural growth” (a riff on Lareau’s (2003) “accomplishment of natural growth”) to describe how the desire to allow children to discover their own interests and develop at their appropriate pace, despite its emphasis on children’s autonomy, in fact involves careful planning and involvement by parents.
 It is plausible that parents have become more reliant on such informal sources of information as the information provided by MOE has become, in their words, “generic” and “not sufficiently differentiating.”
 Ascertaining whether this process actually has an effect on parents’ actions after their children enter primary school is beyond the scope of my data and would require further research.
 As Cech (2021) notes, pursuing one’s “passion” often requires middle-class safety nets and cultural capital, and is thus not a universally available pathway. This echoes critiques that have been made of the “Life Beyond Grades” movement in Singapore.