From the Editor: As September arrives in Singapore, families with children embarking on high-stakes examinations, such as the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) and Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (GCE) examinations, forge on their transformative journeys. While it may be an incredibly stressful period, it can also be an exciting time when students push themselves to excel, spurred by their peers, and supported by their families. Amidst the rigorous preparations, there is an opportunity for personal growth and closer familial bonds. While the focus may be on academics, it’s also vital for families to nurture a positive environment where each member can thrive. By proactively creating such a space, conflicts can be resolved and relationships can grow stronger. In this article, we interviewed Shan Chua and her daughter, Rebekah Chua, on how they navigated a year filled with important examinations. They share their practical strategies for balancing academic aspirations with ensuring a holistic well-being, demonstrating that with the right mindset and support, success can be achieved while cherishing family values and joyous moments.Feature image credit: Yong Chuan Tan on Unsplash
All in a Year’s Work: The PSLE, O-Levels and A-Levels
First and foremost, congratulations to Rebekah for your impressive A-levels results! Kudos to Shan, too, for successfully guiding her and your other children, Euan and Luke. Your family underwent the academic trifecta of the PSLE, GCE O-level and GCE A-level examinations last year! Share with us what 2022 was like for you and your family as a unit.
Shan: It didn’t feel very different from other years. While I wouldn’t say we are haphazard in our homeschooling, we do not follow a strict daily schedule. We have a routine in our day/week, which is based on who is at home and who has classes.
I work with each child separately as their levels and needs are different. Because Rebekah was largely independent, I felt like she took a mental load off me. Euan was also in the good hands of (a fellow homeschooler mom) Sukesy for O-level preps for Physics and Chemistry, so I was mainly helping him with English, History and Social Studies – subjects that did not take up much time. My husband guided him in Mathematics. As for the PSLE, we were pretty chill about it, as we’ve done it quite a few times now (with some repeated attempts). I joked that we should have signed our youngest child up for some exams, so we could say that the whole family was involved in exams that year!
Admittedly, sometimes I feel like I’m in a race for time and frazzled by the day’s end. At other times, I don’t get everything done before preparing meals. But those are all part and parcel of a homeschooling life.
Rebekkah: I would say that although 2022 was busier than the previous two years, I was not studying all the time! I think I spent a fair bit of time on my various hobbies, especially in the earlier parts of the year, before it started to dawn on me that the exams were approaching. We spent less time interacting with our family between our various classes and assignments. Still, usually, we would go out for a meal at least once a week–and of course, being homeschooled, we were always “together” because we spent much of our time in the same house.
How did you balance the pressures of academic goals with other pursuits while ensuring your well-being in a holistic sense?
Rebekah: I never really felt “pressured” to spend all my time studying or ace all my exams, unlike other students whose parents heavily emphasised grades. However, since I had tutors for each subject, I also had to ensure I finished the assignments they set before the weekly deadlines. Often, I just worked on whichever homework was due at any given time. I usually took short (or not so short!) breaks between academic tasks to engage in one of my hobbies. My brothers and I would also put down our work to watch the latest episode of whatever Star Wars TV series was airing at that point!
Shan, what roles did you (and your husband) play in the process? What advice would you give other parents whose child/ren is undergoing these major exams in future?
Shan: Besides sharing the teaching load, my husband was the “designated chauffeur” during the exam period. Together, we tried to play down the looming examinations and make life as usual and un-stressful as possible. I say “tried” because while that may have been my intention, I don’t know if it came across that way to my children. We have repeatedly emphasised over the years that what is important is for them to be diligent and responsible and not to worry about the results if they feel they have done their best under the given circumstances.
Each family has different values, and offering advice without knowing them or their situations is difficult. Generally, however, I would suggest that keeping calm even when we feel worried about our children’s futures might be a good idea. Often, our stress trickles down to the children, and in my own experience, having an agitated parent hovering anxiously in the background rarely makes things better. As parents, we must be mentally and emotionally well to support our children.
Homeschooling for the GCE A-Levels
You have taken the brave choice of homeschooling as a private candidate for the (local) GCE A-Level examinations; am I correct to observe that it’s a rare choice for homeschoolers? How many homeschoolers that you know have taken this path?
Shan: I do not have actual numbers, but I have not met another homeschooling family who has chosen to do the local A-level exams!
Rebekah: Yes, I think it is rare for Singapore homeschoolers to take the A-levels (especially the local ones) as private candidates! The only homeschoolers I know who did this are my classmates from the various tuition classes I attended, and even then, some of them chose to do the international A-levels instead.
Did you set out with any goals in mind? And if so, how does this pathway give you a better chance at meeting your goals? How did you decide on the subjects that you wanted to offer?
I have never really had any fixed goals in mind! After finishing my O-levels, I knew I wanted to continue homeschooling. At that point, I didn’t feel independent enough to transition to a public school (JC or Polytechnic). Since I did the local O-levels, we decided to continue down that path and do the local A-levels.
As for the subjects, I took Maths, Literature and Economics at the H2 level and Physics at the H1 level. I chose Math and Literature because I enjoyed learning them for the O-levels. I then picked Physics as my dad could help me with it. As for Economics, I took it as I could not find any other subjects to do. The other subject I might have done instead of Economics was History–which I did for the O-levels–but I wasn’t keen on doing it again because I didn’t enjoy it that much. The good thing about doing A-levels as a private candidate is that you aren’t restricted to the usual arts/science stream and have the freedom to choose an unusual subject combination, as I did.
Rebekah, please share the journey in preparing for the local GCE A-Level examinations as a private candidate. Were there any particular challenges that you faced?
I finished my O-levels in 2019 and was preparing for the A-levels from 2020 onwards. However, that first year was quite rough in terms of my studies–firstly, the Covid-19 restrictions (circuit breaker) meant that all classes had to go online; secondly, I struggled a lot in my literature class as I hated the texts I was studying and found them to be very depressing! In 2021, I switched teachers and did a complete restart as we started learning completely different readers–the ones that I ended up doing for the exam.
For my other subjects, I learned the material slowly from 2020 onwards. Still, it wasn’t until 2022 that I started working with tutors who were familiar with the local A-levels and helped me develop the techniques I would need for the exams. I would have weekly one-to-one or small group classes with the tutors, and during the week, I would complete and submit assignments for them to grade/comment on.
Compared to the O-levels, the A-level subjects are a lot more in-depth! For me, the subject that changed the most from O to A levels in terms of preparation time was English or General Paper (GP). I “winged” the O-level English exam and hardly spent any time preparing for it; however, when it came to A-level GP, the essay and comprehension standards required to do well suddenly increased significantly.
Besides preparing for the exams, can you share your other pursuits over the last two or three years? Which ones of these were most definitive or formative of your pre-university years?
I’m unsure which of my pursuits was the most definitive, but three were pretty significant.
The hobby I have the most to show for would probably be my crocheting, which I learned from websites and YouTube videos in late 2021. There are many crocheted soft toys around my house, including the one I’m most proud of–a 28 cm tall teddy bear with various outfits!
Besides crocheting, I’ve also read many books over the past few years–primarily juvenile/young adult fantasy and science fiction novels of varying lengths. From the list I keep of all the books I finish, it’s apparent that those are my favourite genres! Conveniently, our local library app has many audiobooks, which lets me multitask and listen while crocheting/travelling/taking a walk/doing housework.
Finally, I have been involved in a homeschoolers’ sports group over the last three years. We meet weekly and play three different sports yearly.
On to the social dimension. With whom do you keep close company over the last couple of years? How have these relationships transformed or helped you through the pre-U years?
My friends are mostly from my church or any homeschooling groups or classes I am/was involved in. The family I’m closest to besides my own is from my church and lives within walking distance; they have four young children, so my brothers and I have gained numerous opportunities to babysit! Our weekly movie nights were always a welcome break from my studies. Even during the A-level period, I would sit in front of the TV beside them with my books and notes, “trying” to study but watching instead!
My best friend also used to come to my house to play card games, but as she was likewise preparing for exams towards the end of the year, we mostly just did our respective homework side by side whenever she came over.
My friendships over the past few years, especially those I made in my group classes, have been quite useful in getting me to socialise and get out of my shell more often. Although I generally enjoy spending time with others, I have always been on the shy side! Hopefully, I can be a bit more thick-skinned by the time I go to school for the first time.
So, what are your plans after the A-levels? What are you pursuing next?
I am pursuing a degree in Communication Studies at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). When I tell people what I am studying, the most common response I get is, “what’s that?” Basically, we study media forms, including broadcast, print, and digital media. Journalism, film production, advertising, and public relations are just some of the fields that graduates may end up working in. I am not too sure what job I would like to have in future; that will be something I continue to explore throughout my university years.
Back to you, Shan. As a parent, you have played a significant role in shaping her academic pathway. Can you share how you have concluded that taking the local GCE A-Levels was the best option for Rebekah? What were your primary considerations? Have you had any concerns/doubts/anxiety while Rebekah was on this pathway?
It was mainly two factors. The first is familiarity. Since my husband and I went through the local A-level exams ourselves, we were much more familiar with them than the international A-levels. That was also why we opted to do the local O-levels instead of the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education). We also thought finding resources to prepare for the local exams might be easier since almost all students do it locally. In fact, I asked friends for their children’s notes once they had completed their exams.
The second consideration is cost. The local exams are a lot cheaper than the international versions. One A-level paper (without a lab component) costs less than $100, but an international A-level paper costs a few hundred dollars.
As a homeschooling parent, I occasionally ask myself if we had made the right choices and were doing the right things, if our children would resent us for depriving them of the public school experience or if they would think homeschooling limited their possibilities or potential.
For our family, it helped that the children generally enjoyed and appreciated being homeschooled. They almost never expressed a desire to go to school, except for the occasional thought of how things would be if they did. After Rebekah completed her O-levels, we did discuss the possibility of enrolling her in a JC, but she was pretty sure she wanted to continue homeschooling.
Throughout our homeschooling journey, we weren’t always sure about our next steps, but isn’t that true for much of life too? We make our decisions as best we can, based on the information we have, and make adjustments as we go along.SHAN CHUA
A case in point was how we navigated her challenges with doing Literature. After she had spent a whole year working on some texts with an experienced tutor, it was clear that it wasn’t going well. Initially, I hesitated to change course as it meant a whole year of work “wasted”, and I had hoped that the tutor’s experience would be invaluable to her. However, seeing how she was unenthusiastic about classes when Literature used to be her favourite subject, I finally decided, after much consideration, to approach her former Literature tutor to work with her again. Although the tutor had no experience teaching for the A-Levels, she is a homeschool graduate. Together, they picked different texts and started all over again. We also didn’t want her to rush into taking exams before she was prepared for them or force her to cram the whole year with nothing but exam preparations. So we were happy to let her do the exams a year later than her peers in school. We appreciate the flexibility that homeschooling allows.
What are the specific challenges and benefits of homeschooling for major exams like the PSLE, O-level, and A-level?
In some aspects, homeschoolers may be disadvantaged compared to school-going children when it comes to taking exams, as they are not exposed to the drills of taking regular tests and exams and working under timed conditions. Before each major exam, I have to intentionally look for exam papers for them to practice on so that they can be familiar with the format. I also have to remind them about logistical matters such as writing their names on their exam scripts or checking that it is printed correctly and how to shade the ovals on the optical answer sheet.
However, I think taking part in exams may be exciting for homeschoolers because they do it so infrequently. For my children, it does not carry a feeling of dread or weariness, and even though they may be nervous, they view it as a somewhat interesting experience!
Furthermore, as with all exams our children take, we do not place much emphasis on results. By God’s grace, despite the challenges of taking local A-level exams as a homeschooler, Rebekah did well enough to get a place in a university course of her choice. Euan chose to pursue a course of his interest at Singapore Polytechnic.
Yet, I do not see these positive outcomes as validating our decision to homeschool. Apart from what they have learnt academically, I hope they “graduate” with happy experiences of being homeschooled, spending time with family and friends and growing in various aspects of their lives.Shan chua
We thank you, Shan and Rebekkah, for offering us a glimpse into your family’s experience and sharing your insights. Congratulations to all of you for having valiantly gone through this process with impressive results to boot! We wish you well in your future undertakings and look forward to hearing about more of your successes.