When I was a little girl, my parents didn't go this far to choose a pre-school or kindergarten for their 5 years old. They just chose the one nearby - no intensive research and such (like what I've been doing). Look at me now, I am perfectly fine :-)
In my defense, the world has changed rapidly - some things change and some things don't. There are more pressure and competitions for our kids and many schools try to attract parents and offer all the great things. We are pampered with so many options now. For me personally, education is very important - and I want my son to go to a school where he can blossom and grow and be happy and at the same time being able to survive in this "new" world.
I attended a talk by Fiona Walker, CEO and principal of schools of Julia Gabriel Education in October 2013 when C was almost two years old. A very useful talk that helped me to choose the right Pre-School for C. I will share with you the summary at the end of this post. I also did a lot of research, read a lot of magazines for parents, and with all these, my hunt for THE right school began... (It's really fun! :-))
I started by visiting all the pre-schools around where we live (within walking distance) then those well-known ones a bit further but still reachable within 30 minutes. Lot of them had Open House, too, which made it easier for me. In total, I have visited around twenty five pre-schools (Yes, 25!!! Crazy mum?). These were the things I asked / observed / noted down during the visits - some of them are critical for me and some of them are in lesser degree of importance.
Type of pre-school - child-care (half-day usually 3-4 hours or full-day usually 7-8 hours - both with snack / lunch provided) or kindergarten type (usually only 2-3 hours and no snack / lunch provided).
Class size and teacher vs student ratio. I prefer small class size so teacher has less kids to handle, can pay attention more to each kids - and hopefully the class is more in control.
Teachers and teacher assistants qualification, impression about the principal and the teachers. How does the teacher discipline the kids? How's their communication skill? Is proper English being used?
Outdoor area, activity, playground and how often the kids can use it. This is one of the key factor for me as I want C not to be in the class for hours. Kids should have their place to run around and get lot of sunshine.
Class rooms ambience - are they nice, clean, lovely, and warm?
Books and reading - how does the teacher develop passion for reading? How does the book collection in the class or library look like? I mean real books - not e-books.
Learning philosophy: Montessori, Multiple Intelligences, Play-based learning, Reggio Emilia, or other.
Curriculum (for international school): IB, British, American, Australian, or other.
Program: language - math - sport - mandarin - music - art
Food provided (this is applicable only for child care type) - is it healthy? do they provide processed food?
After each visit, I made a recap so that I will remember each detail. This way it's easier to make a decision. It is important to list down all factors in the decision making (which pre-school to choose) and rank them based on priority. I shortlisted them and dragged (haha!) my husband to visit them. We ended up with our top three and decided one. Were we happy with our decision? Yes. Was it a perfect pre-school? No. After visiting so many schools I realized that no school is perfect, not a single school managed to tick all the boxes. Even the so called best ones have one or two things I wish they do differently. We put C in the local half-day child care (9 am to 1 pm) of our choice for 2 years, until he was about 4.5 years old.
We hunted for a different school (an international school) for when C was 5 years old. There are so many good international schools here and with one single consideration that's important for us we managed to quickly shortlisted our list to two. We visited the Open House held by both schools, very impressed and set our minds and hearts at school A. This school almost tick all the boxes. We paid the registration fee and was in the waiting list for one year. Then we were informed that the area where we live was (is still until today) not covered by the school bus. At the end of the day, logistics (how to get to school and get back home everyday) plays an important role. We had to choose school B (definitely less boxes ticked). It's still an excellent school and we hope our dear C can grow and blossom and be a kind-hearted, confident, independent person, who is ready to conquer the world :-)
Been through both local pre-school and international school for about 2 years each, I can see the differences as follows:
1) Local school is definitely more academic - phoenic, scribbling / writing / spelling, math, worksheets all start very early. International school is much more relax. There is probably around 1-2 years difference academically.
2) In the international school, passion for reading is really nurtured. The way they teach kids to read is not by phonic but more of learning by reading many books - through reading in class and reading homework. The kids are also made used to tell stories (through show and tell) and also writing their own stories (start from blank pages). Spelling is not corrected as they believe it is more important for kids to be able to put their thoughts and ideas than focusing on the spelling.
3) The lessons are more structured (traditional style / formal teaching) in local school compared to IB type of international school or other international school with "free-range" approach.
4) Teacher approach to discipline children is different. In local school, the teachers are more firm and strict. When they talk to the kids who miss-behaved, they scolded them. In international school, the teachers use soft approach, explain to the kids patiently and nicely on why the behavior is not acceptable.
5) Art and craft done by the children in local school is more uniform. Most of the time, there is guidance from the teacher what to make and everybody will follow the instruction. The differences between one to another is usually just on colour but the big idea is the same. While in C's international school, more often the children do anything they want using recycle materials. I would say nothing of C's art produced in international school is worth for a display - but the creativity and invention involved is actually way above.
6) Sport (as part of Physical Education lesson) is much more advanced in international school - basket ball, baseball, swimming, gymnastic, athletic are being taught. There is more time to do outdoor play and the facility is much bigger.
7) Music is also more intensive in international school.
8)) Mandarin is much stronger in local school - the lesson is everyday for 1 hour at least and even more, C's pre-school is bilingual, so a mandarin teacher is in the class the whole time together with the english teacher. The children could only speak in Mandarin with the mandarin teacher.
Clearly, local schools and international schools have different things to offer and different approach. It depends on family purpose, value, financial state, and children personality to decide which one fits best, in which environment the children can grow their potential and can learn more effectively.
Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.
Here's the summary of the talk by Fiona Walker, CEO and principal of schools of Julia Gabriel Education on October 2013
Good quality pre-schools : 3P (People, Programme, Place) – with PEOPLE as the most important factor.
Competence and character of the staff and principal.
Some guidance to check:
Would I want to work for the principal?
Do the teachers seem happy? Are they good models?
Are the teachers observant & aware of all the children?
Are the children comfortable and affectionate with the teachers?
Do the teachers communicate through conversations and NOT commands?
Do the teachers relate to the children at eye level
How would you rate the relationship between children and adults?
What are the qualifications of the teachers? (study shows that teachers with degree are better, although qualification is not the only important thing)
How long have the teachers been working there?
Overall philosophy – does it fit with your values?
Teacher who can tell what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Clear daily plan exist and there is certain routine. Routine is very important to give sense of security and predictability for children. So they know what to expect / what’s going to happen next.
Transparent about curriculum / what will be happening for next month / term.
Some guidance to check:
Child to teacher ratio, maximum number of children in a class
How often are toys and equipment cleaned?
Does the equipment look plentiful, well kept, varied?
How well is the curriculum suited to meet individual learning styles and personalities? (refer to the three type of learners – visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic)
How involved are parents? What are the channels of communication between home and school?
How does the school deal with children testing boundaries and conflicts?
How does the school ensure safety of the children during pick-up, drop-off, and outings?
How important is the child’s social and emotional development as opposed to more academic development?
How does the school prepare children for Primary 1?
To make children feel welcome. The place needs to be a warm and nurturing environment.
Some guidance to check:
Is the place bright, cheerful, filled with children’s artworks? Appealing to children?
Do the classrooms encourage both group and individual activities?
Is there any balance between floor and table top activities?
Can teachers keep an eye on whole room?
Other important consideration on top of People, Programme, Place – LOGISTICS
Pre-school that is near to work/home. Easy to reach everyday without being late. This is very important to give a pleasant experience for the children.
Full day or half day?
Kindergarten or child care type?
How does the preschool assess children’s development? How to communicate it with the parents?
Happy Hunting for the right school! :-)