Choosing a primary school for your child: Consider the Big-Fish-In-Little-Pond Effect

It’s that time of the year again that drives many  a parent of K2s into a frenzy. Yes, it’s time for Primary 1 registration and the stakes are high. Brand name schools are highly sought after and with the rule change in length of stay of those staying within the 1km proximity, the game plan for some may have to change.

School reputation may be one of the obvious factors to consider when choosing a school for your child. There are also others to consider – same sex school? Distance to school? Religious values? I know, because I went through all that last year.  You almost feel like you are playing chess with a grandmaster except you feel like all your moves are tantamount to either securing your child’s future success or ruins. Perhaps that’s being too dramatic – but I have no doubt, ask any parent who have gone through, it does feel that way even if your rational mind tells you no.

Now, I would add another factor to the whole conundrum –  the Big-Fish-in-Little-Pond effect.   I’m sure  you have all felt this effect at some point in your life – hopefully as the Big Fish – say you are reasonably internet savvy, you know how to set up a FaceBook account, you can manage to come up with one of those DIY websites like Weebly. In your previous company, this was considered normal skills to have. You change jobs. Now, your colleagues are a good 15 years older and none of them carry a smartphone. Guess what –you just turned into THE Internet guru. Your boss thinks you are Asian branch of the Gates family line. Suddenly your self-esteem takes on such a booster that you are actually even learning more Wong Fei Hong internet skills than you ever thought your brain could absorb. You just became the Big Fish in the Little Pond and it feels good.

Similar, a child who is surrounded by very bright children would feel less confident about their abilities whereas a child who finds that her ability is better than those around her would feel more confident about ability. So in choosing a school, one has to be aware of this effect – is your child academically confident? Understand what are her strengths (one way is to categorise them through multiple intelligences)  Does she or he have any learning disabilities that you need to take into account? Because performance is affected by confidence.

Does confidence matter?

Yes!  Psychologists refer to this confidence in your ability as “academic self-concept,” and researchers have found that students’ academic self-concept at about age 16 was a very good predictor of what they could achieve educationally 5 years after finishing high school.  In fact, academic self-concept was a better predictor than school grades, intelligence, and socioeconomic status1.

Is the Big-Fish-in-Little-Pond effect found in Singapore?

Yes!  Dr Gregory Arief Liem, a prominent motivation researcher, has found evidence for the Big-Fish-in-Little-Pond effect right here in Singapore2.  His research showed that if you consider all things else equal, a child surrounded by high-ability students in a stream would have lower academic self-concept compared to a child surrounded by lower-ability students.

Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath, also found that the Big-Fish-in-Little-Pond effect happens at the university level.  With regards to universities, Gladwell stated that “the best students from mediocre schools were almost always a better bet than good students from the very best schools (p.87). In one example, graduates who had studied economics were analyzed, and the results showed that the very best students at a non-top 30 university (the big fish in a little pond), did substantially better than everyone (the little fish in a big pond) except the very best students at top universities such as Harvard, MIT, Yale, and Princeton.

So, think about it – would you like your child to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond?

Read more about easing the transition to primary school in these two blog articles:

Easing the transition to primary school

Easing the transition to primary school : 8 Lessons Learnt


1Marsh, H.W. & O’Mara, A. (2008). Reciprocal effects between academic self-concept, self-esteem, achievement, and attainment over seven adolescent years: Unidimensional and multidimensional perspectives of self-concept. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 542-552.

2Liem, G.A.D., Marsh, H.W., Martin, A.J., McInerney, D.M., & Yeung, A.S. (2012). The big-fish-in-little-pond effect and a national policy of within-school ability streaming: Alternative frames of reference. American Educational Research Journal, 50, 326–370.

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