Local and international preschools: What's the difference?

Many Singaporean mums are conflicted about whether to send their children to a local or international preschool. Read on to find out what this mum has to share based on her own experience.

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It’s indisputable that the right preschool is the Holy Grail for any mum. And of the many factors that mums consider when choosing a preschool, they find themselves caught in the dilemma of deciding between a local or international preschool.

To set the record straight, one is not better than the other. The question of which is a better choice doesn’t elicit a direct and immediate answer. It all boils down to what you are looking for in a preschool.

Instead of the usual list of pros and cons, having sent my child to both a local and international preschool, let me share with you some of my observations. 

Initial Considerations

An extremely important question that you need to ask yourself is – What do I want out of my child’s preschool? What is most important to me?

I am a full time working mum and I first started looking for a preschool when my firstborn was about 18 months old. At that stage, I needed a babysitter more than anything else. Although I had a trustable helper, I did not wish to leave him in her care the entire day, doing nothing particularly productive.

I thought long and hard about the differences between a local and international preschool. After visiting a minimum of 25 preschools, I finally arrived at my decision. I started sending my son to school shortly after he turned 2.

So what were my considerations?

1. Ambience.

I wanted a place that was a safe haven for my child. I wanted an aesthetically pleasing, non-threatening environment, where teachers are warm and welcoming and my child would feel at home. I didn’t welcome time out corners, scolding or the very notion of punishment.

I wanted a school with a cosy classroom.

I wanted a lot of play, warm lighting, artwork displayed in every corner and a relaxed atmosphere. I wanted it to be a simulacrum of home, where my son would feel really comfortable.

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The minute I walked into centers with bright white lights and an overpowering smell of Dettol lingering around, I would strike it off my list. I also didn’t fancy schools that were too academic – worksheets were a complete no-go! Timetables that were too packed were also not ideal.

I decided on an international school because it suited my criteria. Situated on the Bukit Timah Stretch, it was a quaint bungalow, with a huge garden for play. The interior was nothing short of gorgeous.

I especially loved how the fairy lights gave the room a really cosy feel and children would sleep in their own little cot beds, with some relaxing music in the background. It felt like the ‘St. Regis of preschools’ as many mums describe it.

Based on what I observed from visiting many preschools, the ambience in a local and international school is quite different. International schools seem to have a more laid back environment that clearly paves the way for a child to learn through play. 

 2. Food

At best, my child is a picky eater and at worst he’s a terrible eater. It’s close to impossible to whet his appetite, really.

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Food choices in a local and international preschool are of course, rather different. For me, the idea of my son stomaching porridge, fried rice and Bee Hoon soup was rather unsettling. He was not used to such food choices, as they are completely different from what we eat at home.

The international schools often carry menus that appeal to epicurean eaters. They have an interesting combination of food and some schools even claim that they use only fresh and organic ingredients. International schools also have more variety in their food options. 

The school I eventually decided on had a menu that seemed promising and there was even a ‘food tasting’ session during the school tour. Although this is not the most important consideration, at that point in time it was important for me.

I guess that food would be less, if not a non-issue, if it were a half-day kindergarten program. But because I was sending him in for full-day sessions, it was of great importance that he had food that he would enjoy.

Having said that, the vast majority of Singaporean children are perfectly fine with porridge and Bee Hoon, in fact they love it!

3. Language

There is a huge disparity in how language is used and taught in a local and international preschool. I would say that there’s no winner in this category. It is completely based on what language outcome you want for your child.

A show and tell session.

I wanted my son to have the best possible foundation in English language. My first impressions of the centers that I visited were based on how the staff and students spoke to me. The use of non-standard English made me raise eyebrows.

However, Singapore has a bilingual policy and all children need to take a mother tongue when they go to primary school. If mother tongue is an important factor for you, then I suggest sending your child to a local school. You are bound to get a better start in Mandarin.

International schools on the other hand, may have native English speakers. The children are often equally clueless about mother tongue considering the diverse backgrounds that they come from.

Moreover, if you wish for your child to take a mother tongue other than Mandarin, in a local preschool, you would have to send him to a kindergarten that is fully immersed and not racially diverse. Some international schools offer minority languages such as Hindi, while maintaining diversity in the student profile.

Once again, it really depends on what you want!

Read on to find out more about the differences between a local and international preschool. 

4. Learning Approach

I wanted my son to see a cat, run his fingers through its fur and hear it meow before learning the word cat, or being introduced to what a cat is. I wanted his learning to be inquiry based, through play and exploring.

I particularly liked how the students in the school I eventually chose, would walk out to the garden barefooted and get their hands involved in gardening, and explore the different plants, trees and bushes. The kids love it!

I’m not saying that local schools do not offer inquiry-based learning, but the teaching methods and approaches may be more similar to that in a local primary school. The focus may be more towards preparing them for the local school syllabus.

Even for reading, some international schools move away from the usual Phonics based reading and use the whole language approach instead. There’s a lot of emphasis on soft skills as opposed to academically preparing children for school.

This is a good and bad thing because while the children may learn to speak better and more quickly, they make take longer to read and write.

The choice between a local and international school, on the basis of learning approaches, is quite clear.
Some mums prefer something less clinical and more relaxed for their children’s preschool lives. This is because they know that their children are going to be in the local school system for many years ahead. Others are more concerned about preparing their children academically.

If you want your child to have more fun while learning, go for an international preschool. If being primary 1 ready is your main goal, go for a local preschool. 

A collaborative project done by kindergarten students in an international preschool.

5. Cost

The cost factor is significantly different in a local and international school. International schools of course come with a hefty price tag. Even with the full working mother subsidy, you can expect to pay a few thousand dollars per term.

Local preschools are generally more affordable, and have more subsidies if they are government run. However, some of the more popular local preschools also do not come cheap. 

6. Location

If you need a school that’s a stone’s throw from your house, and if you don’t live in the Bukit Timah, Holland or Orchard Road stretch, a local preschool is likely to be a more suitable choice.

Local and international preschools are located differently. Local preschools are literally everywhere. International preschools, predictably, are situated closer to where the majority of the expat community resides.

Take for example Turf City. If you’re not driving, and if you do not live within walking distance, sending your child in is going to be a nightmare!

7. Teacher to Student Ratio

The authorities have clear rules about the maximum teacher to student ratio according to the various age groups. However, the student-teacher ratio in a local and international preschool might work differently. 

International schools generally have smaller class sizes and less children to one teacher. When my son was in pre-nursery, the teacher to student ratio was – 1 teacher to 3 students. There was a lot of individual attention given to the children and they were extremely fond of the teacher.

8. Other Considerations

The culture in a local and international preschool is extremely different. Local preschools give children an immersive experience and help to build the Singaporean identity from a young age. On the other hand, international preschools expose local children to different cultures and languages.

Being in an international school exposes children to different languages and cultures.

Also, longevity might be an issue in an international school. Ideally, children go to school to forge friendships that last a long time. It would be heartwarming to see your preschool classmate at your 16th birthday party wouldn’t it?

This is the key difference in a local and international preschool. Children in international schools are often not here for long, or move when their parents get a transfer. So your child might get too attached to a friend only to get upset in a few months if he moves.

In the long run

I had no complaints about my son attending the international preschool that he was in. However, when he reached Nursery 2, I switched him over to a local church kindergarten. Why did I do that?

I was worried that he would get too used to the school culture in an international school, which is in stark contrast to our local school culture and he would suffer in a local primary school. Also, the level of competitiveness in a local and international preschool is different. 

Singaporean children are fiercely competitive from a young age, and it continues, as they grow older. This isn’t the culture in in the international schools which take on a more collaborative, group learning approach. Of course, if your child is going on to an international school eventually, then it would work out perfectly.

To be entirely honest, I eventually went against my own stand. Initially, I wanted nothing to do with worksheets and structured learning. However, as my child progressed to Nursery level, being the typical Singaporean that I am, I started comparing my son’s progress with my friend’s children. 

While my son was happy and looked forward to going to school everyday, I felt that the children in the local schools were far ahead in terms of academic progress. This sent warning bells ringing in my head.

I knew that of course my child would eventually read and write and catch up, but it also meant competing against all these children in the near future! So that’s something you might want to think about. 

It was a tough choice because as mentioned, local and international schools are known for different things. For example, what struck me when I did a school tour of some of the international schools was that the children who saw me, a complete stranger, did not hesitate to strike a conversation with me.

International schools may delay the introduction of letters and learning how to read, but they definitely groom the children to become confident and fluent speakers. In the international school that my son attended, children take ownership of their projects from a young age.

Children in an international preschool taking care of their ‘pet rabbit’.

An example would be a chandelier they made out of used Yakult bottles. It was hung up in the school as a permanent art display.

I also found my that in attending an international school, my son, who was once rather shy and reserved, turned into a confident chatterbox. He was also extremely curious about how everything worked. He asked me endless questions about where and how we get rain, how plants grow and the list goes on. 

I guess that for me, I tried to give my child the best of both worlds by starting him off in an international preschool and eventually shifting him to a local one.

Remember mums; don’t rush into your decision. Take time to explore what the schools have to offer and how different local and international preschools are. If you decide on one and later decide to move your child, that’s perfectly fine as well!