With its hilltop campus, strong community spirit, and through-train IB programme, this all-through school offers a solid international education with a small school experience.
ISS opened more than 35 years ago, making it one of Singapore’s oldest and most well-established international schools. Until recently it had two campuses, one serving the elementary and middle schools (Kindergarten 1 to Grade 8) in Orchard and the high school campus in Bukit Merah. From August 2020, all students will move to the Preston campus after the lease on the Paterson campus was not renewed by the government due to development plans.
For the start of the 2020-21 academic year, ISS enters a new era as an all-through school on one campus. And there are many reasons why this could be a step in the right direction for the school. ISS is one of only seven international schools in Singapore to teach all three IB programmes – the Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the IBDP. So, by moving all IB students onto one site, the school can offer a seamless IB education.
There will now be opportunities for primary students to learn in specialist facilities, including science labs, that are not always accessible to primary school students. Students can move through the school from as young as four years with an established friendship group, familiarity with staff and routines, and avoid any disruption of moving campuses. And they can benefit from the mentoring and leadership of senior students in a secondary school – everything from reading sessions to buddy systems.
There are disadvantages to the move, too. A smaller, dedicated primary school can often provide a more primary-centred environment for young children and a more nurturing environment. However, ISS will still be one of Singapore’s smallest all-through schools with less than 700 students on campus. This means that ISS can offer small class sizes, more opportunities for every student to take part in extra-curricular and leadership activities, closer student-teacher interaction, and a family feel. In the words of one parent, “At ISS, we’re like a big family. Everyone knows everyone else’s name, and we look out for one another.”
For some families, ISS’s humble campus will be overshadowed by Singapore’s large, modern, purpose-built campuses that dazzle with steel and glass, wide open spaces, and innovative architecture. For others, the school’s higgledy-piggledy complex of heritage buildings on a hillside deep in the Telok Blangah Hill Park will feel welcoming, charming and refreshingly understated.
Surrounded by greenery, ISS is not just close to nature, it’s within it. It’s not a campus that was designed for learning – and with a steep climb between the top and bottom of the school, it is not the most practical for primary-aged students. However, ISS is currently renovating the campus, and merging the old with the new to create a modern, safer learning environment while protecting the character of the site.
At the end of the day, it's what goes on in the classrooms of Singapore’s schools that matters, and ISS is delivering a rigorous, modern education in a very supportive, productive, albeit modest and down to earth setting.
ISS has the benefit of more than 20 years’ experience in offering the IB programme to expat students, and by offering all three IB programmes it arguably offers students the most rigorous preparation for the Diploma Programme. Although each IB programme has a standalone framework and curriculum, students with an MYP and PYP background can find it easier to meet the varied demands of the DP. For example, the experience of the MYP can equip students with the research skills need for the DP’s Extended Essay.
The primary school delivers the PYP, where all subjects (mathematics, languages, science, social studies, personal, social and PE, technology, music and art) are taught through integrated units. The final year of primary ends with the PYP Exhibition, which gives students the opportunity to showcase their learning. Both Mandarin and French are taught as additional languages to all students from KG upwards.
In the secondary school, Grades 8-10 complete the MYP and the externally moderated MYP Personal Project; languages offered include Japanese, French, Mandarin and Korean. Unlike some other international schools, ISS does not offer students the choice of taking IGCSEs. These exams can be seen as a valuable ‘add-on’ for parents who are concerned about the lack of measurement in the MYP.
Students who may find the IB Diploma Programme too demanding, can opt to study for the ISS High School Diploma (HSD) programme instead, which is offered from Grades 9-12. However, as an indication of the level of student progress, in recent years more than 95% of ISS students have been awarded the IBDP.
Compared to many larger Singapore schools, ISS does offer smaller class sizes and the opportunities for personalised learning. The average class size across the school is 18-20 students; the teacher to student ratio is 1:8.5. The Kindergarten and Grade 1 classes have no more than 20 students in each class, while class sizes from Grades 2 to 5 are limited to a maximum of 24 per class.
While it may not have the most modern technology labs, ISS is wired with technology. K1 to Grade 6 students work with MacBooks, Chrome Books and iPads in lessons, and Grades 7 to 8 have a 1:1 MacBook programme (students are required to purchase their own MacBooks).
As well as the core subjects taught as part of the IB curriculum, the arts and PE feature very strongly at ISS – and the absence of a swimming pool, auditorium and playing fields does not appear to restrict students in playing, performing and competing.
PE lessons, including swim classes, are mainly held off campus, and students are introduced to a wide variety of sports including badminton, taekwondo and ultimate frisbee. ISS also fields teams in basketball, football and volleyball for the Athletic Conference of Singapore International Schools (ACSIS) league.
Action as Service is an integral part of the curriculum at ISS, and this initiative encourages students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real world issues. Projects in Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore have included creating a basketball court for an orphanage in Indonesia, building boats for children to go to school in the Philippines, and working with animal welfare groups. At the very least, all middle and high school students take part in one Week Without Walls activity.
Despite its space constraints, ISS also offers a varied choice of extra-curricular activities and community service programmes. Students are actively encouraged to sign up to the school’s extensive ECA programme, which runs clubs on campus every day from 2.30pm. Activities cover the arts, sport, sciences and creativity, and range from app inventors through to voluntary and community service work; there are some interesting clubs to engage bright young minds, such as street magic, fun science, DJ programme and ISS news team.
There’s a lot of talk on the ISS website about “realising potential” in each and every student. The school sets out to achieve this by keeping class sizes small with as few as eight students per class. There’s also an excellent student support system including an onsite student counsellor, university advisor, guardianship and boarding services, pastoral care programme, and an after-school ROW (Reading, Organisation, Writing) club for learning support.
ISS also delivers a strong and established English as a Second Language programme. Each students' level of English language proficiency and progress is closely monitored with a differentiated approach taken for each and every student. At the MYP level, ISS has the Preparatory Course for High School, a one-year preparatory course of study that prepares students with limited academic English for entry for entry into either IBMYP 4 or 5 (Grades 9 and 10) and subsequently to gain entry into the IB Diploma programme (Grades 11 and 12). Students undergo intensive English instruction at the same time as they learn core secondary subjects such as mathematics, science, humanities and elective subjects such as the arts and physical education.
As stated in the parent-student handbook, students are expected to take at least one co-curricular activity (CCA), commit to a community service project, act as a buddy for new students, recycle materials, e-waste, spend time with others during breaks – and get plenty of sleep. (All parents will happily support that one!)
ISS expects learning to continue beyond the classroom, Grades 6 and 7 should complete one hour’s homework plus reading daily, and Grade 8-plus up to 90 minutes’ homework plus reading daily. There’s also an academic honesty code and a house system to encourage healthy competition. It all makes ISS feels like a very traditional school – and one with a close-knit community that can be so appealing to expat families.
There are plenty of schools with international in the title, but some feel more international than others. ISS is one of them. The school was founded in 1981 by a member of Singapore’s post-colonial government, Chan Chee Seng, to address the shortage of international schools in the country. ISS is part of a larger ISS educational group, which includes the Beijing International School of Singapore (BISS) in China.
Today, this family-owned, not-for-profit school has kept its appeal to students from all nationalities; the largest number of students come from Japan and China and there is a 30% cap on any one nationality. It is one of only a few international schools in Singapore to offer a purely IB curriculum, and not mix and match with other curricula.
It has a teaching staff from 19 countries including the UK, US, Canada and Australia. Also, it supports students with English as a second language and strongly encourages bilingualism; all students study Mandarin, although this is the norm in many international schools here. For parents living overseas, the school offers a guardianship programme that places students with ISS-listed guardians, as well as a boarding house service.
The school year runs from August to June.
The school’s most recently published results for the 2019 Grade 12 IBDP cohort show an average score of 32.12, above the global average of 29.62; this is only marginally lower than last year's score of 33.
• Average score: 32.12
• Pass rate: 98%
• Top score: 43
• No. students scored 35 points and above: 32%
The 2019 cohort celebrated a 98% pass rate, and the top score was 43 out of 45. 32% of students achieved 35 points or above; 88% of students achieved A-C in the TOK; and 45% of students achieved an A or B in the Extended Essay.
After taking the winding, scenic drive through the Telok Blangah Hill Park to ISS, first impressions will either be dated and rundown or unpretentious and charming depending on your viewpoint. With its combination of heritage buildings and leafy surroundings (you may even be lucky enough to spot a monkey in the trees), ISS has a rustic, homely feel that is rare to find on the international school circuit.
ISS is spread across a hilltop site of around 64,000 sq ft; while there’s a lot of land here, it’s just not flat and not all of it is usable space. With incredible views across the nature reserve, ISS is built on a hill so moving around the campus can be challenging (and it certainly keeps you fit!). Originally a British Artillery Base, the school is built over four different levels, with the main school building on the highest fourth level (and the steepest climb); the new primary school will be located at the bottom of the hill.
We visited the campus in early 2020 when redevelopment of the site was underway. There will be some modernisation – new music rooms and black box theatre for example – but these new facilities are being designed to stay in keeping with the natural environment; for example, there’ll be plenty of earthy materials, timber, and large windows to let in natural light. There are also plans to reconfigure underutilized spaces into larger classrooms, which is much needed, and improve the existing sporting and arts facilities that look tired and run-down. The time is ripe for a makeover. ISS needs to update its campus to create larger, well-lit, and more secure learning spaces, while hopefully retaining the charm and heritage of its colonial buildings.
ISS’ Preston site was certainly not designed for primary-aged students, but its location does give young students a vast outdoor classroom to learn from. From August 2020, ISS will move its youngest students into a self-contained primary school with a dedicated entrance. Spread across a flat area at the bottom of the Preston campus, the school will have classrooms leading out onto play areas, a central courtyard, library and multi-purpose room.
ISS is one of Singapore’s mid-range schools in terms of cost; tuition fees range from $22,577 in KG up to $38,647 in Grades 9-12.
The school recently introduced a 5% discount on fees for a second child, as well as 10% for the third child onwards. Also, ISS says that “in keeping with our position as Singapore’s original village school” it now offers a 3% catchment discount on fees for families who live within the Alexandra/Gillman community; this covers districts such as Queenstown, Orchard, and Tanglin.”
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