kitchen table math, the sequel: Singapore Math Observations pt. 2

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Singapore Math Observations pt. 2

Before heading to Singapore, I solicited questions from the KTM blog and teaching friends. Here are some answers! Feel free to check out some photos of Singapore schools and their unusual fruit at my flickr site.

Questions & Answers

What percentage of Singapore students get outside tutoring? Is it for drill and mastery? Do the families pay for it? How much of it is government subsidized? How do the parents feel about this extra tutoring? Is it part of the culture?

Numbers on this varied, depending on who you asked. I chatted with a group of secondary students and sec. 3 kids (That would be our grade 9) received very little, while there was a much higher amount getting tutoring in sec. 4 (grade 10). Sec. 4 students take their “0” levels in October and their score dictates their future education. Sec. 4 students were serious in class and talked of having little life outside of school.
Primary student percentages of students getting tutored ranged from 35 out of 40, to minimal. These answers came from a music teacher, maths teachers, principals and professors at the National Institute of Education. Parents pay for this tutoring. Expectations in Singapore are very high.

What do Singapore teachers say about how to teach place value?


Sorry, never got to this.


Is math a special in their elementary schools? In other words, do elementary school teachers of math have to be licensed specifically in math?

Elementary or Primary teachers are certified in maths, English and a third subject, usually science. Perhaps this is a good place to note that science doesn’t get tested and thusly, taught as a subject until P4 (4th grade). Core subjects in P1-P3 are maths, English and Mother Tongue.


Get all the details you can about their once a week meetings, in which they discuss math. That's so in contrast with American teachers who meet to talk about child development.

Wait until you hear about this: Singapore teachers get 100 hours a year of “upgrading” (continuing ed.) They may take calligraphy classes, further their own education, participate in teacher discussion sessions or lesson study. Since they only teach 3 core subjects a day, they have the time AND they have offices. Every school we visited had a room with teacher cubicles so they had their own place to grade papers, plan, etc., outside of the classroom. Of course, they are expected to tutor after school or participate in CCA.



The gap in learning speed is largest as kids begin learning a subject, which I believe means that the gap should be largest in 1st grade. However, they're keeping kids together in 1st through 4th grades.
So how does this happen?

This is truly remarkable. They begin pullout remediation in the 1st grade to ensure that students can read and do maths. This may happen during the classroom day during PE or another subject or it may happen in Co-Curricular Activities time. See my previous post for more on the special needs areas.


Are the parents simply able to bring the slower kids along through extra practice & reteaching at home? Do the schools advise parents of slower learners to provide extra practice?


Of course they advise parents that their kids are not performing up to snuff. Parental assistance is both a blessing and a burden (as any teacher who has seen algebra on a 3rd grader’s paper knows). Since the students are at school as late as 6pm some nights, there appears to be plenty of time for basic practice in maths. Another aside on parents helping in Singapore: The Primary Mathematics syllabus came out of th Ministry of Education in 1996. Parents were not taught using this curriculum, if they were
taught mathematics beyond simple computation at all.



Do they advise parents to sign their kids up for KUMON? RE: KUMON - what is their attitude towards KUMON? Do schools ever coordinate with KUMON (or other tutoring businesses)?

They may advise extra tuition (as tutoring is called). Kumon is trying to break into the country, but is fairly unsuccessful. Schools do not coordinate with outside tutors.



I'm interested in what they see students' "sticking points" as. (fractions? long division? absolute value & operations with integers?)


Good question and they could certainly tell you. We forgot to ask.



Do they teach calculus in high school? I gather they don't - if not, why not?


They teach calculus in Junior College, which is the equivalent of our 11th & 12th grades.



How much time is spent per day/year/week whatever on math for a typical Singapore schoolkid (answer may be different per grade, ya?)? I'd include in-school, Kumon, at home, etc.


5.5 to 6 hours per week in primary grades, depending on the school. remediation and after school are hard to gauge. Many parents pile homework onto their children without any suggestion from the schools. Again, primary teachers we talked to in Singapore view homework as most teachers in the US and assign very little. Finding algebra on a 3rd graders homework in adult handwriting is not just a U.S. problem. (Although, we don't usually have maids that do it, like they do in Singapore!)



How much drill do they do? I've been supplementing the textbooks and workbooks with drill. I understand that this is normal. But ... how much is expected/typical?


No set numbers on this, but they are moving away from drill & kill and towards more hands-on lessons. Children actually beg for maths workbooks and there are hundreds to choose from at the local stationary store, Popular. I have no shame in telling you that we had to buy an extra suitcase to keep our luggage under 22kg per bag due to all the books we purchased.



How do they integrate technology?


Very, very well, from what I saw. Every school gets “upgrading” every 6 years. Cedar Primary is the IT showcase for the country, but Guanyang Primary was just as impressive, they had a green screen room and keyboards attached to desktops for composing! Teachers have all been trained in IT and used it seamlessly in their lessons. Most schools have a bank of powerpoint maths lessons available.

All students in the country have access to hi-speed internet. At the one secondary school, they stated home use rates of 95%, with 5% of those homes being subsidized. The other 5% don’t believe in the internet or don’t want their child addicted to video gaming, which is a major “behavior” problem (As one Principal termed it) .


A truly minor point, has Singapore looked at/purchased/implemented any of the reform math programs circulating through the US school systems?

No. American textbooks are not approved by the Ministry of Education and cannot be bought with government funds.


The director of curriculum told me quite smugly that "They use Everyday Math in Singapore"


The Singapore American School has recently selected Everyday Math for its curriculum. They are a separate entity, designed to teach Americans living in Singapore and can teach as they choose, since they aren't receiving government funding.

18 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

This is truly remarkable. They begin pullout remediation in the 1st grade to ensure that students can read and do maths.

speechless

Ponder Stibbons said...

My mother teaches in a secondary school in Singapore, and paints a very different picture of the amount of free time teachers have for personal enrichment. Her typical day (from 7am to 2pm) contains only about two half-hour breaks between classes she has to teach. On top of that, she has to supervise students' extra-curricular activities about two afternoons a week. After adding the time needed to set exams, grade homework, prepare lessons, and so on, she has almost no free time left outside of the weekend. Her department as a whole is overworked, and even though she has applied to do half her teaching load for half her current pay, her department head says it is impossible because they cannot find any replacements.

I have no idea how typical my mother's situation is though.

About outside tutoring, I've been through a little myself and most of my friends had tutoring (I was in so-called 'top' schools throughout primary school, secondary school, and JC, and students there tend to be more competitive). Tutoring was almost inevitably drilling, since the exam formats were such that it was quite possible to game the system by assembling a model set of answers. I left JC four years ago so things might have changed, but I suspect not by much. Tutoring is very much part of the culture, and parents who let their kids perform badly without batting an eyelid would be looked upon strangely. There is almost no conception of letting students have free time to develop outside interests and hobbies.

SusanS said...

Wow. Thanks!

It's fascinating to take a peek at how they really do it.

Catherine Johnson said...

Teachers have all been trained in IT and used it seamlessly in their lessons.

Fascinating.

I wonder if I'd feel differently about IT that's been seamlessly integrated.

I might not; I might be with the 5% of parents who want their kids spending as little time on the internet as possible... although internet use is different from libraries of PowerPoint slides a teacher can pull up and use without difficulty.

Exo said...

CassyT,
Excellent post!
Enjoyed it a lot. Thanks.

CassyT said...

Ponder-
Cedar Primary was one school we visited where the teacher turnover was very high because of all of the principal "initiatives". The teacher I spoke with told me her husband teaches P5 near Jurong and is out the door by 2pm 4 days of the week. Of course, he's planning and grading at home, but at least he's at home.

Of the students we talked to, the Sec 4 students were the ones who most received outside tutoring, although it sounded as though those that don't get tutoring, do spend time at home with parents and siblings drilling.

We had some interesting experiences at the secondary schools we visited, that stopped us from talking to the teachers about their schedule. At one, the sec. 3 students were cursing and throwing water bottles at students working math problems at the board. Does this seem unusual to you? At the other, we were finally able to chat with some students and rather ignored the teachers.

I received the impression that teachers worked very, very hard and they don't make much more than teachers here do. I'm not sure how they fit in the 100 hours of "upgrading" needed each year.

LynnG said...

Any idea how many kids move from p6 to secondary school?

I noticed that there is a huge leap from the Primary Mathematics texts to the secondary texts -- New Syllabus, etc., I wondered how kids can make the leap from SM 6A&B to New Syllabus as they don't seem "aligned."

Could it be that only a few kids can make that leap and it is based on the P6 exit exam?

What math texts do students use that aren't in the top secondary schools but choose to continue their education?

Thanks for the posts, it is really interesting reading.

Barry Garelick said...

Thanks for the summary(ies). I read Parts I and II. Part I says O levels are given in the equivalent of our 10th grade.

I'm trying to put to rest the accusation that students in 8th grade score high on TIMSS because by 8th grade, only those who pass exams (A levels?) are in the schools from which test candidates are drawn. Something like that. I.e., the accusation is that only the top students are tested. That leaves open the question about 4th grade.

But I would appreciate any light you could shed on that.

CassyT said...

Lynn- My understanding is that almost all students move on beyond P6. A student needs to meet with the principal at least 3 times before they can end schooling and there is tremendous pressure from parents and the school to continue education beyond the compulsory 6 years.

The two schools we visited were both using Discovering Mathematics 1A by Chow Wai Keung for a text, I didn't see anyone using NEM. I believe it has been phased out.

CassyT said...

Barry-
Timms schools are chosen randomly from the population, Singapore isn't allowed to test the schools with, say, an "express" track only. There are certain guidelines you must follow to participate in the timms and I understand that they are very strict. With the microscope they are under, Singapore can't be "cheating" by testing only their best schools. Heck, even the taxi drivers there were honest!

O levels are taken at 10th grade and determine which of 3 tracks you will take from 10th - 12th grade.

After 12th grade, A levels are the test you need to go to University. I have some sample questions from the PSLE (P6) test that I can scan and post if anyone is interested.

LynnG said...

The sample questions would be fantastic. Thanks for all you are doing, Cassie.

I can only imagine how their sample 6th grade test questions might compare to those in Conn's 6th grade CMT.

Our 6th graders are expected to identify the correct fraction of squares shaded in a grid 3 x 5, in which 5 squares are shaded. The options are 1/15, 1/3, 1/5, and 3/5.

Do you think we'll see anything like that on the Singapore test?

concernedCTparent said...

Do you think we'll see anything like that on the Singapore test?

Beyond highly unlikely. Isn't the CMT a hoot?

le radical galoisien said...

AAAAAAAHHHHHHHH.

I am a Singaporean citizen, though I temporarily I reside in the US. Actually, I am a cross-immigrant and I don't know to which country I belong to, having migrated between US and Singapore four times, but anyway.

All your assessments are partially correct. But it is funny having foreigners judge your own country's curriculum, where people look at the surface, make observations and you giggle when you realise they don't really know the deeper stuff of why things are the way they are.

le radical galoisien said...

lynng: Our "sixth grade test" is the PSLE. It is the biggest exam of primary school. In fact, it is the exam you take before leaving primary school (hence primary school leaving examination). You should see our PSLE "Section B" word problems, which are multi-step and requires breaking up a required problem into parts.

That question would at most be in "Section A" (MCQ) at be worth one mark.

It's been about five years (nostalgia!!) since I've taken it, but IIRC, a typical problem goes:

You have 200 beads in box A. You amount of beads in box B is the amount of beads in box C minus 36.
The amount of beads in box C is 1/3 the total amount of beads in all three boxes combined.

Those used to give me headaches. I would slave for (5-15) minutes and I often used the entire page. You'd jump into a problem, thinking, "I can do this!" then only to be bogged down when you realise that part of the problem was the self-recursion. So you had to examine every single line of your work so far, trying to discover the "secret". And they always made sure their answer was never a round number like "500", but rather some strange one like "492", so you were always doubting your answer.

Of course secondary school gives you a whole new perspective. I want to try taking the PSLE again just for fun, to see if I could use fancy calculus or matrices to solve some of those old demons...

I liked those PSLE problems, because you had to use your own personal logic and your own methods. That is what I liked about the difficulty of PSLE math.

Sometimes, it would be even harder, like you'd have five different boxes and it'd be like "box C is twice of box B but 65 less than box D".

But like all exams, you can study the style by rote -- e.g. memorise the methodology of each problem, without actually really understanding the concept. When you hit problem type X, do this first. Then do this. Sometimes it may be like this, so do this.

The richer kids could afford good tuition. You also have to watch out for the quality of your tuition. You really don't know about the PSLE exam hype. It would be two months for the PSLE and we'd be playing soccer after school. The principal comes out saying, "stop playing soccer! You have the PSLE to study for!"

And we'd be like, "awww", then we would promptly relocate our soccer game to somewhere out of sight of the principal's office. Only the P6's got this treatment, since the P5's were left alone.

The parents say you need to study. You buy chicken rice at the hawker stall, see your uniform and they tell you to study hard. P6 takes the morning stream (p5 takes afternoon), your uniform identifies your primary school so usually they can tell right away. The barber cutting your hair hears you're P6 so they give you words of advice. The media is constantly full of articles about students who fail and students who excel, and sometimes, students who commit suicide and throw themselves off the high-rise flats from all the exam pressure (but don't worry, these are actually pretty rare, since the amount of teenagers who commit suicide over relationship breakups is 10 times higher).

Our teachers gave us "remedial classes" before/after school and made it compulsory for everybody (complete with permission slips). They weren't really remedial classes, but supplementary classes, but they were a convenient way to give the students extra instruction, so even if you were getting a 97 in the subject, you would have to go anyway.


"The two schools we visited were both using Discovering Mathematics 1A by Chow Wai Keung for a text"


Haha, I remember those textbooks. You can even see a glance of the P6 version in the Singaporean film "I Not Stupid", which provides little insight on the syllabus itself but quite a bit on the school culture.

le radical galoisien said...

"I'm trying to put to rest the accusation that students in 8th grade score high on TIMSS because by 8th grade, only those who pass exams (A levels?) are in the schools from which test candidates are drawn. Something like that. I.e., the accusation is that only the top students are tested. That leaves open the question about 4th grade."

Ayah lah. Everyone graduate from primary school one. [/singlish]

The worry about the PSLE is not whether you pass, but what secondary school you go to. That's because the O-levels are the next big thing. The O-levels decide which junior college/polytechnic you go to. You take the A-levels at Junior College, usually around the age of 18, which decides whether the local universities accept you or not. Sometimes you might take foreign exams, like the French bac, if you're rich enough to attend a foreign college. My former secondary school, ACSI, is doing the International Baccalaureate. some secondary schools are doing a "through-train programme" where they skip the O-levels and bypass junior college and thereby do six years instead of four years.

It's always more than just passing. It's about which school you go next. That's because the schools look at more whether you just pass or fail -- and this is not college yet -- so you always try to do better than passing. Nearly everyone passes the PSLE. Whether you do well is an entirely different matter.

Of course, due to my migration history, I was only around from playgroup to kindergarten 1 (three years) and P5 to sec 2 (four years). A feature of the Singaporean education system is that preschool tends to start early, though it's all optional. There are four years before primary one: playgroup, nursery, kindergarten 1, kindergarten 2. So (pre)schooling frequently starts from the age of 2 or 3, if your parents are sensible enough.

It's funny, relieving and insightful watching ang-mohs ponder over the Singaporean education system. If you want to talk about adjustment, there's nothing like switching between the US and Singaporean education systems. Three times. What I can say is, I wish they were combined, that I could extract elements of both. Both systems have their merits and flaws. I wish Singapore would adopt some US features and US features adopt some Singaporean features of schooling and so forth. But perhaps it's natural for a migrant to feel this way for any of his countries.

le radical galoisien said...

I noticed something from the previous post:


Beginning in grades 5 and 6, Singapore identifies its weaker students on the basis of a general examination of mathematics and language competency. These students receive special assistance and are taught according to a special fifth- and sixth-grade mathematics framework. This special framework mandates that students in the slower track
• receive approximately 30 percent more mathematics instruction than students in the regular track, and
be exposed to the same mathematical content as students in the regular track, although at a slower pace."


This is not the EM3 stream is it? I have not been in Singapore since December 2004. EM3 has been abolished since then, but EM3 is a very notorious and unprestigious stream. Some of it is stereotype and cliche, but it is basically what turns me against tracking/streaming in general. The four protagonists in "I Not Stupid" (a media translation of Mandarin "xiaohai bu ben": "[these are] good children, [they're] not stupid!") in particular are all in the EM3 stream. In fact, I think it was the awakening in the public consciousness which followed the film that effectively killed the EM3 stream and merged it with EM2.

le radical galoisien said...

"Timms schools are chosen randomly from the population, Singapore isn't allowed to test the schools with, say, an "express" track only."

The "express" track is the majority of all the Singaporean students, actually. "Normal" was the euphemism introduced to make the lower-percentile feel better, to be frank. It was actually the "normal" stream, but what happened is that there was such a stigma against it that most students ended up aiming for Express and thus most secondary students are now in Express.


The "Special Stream" is composed of the top 10% of the PSLE cohort, and who take a higher mother tongue. (Because I took French as a mother tongue, to make up for the fact that I forgot my Chinese while living in the US, I was ineligible, so I resent this discrimination). The "Normal Stream" has two subdivisions, "Academic" and "Technical". Normal(A) will get 5 years of secondary school, not four, and will take the N-levels instead of the O-levels. Normal(T) aim for the Institute of Technical Education instead, which has been enduring many stereotypes as a group of vocational colleges but has been trying to better its image recently.

"Fascinating.

I wonder if I'd feel differently about IT that's been seamlessly integrated.

I might not; I might be with the 5% of parents who want their kids spending as little time on the internet as possible..."

Are you kidding? How do you expect us to do project work without the internet? ;-)

When they talk about "integrated", it's just to mean that all classrooms have digital projectors connected to the class PC and/or the teacher's laptop. And maybe the school possessing an industrial-duty wireless router or two. This is a good/bad thing. It should be a good thing, but I had a Geog teacher who basically liked to load her powerpoint slide then basically read from her notes, elaborate a little, ask, "understood?" and then proceed to assign homework. Interaction was virtually minimal.

On the other hand, it was really invaluable for the literature teachers who would use it to comprehensively cover every aspect of a text we were studying for.

Mathematics happened to be one of those subjects where it was really difficult to work out problems digitally (no we did not have Mathematica) so we used the projector mostly to show the occasional math instruction video. Whiteboard still heavily used lah.

Suppose it's how it's used, I guess.

"At one, the sec. 3 students were cursing and throwing water bottles at students working math problems at the board. Does this seem unusual to you?"

Sometimes some people just like to act hao lian (arrogant/pretentious) lah. If peers want to go over problems, we usually do so as select groups of cliques, not as a class. E.g. I hook up with 5 friends and do assigned mock exams at the our national libraries, or using whiteboard of an unused classroom. And yes, sometimes we fool around even when we go to the libraries too. I think if you had visited one of the national libraries, especially Jurong East, you would have seen groups of students from different schools sprawled about at the upper floors. Should be just about right, it's just before prelim period. O-level prelims are going to start in August soon ...

Anyway, unless duly requested by the teacher or the class, if a student is trying to do a problem in front of the whole class, then he or she is perceived as trying to show off.


"I noticed that there is a huge leap from the Primary Mathematics texts to the secondary texts -- New Syllabus, etc., I wondered how kids can make the leap from SM 6A&B to New Syllabus as they don't seem "aligned."

Could it be that only a few kids can make that leap and it is based on the P6 exit exam?

What math texts do students use that aren't in the top secondary schools but choose to continue their education?"


Texts tend to be nationally standardised by stream, rather than by school, even the private secondary schools as long as they remain within the post-PSLE MOE system. Hence, unless you are exempt from the post-PSLE MOE system (like the Islamic madrasahs, the international schools, etc.,) even the "top" schools conform. Of course, a school can invent its own stream like ACSI for the International Baccalaureate and then assign its own texts.

And yes, there is a large difference in the style of syllabus. Which is why having revisiting PSLE math is interesting, because secondary school math is like on a different dimension compared to PSLE math. I assure you, most secondary one students perceive the PSLE syllabus as harder, because for half the sec 1 year, we are learning the commutative/distributive/etc. axioms and re-learning the numberline.

So for us, secondary-school syllabus seemed much much easier.

We were 13-year-olds then, and it seemed pointless. But I did not realise its value then -- in primary school they did not teach you what a theorem was. In secondary school, they teach you about mathematical theory, which is the key difference. Hence, it seems like the syllabuses are totally unaligned with each other.

And I also assure you that the sheer majority of Singaporeans pass their PSLE. It is said, real secondary school starts at sec 3, but alas, I did not get to experience that oppurtunity (but sec 2 was difficult enough!)

The transition to secondary school life was actually rather subtle. The first month was always light, but by the fourth month, my memories at primary school suddenly seemed like they were from a different world.

The problem was in sec 2 when they introduced quadratics. I was totally confounded by those. In fact, I failed my final exam for mathematics and got a 47. Although the retake qualified me to take Additional Mathematics, it locked me out of the IB stream, which is partially the reason why I went back to the US.

Now I'm taking Calc II as a college class outside of high school next year, a year ahead of my cohort, so I say Singapore math has served me well.

And yes, they teach calculus in secondary school, at least the differentiation/integration part, though they leave out complex numbers till JC/poly/university. However, I never got around to sec 3 to experience the Singapore Additional Mathematics syllabus for myself -- I actually think I am a year behind.

le radical galoisien said...

"However, they're keeping kids together in 1st through 4th grades.
So how does this happen?"

Do you think we should stream people from primary 1?

Gosh, we need LESS streaming, not more. I hate the streaming aspect of the Singaporean education system. When elections come 2011 (if my 21st birthday arrives before voter registration), I'm voting for the WP, not the PAP because they promise to reform this aspect of Singaporean education.

"but Guanyang Primary was just as impressive, they had a green screen room and keyboards attached to desktops for composing! "

:-)

I suppose I've taken all that for granted now.

"Children actually beg for maths workbooks"

Euhhh, sort of. My teacher assigned us extra assessment books that weren't even official, which was good because aside from parental pressures I usually didn't do them voluntarily. Most children do many assessment books though (I was one of the rare rebels who did them very sparsely).

"5.5 to 6 hours per week in primary grades, depending on the school."
Roughly accurate. For hardworking students, there can be 1-4 hours of math tuition a week, unless your parents are that kiasu to give you 5-8.

"They teach calculus in Junior College, which is the equivalent of our 11th & 12th grades."

Err, they teach integration/differentiation in the Additional Mathematics syllabus (which is an elective that most students take, in addition to Core Mathematics) in sec 3 and 4 (grade 9 and a half to grade 11 and a half).

"I'm interested in what they see students' "sticking points" as. (fractions? long division? absolute value & operations with integers?)"

I am not a teacher, so I can't say for sure. But I would suggest ratios for the middle primary students, quadratics for the middle secondary students (which also affected me) and probably the initial part of grasping differentiation/integration.

Absolute value should have no problem, although I wasn't there at sec 3 to witness it myself -- but judging from my classmates' blogs it wasn't an issue, compared to dy/dx.

I don't think there is much KUMON can teach, because though I took it in the US, because many of their functions are already duplicated.

One key difference is not a matter of syllabus. Don't gloss over the fact that they have offices! When my teacher had problems with me, my performance, or they way I was behaving, the remark would be, "see me in my office afterschool/during recess", rather than "see me in my classroom".

It's partially because of the fact that students get their own classrooms, not teachers. This is related to the fact that classes do not get broken up until P4 (at least for my school, FMPS). So if you were in 1B, you would be in 2F, then 3B, then 4F. Then you take the P4 exam and get broken up into streams in P5. You stay as the same class for two years until you hit secondary school, where the real shuffling begins. In the IB stream, again you might be with the same class for 4-6 years.

This really helps form a sort of a "class identity" which I think is integral.

The other thing is that teachers are more reachable afterschool. American schools seem to lack an afterschool culture. The cafeteria seems to close after dismissal bell rings for most schools. In Singapore, after the bell rings, many students do not go home, even if they do not have a CCA. They hang around to eat and play, even in secondary school (where one hangs out to organise sports matches amongst ourselves). Because of this, it doesn't tend to be inconvenient for a teacher to ask you to stay with them afterschool while they work out your issues, because you often would have stayed back with your friends anyway (the availability of good child-friendly public transport, perhaps, is a prerequisite). We don't have detention -- not a central one at least (for ACSI).
If you had any issues, you would be asked to contact them at their office, and often you finished missing work there.

In ACSI, because every teacher had his or her office, and it was routine for students to contact them, it would be inconvenient for students to be constantly walking through the staff rooms, so actually what we'd do was use a telephone, since they had their own extension number at their cubicle.

At my current US high school, it is such a hassle to try contact teachers afterschool ... It nearly enrages me. That is one thing I miss about Singapore.

Also, for primary school, there are two sessions, an AM session and a PM session. The AM session runs from 7:30 to 12:50 (roughly, depends on school) while the PM session runs from 1:00 pm to 6:20 pm. I always liked the AM session better than the PM session -- with the PM session your days seemed so much shorter and the flag-lowering ceremony seemed much more demoralising than the flag-raising.

In secondary school, students often stayed till 5:00 pm too -- in fact, it's not seen as very late (7 pm would be).