This well regarded British independent school opened a primary campus in Bukit Timah in January 2020 for up to 480 students aged six to 11 years.
If parents are looking for an affordable education in Singapore terms, The Perse holds promise for delivering a strong primary education built on British values and steered by a forward-thinking leadership team. It’s a school that may deter some with its limited enrolment of Years 2-6, a lack of outdoor space and state-of-the-art arts facilities, and move away from the IB programme – but is also one that will appeal to families searching for a standalone primary school with centuries-long Cambridge roots, a strong maths curriculum, and low fees.
January 2020 marked a soft launch of the school, and it officially opened in August 2020.
Teaching at The Perse closely follows the Cambridge Primary curriculum, and incorporates elements of Singaporean Maths, and Mandarin. Designed for five- to 11-year-olds, Cambridge Primary focuses on developing skills in 10 subjects including English, maths and science. It is offered by only a handful of schools in Singapore (including The Grange Institution), but more than 10,000 schools in 160 countries. It’s cheaper to deliver than the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP), and more accessible to Perse’s international teachers than the UK National Curriculum.
While Bell’s background was in the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) at her previous school in Malaysia, she is also a strong advocate for Cambridge.
“I’m finding that parents want quite a formalised education, and they are looking for English, history, geography etc to be taught as separate subjects rather than as part of a cross-curriculum education. I’m a true believer in the Cambridge curriculum – and for The Perse, it works.”
The question parents need to ask is, can the Cambridge curriculum prepare students for a secondary education at another school in Singapore and the IBDP? There is a checkpoint at the end of Year 6 that will provide an international benchmark of student performance at the school, but what can the school do to earn the parents’ trust until then. Well, while parents can’t judge the school based on The Perse UK’s results, it can expect its Singapore export to remain true to the UK school’s values, standards and quality of teaching.
“We are firm believers that children learn from seeing and doing, and we use a lot of bright manipulatives (physical tools of teaching) in the school,” says Bell.
This is a philosophy that can be seen in the school’s use of some elements of the Singaporean maths curriculum, which uses visual aids such as blocks, geometric shapes and bar charts to tackle mathematical problems; during our visit to the school, the desks were laid out with coloured blocks to represent fractions and ratios.
This is a system that is widely admired as local students in Singapore are repeatedly ranked at or near the top of international maths exams. Similarly, practical aids such as Warrior Cubes are used in English classes, where students roll dice with images printed on each side of the cube to help them write a story. Maths is also taught in line with the Cambridge Primary curriculum.
The school uses a traffic light cup system in some classes to enable students to communicate with the teacher without putting their hand up. Cups are placed in the middle of the table and students can select a cup as necessary: red means ‘I don’t understand’, amber means ‘I’m not sure’ and green means ‘I fully understand’.
It’s a novel idea that is both low-tech and low budget to run. However, it does rely on students making informed self-assessments, and students who may need to show the red cup may feel reluctant to do so in front of their peers.
Bell also talks about the importance of intellectual curiosity, saying: “I want the children here to question their learning.” This is highlighted in the school’s Cambridge Global Perspectives programme, which encourages critical thinking, research and collaboration in the same way as the IB Primary Years Programme. This aspect of the school’s curriculum could give students the foundation they need to study the IB Middle Years and Diploma Programmes in later years.
Bell says: “It’s the only subject that we almost hand over to the child and ask them, how are you going to present your learning to us? It allows them to take responsibility for their learning. And they are loving it!”
The curriculum includes daily Chinese classes and daily English lessons. There is a dual track system for different mastery levels; beginners take Chinese as a second language, while those who are more advanced in Chinese will take it at the Singaporean MOE Higher Chinese level, "which has the rigour of taking it as a native language".
The Perse has the resources to encourage a love of reading in both Chinese and English. For the youngest readers it uses NASA Kids Club, where children can interact on a big screen with learning games and reading activities centred on science; for reluctant readers it encourages them to start by reading Marvel comics and magazines including National Geographic for Kids; and for Mandarin readers it has a collection of Mandarin books including magazines and western titles such as Spot the Dog.
While the school is not a flashy, high-tech campus, it does give dedicated time and resources to technology in education. For example, there is a 1:1 iPad programme, a coding programme using LEGO Robotics, and a focus on digital literacy.
Beyond the classroom, The Perse has developed a programme of extra-curricular clubs, many of which are operated off-campus. As the schools grows, students will have the choice of horse riding, football, cricket, netball, softball, yoga, gymnastics, rollerskating, Lego Robotics, recycling, calligraphy, and drama. With such low numbers at the moment, the school can only offer horse riding, art, recycling and football clubs.
The Perse, Singapore is owned by developer Chip Eng Seng, which also owns Repton Schoolhouse, Invictus International School and White Lodge Pre-schools. The group is building on partnerships between its schools to boost enrolment.
Just as all graduating White Lodge students receive direct admission into Invictus International School, all Repton students can enrol directly into The Perse. This explains why The Perse is only open from Year 2 to avoid “treading on the toes” of Repton Schoolhouse, which enrols students from nursery to Year 1.
The school is accredited by The Perse UK, which visits the Singapore campus twice a year. Bell has a weekly meeting with the head of primary at The Perse UK to discuss collaboration “because we are looking for the same results”, and teachers will visit the UK campus annually.
Bell comes across as a very hands-on principal; she teaches history at the school, something she has done at every school has worked at including head of Tenby School, Malaysia, and the British International School in northern Iraq.
“If I shut myself away in the office, I could be there 24/7. It’s really important to be visible around the school and in the classroom so that the children can relate to me very easily.
“We’re also very stringent with our Looking For Learning programme, so the senior leadership team are in the classroom regularly, watching what the children are learning. We are assessing the teachers through the child’s learning.
"We want to hear that children are either consolidating their skills or moving forwards with new learning. We’re always talking to the children about getting better. So, it’s important to have that contact in the classrooms all the time.”
In terms of teachers, Bell has currently recruited around half her team from Singapore and half are international; the deputy head is Singaporean. While many schools will focus on the internationalism of their teachers, Bell is focused on having teachers who can “think outside the box”.
For a school that lacks outdoor space, expensive makerspaces and other facilities, this is all the more important and relevant. Bell is looking for teachers who will use the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve on the school’s doorstep for science lessons and other outdoor education.
“Every teacher has a degree but what really matters to us is personality and how they can incite and excite our children. We are very mindful of how they can make learning as exciting as possible while still achieving the results we are looking for.”
Originally from the UK, Bell has over 20 years' teaching experience in the UK and internationally, and has managed schools from Iraq to South East Asia.
Read more: Our interview with principal Claire Bell
The Perse looks set to become a very international school. Existing and potential students are from the UK, parts of Europe and Hong Kong and Bell says that, “80% of parents that I have shown around the school are British”.
The foundations for a close-knit school community are bring laid. Students are pen-pals with their peers from the UK school; and all children are placed within one of four houses (Barbarians, Corinthians, Foresters and Nomads), which are all sporting teams without home grounds.
At lunchtimes, teachers and students sit together in a multipurpose atrium, used as both a dining hall and hall for assemblies and productions.
Bell explains: “As well as being able to teach children to use a knife and fork, this gives us the chance to get more out of the students. They see that we are human, and have that time to talk to us. So there’s a pastoral angle to this.”
Once The Perse grows, and its tables are filled with students and teachers chatting over a bowl of pasta, this could quickly become the very heart of the school.
While you can’t expect The Perse to have all the English charm and heritage of its UK school, it does promise to deliver its British values, covering everything from table manners to the correct use of the English language.
There are also plenty of ties to the UK school that help to make it ‘feel’ like a Perse school – the purple branding, the Pelican logo, The Perse values painted on the corridor walls, the uniform (complete with Velcro ties but minus the jumpers and blazers!), the “Perse” purple furniture, and the house system. There was even a recent student trip to the Jurong Bird Park to learn more about their school’s logo, the Pelican. The school is moving in the right direction, and as it grows we can expect to see more collaboration, such as exchange trips for Years 5 and 6.
One of The Perse’s strengths is a strong pastoral programme run by the head of wellbeing, Pete Whitmell, who moved across from the UK campus.
“I’m trying to bring over some of what has made The Perse UK so successful for 400 years. We want to get to know each child really well as an individual and bring out the best in them. It will be a challenge as the school grows but one I’m looking forward to. Everyone has to walk past my office to get up and down the stairs, so I will get to know everyone.
“Academic attainment is exceptionally important, but I’m focused on the holistic development of the children. I want to encourage parents to value that breadth and balance on the wall in the entrance hall.”
Bell adds: “From the moment a child starts at the school, Pete will check that they are happy and content can access the curriculum, are making friends and simply know where they toilets are.”
One of the drawbacks of The Perse is that it only enrols students from Year 2; students are expected to move from Repton Schoolhouse, which is also a subsidary of the Chip Eng Seng Education group, and enrols students from nursery through to Year 1.
It’s unusual for a primary school to start from Year 2 and it only really works for students transitioning from Repton, parents moving to Singapore with Year 2-aged children, or families who are unhappy with their first year of primary at another school.
There are many benefits to a standalone primary school. All resources, teaching and facilities are geared towards the primary age group; they can have a stronger sense of community; and they can feel more welcoming to younger children.
One of the obvious downsides is that in Year 6 parents are left looking for a secondary place. While The Perse says that it is in talks with some secondary school providers here, it also plans to open its own secondary at a future date. If and when this happens, it will be interesting to see what this school offers in terms of facilities; while parents may be happy to forego and sports and arts facilities at primary level, this becomes more of an issue from Year 7 upwards.
The school has fees at the lower-end of the scale, with an annual tuition fee for all years costing $25,000. There is no capital levy as charged at many international schools, only a $2,000 enrolment fee and $500 facilities fee plus other smaller admission costs; this brings the total cost to $30,700.
Bell does not believe that the school can sell itself on affordability alone, however. She says:
“We are less expensive but I don’t think that choosing a school always comes down to the money; I think it’s down to the product that we are delivering. It’s about the British values and the traditions of The Perse UK.”
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