“The best education system in the world”- Singapore holds that moniker for many years in a row. The transformation of Singapore from Third World country to First in one generation is one of Asia’s great success stories. The lack of hinterland or natural resources did not deter the founders of Singapore from investing in the nation’s most important asset – its people. From the 1950s and 60s, the leaders of this city-state focused on building an efficient, universal education system that would provide a skilled workforce for Singapore’s industrialization program as well to as to lower unemployment. They had the vision to build a professional teaching force and internationally competitive local universities that would put Singapore on the world map.Today Singapore’s education system is considered the best in the world. It consistently ranks at the top of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test in dozens of countries, in the main categories of maths, reading , science and collaborative problem solving abilities.
Singaporean children attend preschool from age three to six, to be ready for primary school. After six years of Primary education, students sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). The PSLE results determine whether the child will attend a normal secondary school, a specialized school, an express school — which leads to the “O” Level in four years rather than the regular five years — or another school (such as a privately funded one), which offers a similar education. Upon completion of the 4 or 5-year secondary school education, students participate in the annual Singaporean GCE ‘O’ Level, the results of which determine which pre-universities or post-secondary institutions they may apply for. Post-secondary education usually takes between one and three years and offers a choice of schools, including junior colleges, polytechnics, and institutes of technical education.
The system is managed by the Ministry of Education (MOE), which controls the development and administration of state schools receiving taxpayers’ funding, but also has an advisory and supervisory role in respect of private schools. For both private and state schools, there are variations in the extent of autonomy in their curriculum, scope of taxpayers’ aid and funding, tuition burden on the students, and admission policy. Education spending usually makes up about 20 percent of the annual national budget, which subsidizes state and government-assisted private education for Singaporean citizens and funds the Edusave program.
Curriculum and Pedagogy
Singapore started off with a teacher oriented pedagogy – a top down approach of educators deciding the curriculum, lesson plans and providing instructional learning. The focus was on standardized tests and academic outcomes. But the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s challenged policy makers to introduce sweeping reforms in 2004 to move towards a new pedagogical framework called Teach Less, Learn More. This framework urged teachers to focus on the “quality” of learning and the incorporation of technology into classrooms and not just the “quantity” of learning and exam preparation. While substantial progress has been made to implement a learning oriented pedagogy, well entrenched institutional rules have persisted to drive the teachers to continue prioritizing curriculum coverage, knowledge transmission and teaching for exams over the quality of learning. Parents are still rigid about focusing on standardized test scores and traditional and direct instructional techniques seem better suited to achieve higher academic outcomes. In 2018, further reforms were announced as a result of “Life Beyond Grades” movement. These include removal of weighted exams in primary, removal of mid-term exams in Secondary and others.
Teacher Quality and Continuing Education
Selection: Prospective teachers are carefully selected from the top third of high school graduates. The most essential traits required are strong academic ability and a passionate commitment to education. The selected teachers undergo training programs and are coached to be professional educators.
Nurture and Incentivize : Teachers get 100 hours of training a year to keep up to date with the latest techniques. Teaching is a competitive and a well compensated profession and this is a major retention factor. Teachers are also subject to rigorous annual performance assessments and the best teachers get postings to the ministry of education and hefty bonuses. Teachers who have the potential to become school leaders are identified and selected for interviews. Those individuals who pass initial leadership assessment mover to NIE to undertake a six months executive leadership training program.
The push by parents towards higher test scores has led to a lucrative tuition industry in Singapore. The fear of lagging behind or losing (kiasu), is so strong in Singaporeans that parents go to any extent, including any amount of extra classes just for that perfect score. In fact, tuition starts at pre school stage, with preschoolers, on average, attending two hours of private tuition per week. The median amount spends on tutoring classes ranges from $150 to $250 per month per child making the tuition industry worth more than a billion dollars annually. Private tuition centers are a booming business and they have effective marketing strategies to induce anxiety in parents about fear of failure unless they are willing to pay to help their children score higher. The role of private tuition industry is being perceived by the rest of the world as one of the critical factors for higher PISA scores.
The Think and Learn program of 2004 and the ICT MasterPlan of (1997-2003) together pushed for the technology and innovation use in schools. The ICT MasterPlan includes initiatives like infrastructure upgrades, increased connectivity in schools, as well as ‘edumall 2.0′, an integrated portal of global learning resources and approaches that teachers can access to plan their lessons. The Ministry of Education has started eduLab program to develop ICT innovations that can be adopted by schools. Immersive learning apps, IMDA’s Lab on Wheels and Code for Fun for coding, robotics learning, online English annotation tools are some examples of innovations used across Singapore’s public schools. Local startups like Miao and Yodaa have built mobile apps and games for learning basic skills and platform to link students of all ages with online tutors. The EdTech industry is involved in fairly standard stuff at the present, but there is immense potential in this space. The call for an innovation led economy will see many players jumping on the bus and delivering highly innovative and effective educational technology products and services.
Issues and concerns
The emphasis on rote learning and memorization, combined with pressure to succeed has impacted children’s social skills, health and overall happiness. In 2015, 22 students took their lives in Singapore due to school stress. Psychologists are concerned over the increased lack of social, behavioral and motor skills in school children. In fact, psychiatrists use the terms ‘high school senior symptoms’ or ‘entrance examination symptoms’ to indicate emotional health problems among students in these countries. The 2018 reforms and the need for building a generation of self-aware, emotionally sound and future ready students should trigger positive changes in the system.
The immense focus on education and its only natural resource – people , has transformed this city-state into a global hub of education, science and technology, trade and finance. The historical and cultural aspects which shaped Singapore are very unique and any attempts to mimic its success is a challenge. A stable government with a shared vision for education and its comparatively small size, has made implementing reforms and new initiatives far easier than in larger countries. Despite this, there are many aspects that other countries can adopt successfully. The tried and tested methods of building a solid foundation in numeracy and literacy and the process of selecting and nurturing professional educators are aspects that if replicated in other countries will only enhance educational outcomes.
The reforms of 2018 and the SkillsFuture initiative, which advocates mastery of skills over just collecting qualifications should push Singapore into building a more knowledge based and future ready education system. As Singapore’s education minister said in his budget speech to the Parliament: “We want to cultivate a generation of young people who grow up with a sense of curiosity and a love for learning… asking both the ‘whys’ and the ‘why nots’.”