2020: Inflection Point to a Braver New World?

While Singapore's schools have undoubtedly been hit less hard that those in the likes of Hong Kong or even the UAE, there is no doubt disruption has affected parent attitudes towards school performance. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com digs into its data to run the numbers.
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19
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WhichSchoolAdvisor's annual school survey.
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19

On the surface at least, it has not been a good year for schools the world over. While many have won plaudits, rightfully, for how well they managed to turn on a dime to offer distance learning, few would be deluded enough to think that a Covid-19 education was what parents wanted. That said, compared globally, Singapore's schools have fared better than most.

We can capture just how parents perceptions have changed, for the worse, via the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com survey. In fact, we have a simple measure we use that puts "word of mouth", a vital means by which schools attract students in pretty much all markets, into a single number - the Net Promoter Score (NPS).

The NPS, a benchmark measure of whether a brand would be recommended to a friend or colleague, has fallen in all markets where we collect sufficient response to our survey: Singapore, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Of the three markets, the UAE still very much leads with a NPS of +28, but that is down from +34 in 2019. In Singapore the NPS has tumbled from +29 to +9, while in Hong Kong, the NPS is now +6, falling from +15 in 2019.

A brand is said to be doing very well with a score of +30. Any score above 0 suggests positive growth. 

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The fact that any school is still in positive territory in the year that Covid-19 really bit is no mean feat. In Hong Kong, schools were closed for almost six months in 2020. They are currently closed for a "third wave". Parents are frustrated, looking at neighbours such as Singapore, where schools are being kept open. They also cite the low number of Covid-19 cases, especially within the territory's schools. Many HK families live in apartments, and there are additional concerns over wellbeing. Months of lack of social contact and time spent on campus has not been good for social development.

Singapore was one of the few countries hit by Covid-19 to keep its schools open. However, with cases on the rise, the government did eventually decide to close all schools on April 8 as part of a national circuit-breaker policy. Campuses then reopened on June 2, meaning that schools were closed for just two months. Parents welcomed the shorter term closure of schools, and the social distancing measures enforced by schools once reopened were widely commended. As the year draws to an end and Singapore will enter Phase 3 of its circuit breaker on December 28 and there is a growing mood of positivity for 2021.

Schools across the UAE were closed for an initial four-week period, starting on March 8, but remained closed for four months for the rest of the academic year. Schools reopened on August 30 for the start of 2020-21 with each school following its own model for the school day; options included a full return of students, a daily shift system, split days and a blended model of both on-campus classes and online learning.

All three countries have seen a departure of expat families that have freed up spaces and afforded those parents who remain more choice. However, the degree has varied significantly in the three countries, with HK undoubtedly the hardest hit. In all countries however the trend towards more affordable schools has strengthened further with Covid-19 pay freezes, and even cuts. There is one difference for Singapore, however: While other countries across Asia and the Middle East have shelved or postponed plans for new schools, Singapore has actually seen the brave opening of three schools during 2020.

A sense of home

While schools in all three territories have, as noted, been widely applauded for being able to switch to online learning so quickly, one thing they could not do was engender the same sense of belonging.

In Singapore, less parents than ever are likely to say they believe their child has a strong sense of belonging at their school, with the number dropping from 58% to 49% this year. 13% of respondents say they their children have "no belonging" (up from 4%) and 10% say they have "a little belonging" (down from 17%).

It is a similar story in the UAE, with the percentage of parents stating their child feels a tremendous amount of belonging at his or her school falling sharply from 53% in 2019 to 40% in 2020. That said, there has been a rise in the number saying their child feels quite a bit of belonging, up to 36% from 25%. 

In HK, although there was a small rise in those parents saying their children have a tremendous sense of belonging (rising to 61% from 57%%), there was a much sharper rise in those saying their children have no sense of belonging whatsoever, rising from 14% last year, to 31% this year. This suggests some HK schools did a better job of six months' distance learning, at least in terms of keeping the school spirit going.

Clearly it has been harder for schools anywhere to engender the same feelings of belonging and to become a child's second home in a year when a proportion of schooling has been 'distant' and conducted at arms length. 

A sense of value

With the change in offering, schools have been on the back foot when it comes to justifying full fees. Parents believe they are being asked to pay the same amount for half the promised delivery. In Singapore 46% of parents now agree with the statement fees represent good value for money, a significant decline on the previous year, when 62% of respondents said fees were good value. One third of respondents now totally disagree with the statement, rising from 21% last year.

As with Singapore, the UAE has seen a decline in the numbers of parents saying fees represent value for money, recording a sharp drop from 50% to 42%.

HK is the exception proving the rule, with the number of parents saying they totally agree with the statement fees are value for money, surprisingly, moving up from 43% to 62%. This may partly be because there have been fewer fee increases - the number of schools applying to do so dropping considerably from 179 last year to less than 50 this year. Hong Kong’s largest provider of international education, the English Schools Foundation (ESF), froze fees for 2020-21; many other international schools followed suit. ESF typically increases its fees an average of 4.5%.

It is more likely, however, to do with parents being able to move to long sought-after schools. Hong Kong has seen a dramatic population shift over the last 12 months, more so than any other Asian country. An exodus of certain elements of its society has clearly eased the pressures on school places significantly, and there is no doubt that parents that have remained have been more successful than ever at getting the places in schools they want.

In 2020, 46% of HK residents surveyed by WSA said they think education provision is improving, a significant rise from 2019 (23%). Just 8% of parents told WSA they now cannot get the school they want, compared to 39% last year.  HK has traditionally been heavy on demand, and light on supply. Covid-19 and other troubles have begun to reverse that equilibrium.

Singapore has probably been a net beneficiary of HK's woes, and while the raw figures are similar to HK, the trend is very much in reverse. 43% of respondents believe education provision is improving, but that is down on the 54% of respondents that thought this was so in 2019. 10% of respondents in Singapore now say they cannot get the school they want, up from 8% last year.

In the UAE, remarkably, there has been no shift, whatsoever, between 2019 and 2020. 69% of respondents in both years say provision is improving, 26% in both years say it is staying the same, and 5% say it is worsening. While there is no doubt the UAE has also suffered job losses this year, its economy has stabilised to such a degree even house prices that have been falling for four years, appear to have bottomed out. Schools that have traditionally been in demand, have seen their wait lists shrink, but they are still full. Those schools that are still trying to fill excess capacity, already had it in 2019 as well.

WSA has also noted the move of the youngest pupils from nurseries to early years classes, enabling schools to keep overall numbers largely consistent year on year.

A hierarchy of needs

In HK, a "happy school" is one most likely to be able to recruit students. Happiness is cited as the most important consideration by 61% of respondents when it comes to school choice. This figure is considerably higher than in 2019 (when chosen by 43% of respondents).

A happy school is the single biggest criteria in school choice in Singapore too, but in 2020 the number citing it as such has fallen from 58% to 36%. The biggest gainers in criteria have been the school's curricula, and behaviour/disciplinary policies.

The story is again similar in the United Arab Emirates, with a third of respondents (the same percentage as the previous year), citing Happiness as the most important criteria in school choice. UAE parents pay particular attention to the qualifications of teachers (16%).

WSA puts the clear demarkation between HK and either Singapore or the UAE as the equivalent of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Only after parents are confident their children will be happy, do they begin worrying about other concerns. Hong Kong has clearly suffered more disruption in education than either Singapore or the UAE.

Switching schools

With increased availability of places, the numbers considering switching schools in Hong Kong has risen from 50% to 54% - high compared to its peers. Switchers have been rising in Singapore too, with the numbers saying they have thought about changing schools edging up from 42% in 2019, to 44% this year. In the UAE, the figure is 28%, and has actually declined from 32% last year.

There seems to be a strong correlation between the Net Promoter Score and a desire to change schools.

Academic performance

In HK, 54% of parents say they are satisfied and 15% partially satisfied with the academic performance of their school. Last year, 50% told us they were totally satisfied, and 29% said they were partial satisfied. That means there has been an increase in the numbers saying they are dissatisfied with their school's performance, jumping from 21% in 2019 to 31% in 2020. 62% of respondents said they need to give their child additional tutoring, jumping from 33% last year.

In Singapore, 59% of respondents are satisfied with the academic performance of their school, and 19% partially satisfied. In 2019, however, 67% of respondents told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com they were satisfied, and 21% partially satisfied, meaning a big jump in the number dissatisfied, rising from 12% last year to 22% this year.

In the UAE, 71% of parents are satisfied with the performance of their school, again with no change year on year. However, the number of partially satisfied parents has risen (from 20% to 23%), meaning the number of dissatisfied parents has now fallen to just 6% - the lowest by far of the three benchmark countries and cities. Clearly the UAE is doing a lot right.

In HK, there has been a jump in the number of parents who are extremely confident their school can tailor their learning needs - moving up from 29% to 38%. Equally those saying they are partially confident has also jumped, from 7% to 23%.

This trend is in reverse in Singapore, with parents saying they are extremely confident in their child's school being able to meet his or per particular learning needs falling from 60% to 46%.

The UAE too has also been hit in this regard, with the percentage of parents saying they are extremely confident in their child's school being able to meet his or per particular learning needs falling from 33% to 22%.

Clearly distance learning and the impact of Covid has had an impact on how well schools are able to tailor lessons for individual students.


In HK, there has been a slight improvement in parent perceptions of communications, with 62% of parents saying they are satisfied, compared to 57% last year. However, there has also been a slight polarisation, with the number dissatisfied also up, slightly on last year, at 23%, from 22%.

In Singapore parents have been less impressed with how Covid communications have been handled, with 48% in 2020 saying they are satisfied with feedback from the school, and 27% partially satisfied. Add Satisfied and Partially satisfied respondents together however, and you get 75% who are either fully or partially satisfied. This has remained consistent across 2019 and 2020.

In the UAE, 68% of parents are fully satisfied, and another 25% partially satisfied. Combined, this is up on the previous year, with 7% saying they are dissatisfied (compared to 11% in 2019).

Communications is one area that schools HAD to do well in this year, and clearly for the most schools have risen to the occasion.

The telling question

Finally, one of the most important numbers, parents who would recommend their school in HK has risen to 54%, up from 50% last year, while the number saying they would not recommend their child's school has fallen five points to 38%. In Singapore, 60% of parents would recommend their school, a fall of 11 points on the year. The number saying they would not recommend their school to another parent has risen from 25% in 2019 to 34% in 2020.

In the UAE, 78% of respondents would recommend their school, up from 75% last year. Less than one in 10 would not.

Our Conclusions

While few could claim the numbers arising out of the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com surveys are wholly positive, let's be clear - they could have been a lot worse. Schools were front line in the battle with Covid, and for the most part have delivered on everything that has been asked of them.

However, there is no denying that should Covid conditions continue into 2021 schools would have quite profound decisions to make. The internationally focused, independent schools that are the subject of our survey for the most part position themselves as institutions that tailor learning, and deliver holistically, something at odds with an ‘at arms’ education.

There is also no doubt that the year of Covid-19 has thrown up opportunities. Some parents have signalled they do not want to go back to in-school learning. As much of a challenge as that is for one school, it is equally an opportunity for another. Schools will also have taken on board that technology is their friend, and certain aspects of distance learning will continue to be used, even when there is a full return to school.

2020 will be remembered as a year of incredible challenge and change. Our survey shows it clearly impacted parent perceptions of performance, even in Singapore, one of the least affected countries in terms of schooling. However, it is how schools use the learning this year has forced on all of us that will determine whether, long term, the year of Covid-19 will be seen as a dark cloud, or as the catalyst for a more engaged, interesting and braver new world. It is, in other words, down to us. 

What's your view? Feel strongly about your child's school? Take the survey

For Schools

Please note, WhichSchoolAdvisor.com will provide bespoke data for an individual school should it request it, and we have sufficient surveys and therefore data. Please send an email request to [email protected].

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