As Covid-19 restrictions start to ease, many international schools are enthusiastically re-launching their CCA programmes, albeit with some social distancing guidelines still in place. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of co-curricular activities for student wellbeing, and schools are reporting higher participation rates as more clubs and societies reopen.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com talks to leaders at three international schools in Singapore to understand what choices students have, why CCAs are so relevant, and how the right choice of activities can benefit your child through the school years and beyond.
All international schools will offer a programme of co-curricular activities to some degree. There’s a variety of CCAs to choose from in most schools in Singapore, and they generally fall under these categories: sport, the arts, charity, and clubs and societies.
There are the more traditional choices such as football, choir, Model United Nations (MUN), chess club and debating through to contemporary options like Lego robotics, street art, mindfulness, and coding. Some of the most innovative and unusual activities we’ve found on our school tours have been students designing their own skate park and vertical garden at the always forward-thinking Nexus; a Junior School student podcast group at Tanglin Trust School; Elementary School Television (ESTV) at St Joseph's Institution International where students have created their own animated show on YouTube; and Geek Girls at Singapore American Schools for students interested in STEM.
As schools focus on preparing students for jobs that don't exist yet, there are several versions of enterprise clubs; at Nexus, for example, students learn about the entire lifecycle of a business in Junior Achievement Company (with student companies winning the JA Award Singapore Company of the Year for the past two years). Many schools are encouraging sustainability through green activities such as upcycling, environment councils and recycling; unsurprisingly, there are also many CCAs exploring new technologies, such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).
There are opportunities to try sports that don’t feature on the PE curriculum, such as fencing, baseball and martial arts; and there is a wide choice of competitive CCAs where students are coached to compete in national and regional events hosted by ISTA (International Schools’ Theatre Association) and the ACSIS (Athletic Conference of Singapore International Schools) league.
Larger schools such as Tanglin Trust School (which has around 2,800 students) offers no less than 300 different co-curricular activities across its three schools (Infant, Junior and Senior), many of which are included in the tuition fees. These are as varied as encryption and coding, talking politics, astronomy, swimming, dance, cryptic crosswords and TEDx. There is rock climbing, computer game design and Junior Model United Nations, as well as a Children’s University and the most recent addition of meditation, e-sports, archery, enterpreneurship, podcasting and upcycling.
Another large school, UWC South East Asia, has an extensive Activities programme, which it describes as “a vital part of student life and learning”. Over 3,000 students across its two campuses are signed up to CCAs, spending an average of 3.4 (Dover) and 3.9 (East) hours a week on these activities. These are as varied as mindful colouring, Chinese calligraphy, urban gardening, fencing, student council and hip hop.
While swimming, basketball and football are some of the more sought after programmes, the school has hundreds of students taking part in music, drama and dance activities across its two campuses, and its debate team has over 500 students. UWCSEA also offers some less traditional sporting activities including sailing, water polo, diving beach volleyball and artistic swimming.
By comparison, smaller schools will typically offer a smaller choice of activities – but this does not necessarily mean a lesser experience for the student. For example, EtonHouse International School (Orchard) has just under 200 students from Nursery through to Year 13. As Benjamin Hammond, Head of Physical Education and CCAs explains, the school's small student community is an advantage.
"Our small class sizes enable us to offer clubs across year groups, which gives students the additional benefit of working and socialising with students outside of their year level.... this is much more difficult to achieve in a larger school setting."
The school's most popular CCAs include board games, art, EAL club, basketball and orchestra, as well as the cross country club which runs in the nearby Singapore Botanic Gardens.
"Our CCA programme aims to reflect student interest and provide the experiences that students are enthusiastic about. At the lower year levels, students enjoy more play-based ECAs such as lego robotics and board games. Whereas further up the year levels, there are more structured opportunities for students such as competitive sports, Model United Nations and orchestra," adds Mr Hammond.
At many of Singapore's 'affordable' schools, CCAs may be an additional cost or held off-campus due to limited facilities; it’s the ‘price’ parents may have to pay for these schools keeping their fees below $25,000.
One of Singapore’s newest schools, the $12,000 a year Knightsbridge House International School offers daily extra-curricular activities ranging from sport (football, basketball, yoga and cricket) to academic courses (STEM robotics, coding, Mandarin enrichments, additional languages, science and sustainability, and art). Many of these take off-campus at KBH Academy in Tanglin and are charged extra.
The $14,900 a year Razum International School offers optional extra-curricular activities (ECAs) at the end of its four-hour academic day means in art, music, dance, drama, sports, Lego and languages; these ECAS are included in a higher annual tuition fee or are charged per class.
When researching your school, check which ECAs are included, where they are located and what’s offered to younger students in Reception and above.
The choice of CCAs can often be steered by the students as well as the teachers, as Michael Holiday, Director of Co-Curriculum at Tanglin Trust School, explains.
“Every Junior teacher at Tanglin must lead an hour-long CCA every week. Rather than telling the teachers what we want them to do, they are asked “What do you want to do?”; it’s all about finding their personal passion. They lead the promotion of different and new activities and, in that way, the CCA becomes more fun, more enjoyable for everyone.
“Through CCAs, students can see that their teacher has skills, interests and hobbies beyond the classroom. They become even more rounded adults to act as positive role models; it’s such a positive thing.”
It’s most common to find teachers leading the CCAs, although external coaches and companies will be brought by in schools to add to the diversity of its programme and deliver activities that it doesn’t have the expertise or facilities to offer (horse-riding or golf, for example).
There’s more to leaving school than exam grades and certificates – it’s about leaving school as a well-rounded individual with hobbies, friendships and outside interests. CCAs can offer those all-important experiences that shape your child as they grow into adulthood.
CCAs have become part of a holistic education. They are interwoven with academic and pastoral programmes, and they are recognised as an important part of balancing the equation between learning, performance and fun. Positions such as Director of CCA have become newly advertised as schools realise the importance of a co-curricular programme; CCA sections on school websites are getting longer; and sign-up week for CCAs at the start of term has become one of the busiest (and one of the most challenging) admin tasks for schools.
As Mr Holiday at Tanglin says, there’s more to leaving school than exam grades and certificates – it’s about leaving school as a well-rounded individual with hobbies, friendships and outside interests.
"CCAs can offer those all-important experiences that shape your child as they grow into adulthood.
“CCAs are not a bolt-on but an integral part of what we are trying to achieve as they are about the growth and development of a young person, an individual. We don’t know at 13 what the 18 year-old-version of that student will look like. When you’re 13 you won’t know what you want yet; as Baz Lurhman says, '"some of the most interesting 40-year-olds still don't know what they want to do with their lives".
“The co-curriculum is a part of every student’s journey through school; these activities not only support them in their academic learning and pastoral wellbeing, but they also open avenues where students can discover their passions and interests and learn how to think in a different way.
“Doing lots of things, and the right number of things, gives students the opportunity to enjoy a deep-seated happiness, find and achieve their personal best, and discover the building blocks to positive thinking and wellness; this enables them to perform better in their friendship groups, academic studies, and other pursuits."
Whether playing rugby or building robots out of Lego, baking cakes or writing for the school newspaper, taking part in a CCA can offer the opportunity to learn skills such as teamwork, leadership, and critical thinking. Students improve their organisational skills by learning how to manage their study and activity times; they learn self-responsibility and must commit to attending a CCA every week; and they can make new friends with peers who may have different or similar interests or cultural backgrounds.
UWCSEA’s CCA programme aligns to the school’s focus on holistic interdisciplinary education. Mike Staples, Director of Sports & Activities, explains the benefits:
“The programme, which runs over four seasons a year, allows students to develop skills; provides appropriate competition and challenge; supports development of skills in leadership and teamwork, provides outlets for creativity and exploration, and supports the creation of community by encouraging connection and a sense of belonging. These characteristics and experiences all aid in the preparation of students for future careers.”
CCAs can be an important counter-part to the academic rigour of the school day – and during exam times, even more so. Far from distracting children from their studies or adding an extra hour to an already long school day, CCAs are bringing benefits to a student’s health and wellbeing.
Whether held at lunchtime or after school, CCAs are a time in the school day when students can learn new skills – and that could be learning e-sports, touch typing or Dungeons and Dragons. As Mr Hammond at EtonHouse (Orchard) explains, they are an extension of or separate from the school curriculum.
"They are a fundamental aspect of a holistic curriculum focused on developing the whole child and not just preparing them to pass examinations. Students will always be encouraged to pursue a career in something they are passionate about, and developing a wide variety of interests and hobbies through ECAs widens these passions and therefore their interest in potential career trajectories."
CCAs also give teachers an opportunity to see their students in a different light. A student who may be too shy to speak up in a maths class, may thrive in a robotics club without the pressures of a formal classroom setting. As Tanglin’s Mr Holiday explains, “CCAs give students a different kind of space to express themselves.”
The start of each new term can become even more exciting when a school launches its CCA programme. It’s a time for decision-making – do you choose a club that is fun? New? Challenging? Or one that you are brilliant at? CCAs are not mandatory, so you and your child have the freedom of choice (if that club isn’t oversubscribed that is!). As Benjamin Hammond at EtonHouse (Orchard) says: "There are no compulsory ECAs as we believe the 'buy-in' from the students is an integral intrinsic motivation that makes ECAs function well."
Choosing a CCA can be based on what you're interested in and enjoy, as Mr Staples at UWCSEA, says:
“A good activities programme is designed to assist individuals in discovering their own areas of interest and passion. For any individual, there is no one activity that is superior to another. As a result, student should look to select their preferred activity based on their interests and level of skill.”
While it’s important not to pressure your child into doing an activity they’re not interested in, they can also be encouraged to step out of their comfort zone to discover new strengths and talents. If your child is a top swimmer at 12 year, don’t rule out trying a musical activity; if they are thriving academically but lack the confidence to speak in public, they could try a debating club.
Tanglin encourages its student to try new activities by celebrating participation and improvement in CCAs, as well as student achievement in CCAs. Mr Holiday explains why.
“We are telling our students that, that while it’s not compulsory, we want them to be doing a broad range of activities. So, as well as recognising students who represent the school in an activity, we also have awards for undertaking a breadth of activities; taking part in one sport, one art, one clubs and societies, and one charity over the course of a year.”
CCAs bring new experiences to students of all ages. For junior students, it’s an opportunity to develop try new activities for the first time. By the time students reach Sixth Form, they can use CCAs to make their university application stand out from crowd with examples of their many achievements in non-academic activities.
For the youngest of students, those in nursery and infant school, the opportunities to try new things, improve social skills, and develop skills such as resilience are offered throughout the school day as part of the curriculum. As Mr Holiday at Tanglin explains:
“For our three to four year-olds, CCA-style activities are integrated into the framework of Tanglin’s school day through sport, swimming, nature lessons, our forest school and our outdoor kitchen. We don’t want to make the school day any longer for them at this young age.”
As students move into primary and secondary education, CCAs become an important addition to the school day. At Tanglin, in the Junior school alone, there are 125 different activities running every week; over 90% of Junior children and Senior students take part in at least one weekly co-curricular activity, from masterchef, robotics and podcasting through to archery, invasion games and music.
And at UWCSEA, the school day is extended until 3pm, allowing Junior students to participate in a more extensive activities programme – and start to make choices of their own. Mr Staples says:
“Students are challenged to make decisions and to prioritise their interests, time and energy by being offered a range of choice and agency in their selection. Teachers and parents work with students to make sure they are not over-extended and maintain a healthy balance. Students are encouraged to discuss their preferences in the Activity programme with their parents and to complete the request sign-up form together.”
In Senior school, the choice of CCAs may change and students are given more responsibility for choosing their own clubs; as Dulwich College (Singapore) tells parents, “Students are empowered to choose – and even propose – their own CCAs.”
By the time students reach Sixth Form, the focus on many CCAs is on supporting their final exams and preparing for university life.
Mr Staples highlights how the CCA programme is adapted for different age groups at UWCSEA.
“Middle School students are able to try a number of new activities in each of the four activity seasons, which is significant during this crucial period of self-exploration and personal growth. Many multi-season activities are designed to help students to develop leadership and social skills, as well as an awareness of group dynamics.
“As students approach High School and are asked to make specialist subject choices, the opportunity to participate in a variety of activities helps them to delve deeper into topics or subject areas before committing to courses in the High School academic programme. All High School students are expected to participate, usually about three to four hours per week during lunchtime and after school.”
And Mr Holiday at Tanglin adds the importance of learning through CCAs for university life and beyond.
“The team skills and physical confidence that can be learned in sport; the ability to express oneself and the discipline that can be arrived at in music; the creativity that can be explored in art; the ability to absorb different perspectives and recast them that can be acquired through debating; the curiosity that new knowledge fostered through societies can inspire – employers sometimes call these soft skills, but ultimately, they are life skills.”