Singapore produces the world’s brightest young people. League tables consistently place Singapore in the top ranks. Higher than many advanced economies like Canada, Switzerland, or even Finland on some measures.
For example, rankings published by the OECD in its Programme for International Student Survey (PISA) have repeatedly placed Singapore in the top-five highly ranked countries in educational outcomes. Within the subjects of Maths and Science, Singapore was crowned as ‘Number One” in the global rankings of 2016, and has frequently outflanked fellow high-performing Asian nations like Japan and Taiwan. (For those that are unaware of PISA - It’s a ranking based on tests taken by 15-year olds all across the world, and is considered to be a credible yardstick from which to rank each country’s education system).
In the academic realm, therefore, Singapore’s education system has proven to be a resounding success. Its flourishing economy and business attractiveness is similarly evident of a well-educated nation.
What is Singapore’s secret formula for such stellar educational outcomes, you may ask?
The answer to that question involves a multitude of factors, but read on, as we shall reveal them in this article. Before we commence, however, let’s unravel Singapore’s education system, and how it works, to give you some context on what we are dealing with.
A Glimpse of Singapore’s Education System
All students enrol in a government-run or government-aided school for a modest fee. A system of “streaming”, involving regular examinations, sorts students into different academic programmes based on their academic strengths.
In the early years, junior-school pupils will sit the PSLE exam in order to be examined on the acquisition of essential numerical, literacy and scientific skills. This is the first milestone that a student in Singapore’s education pathway conquers.
Based on the results of the PSLE, a student is then sorted into three streams: Express Stream for the highest-scoring pupils on one side, and Normal-Academic or Normal-Technical streams for the remainder. The Express Stream is designed for the fast and intensive learners, whilst the Normal Streams are suited for average scorers or those who wish to specialise into a more technical field.
In the later years, senior-school pupils will then sit their O-Level exams. The results of these determine which colleges graduating students qualify to enter. Junior colleges are typically the fastest route into university, whilst polytechnics and the Institute of Technological Education offer pathways into more vocational careers. Options for further specialisation rest upon the individual decisions of a student, depending on their career aspirations and academic achievements.
What makes Singapore’s education system so successful?
1. The Socio-Economic Drivers
Firstly, it’s vital to understand the socio-economic realities that Singapore was bred in. Having gained independence in 1965, with no natural resources or booming industries, education became a critical component in its economic development strategy. This resulted in funding for the education system to soar, followed by the development of a fully-funded and regulated school system for pupils of all ages up to 18. Founded on Lee Kuan Yew’s wish to develop Singapore’s human capital, education has remained a priority for Singapore’s successive governments since its birth.
Singaporean families have recognised the integral role that education plays in breeding success, and have joined hands with the nation’s leaders in cultivating a highly-educated workforce. As a result, Singapore has nurtured a culture that promotes educational success, from the classrooms in school to the dining tables at home.
2. Singapore’s Effective Policy-Making
Drawn from its desire to build a world-class education system, Singapore’s government has built a robust policy regime to achieve that.
Unlike many other countries in the developed world, Singapore has adopted a holistic and flexible approach towards the construction of its education policies. The Ministry of Education never implements a policy without thorough research and testing, to ensure that any changes are guaranteed to succeed before being put to action. The metrics of success are multi-dimensional, and careful attention goes into analysing the effects of various policies on students’ grades, including student wellbeing and satisfaction levels.
But what’s notable is not simply the effectiveness of its policy regime, but its synergy between what parents demand, what teachers need, and what students thrive on. The authorities, schools, and the parents and students as a whole, seem to share a common understanding on what a good education means. As a result, the challenge of crafting and “implementing” good policies becomes a whole lot easier.
Furthermore, as we will discuss in sections below, Singapore’s educational policy-making has shown an unrivalled degree of adaptability, making it quick to adapt to changing times and respond to criticism.
3. Targeted & Precise Curriculum
Singapore’s national curriculum tends to devote more time to mastering core subjects like maths, science and technology. The goal of feedback by teachers is to help students know the “right answer” to the specific question, instead of mulling on ‘levels of understanding’. There is little deviance in what’s taught from what’s found in textbooks, worksheets and final exams. Classes are geared towards helping students pass exams in these core subjects, as they are more practical and in-demand by employers.
As a result, the curriculum favours depth and quality of the material taught, instead of merely injecting large amounts of unconnected information. For students that fall below the required standard, extra lessons are given to them to help them catch up with their peers.
On a wider level, however, all curricula in schools are designed with specific goals in mind, which also shape the various teaching techniques used.
Below are the three ‘Desired Outcomes of Education’ as outlined by the Ministry of Education:
“A good sense of self-awareness,
A sound moral compass,
The necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future”
A precise definition of the goals makes it easier for authorities at all levels to plan and deliver a coherent curriculum that meets the desired goals.
4. Rigorous Teaching Regime in Classrooms
In contrast to many western schooling systems, Singapore’s system has largely maintained a hierarchical and top-down approach in the classroom. Classes are usually orderly and disciplined, and teachers still dominate most of the talking time. Teachers also enjoy more autonomy in choosing which methods to use in teaching their students, whether they be Eastern, Western or a combination of both.
In a fundamental sense, this is built on a culture that treasures education above anything else. Parents are known for supporting their children in achieving, and assisting them if they struggle with any subject. Success at school is seen as something to prioritise, cherish and celebrate.
In addition, children are imbued with a sense of responsibility for their own education. They are celebrated not only for their results but also their “efforts”. Pupils are encouraged to lead their own educational journey, and are given plentiful options by the system to do that, whether they prefer to take a vocational pathway or an academic pathway.
Whilst the merits of hierarchical control and discipline are questioned in many parts of the world, Singapore’s example suggests that it still plays a role to some degree, if matched by well-resourced schools, in formulating a successful education system.
5. Outstanding Cadre of Teachers
Probably one of the biggest factors behind Singapore’s educational success-story is the quality of training that teachers receive. Only the top 5% of graduating students qualify to enter teaching, and the training is delivered centrally by the National Institute of Education. On average, teachers receive over 100 hours of education every year, and are subject to rigorous performance assessments to monitor their progress. The teaching staff are kept accountable to ensure they are delivering what is asked of them, and to the right standard.
Furthermore, teachers are paid a handsome salary, far exceeding the average salary in OECD countries. Teachers that excel can lay claim to “bonuses” and enjoy greater rewards for their teaching excellence. This makes teaching an attractive career option for the most talented people of the country. Not only can they expect to receive continuous training and development, but some lucrative rewards in return for passing down their talents to their successive generations.
Is Singapore’s education system entirely flawless?
No, it has its weaknesses too. However, much effort has been put into tackling these weaknesses, as we shall reveal below.
1. Concerns on: Stress and Overworking
In response to criticism along the lines of “Singapore’s education system breeds stress”, or “is too exam-focussed”, the Ministry of Education has scrapped exams for Primary 1 and Primary 2. Exams have been similarly binned for pupils in Secondary 1 and Secondary 3. In other words, exams are being set aside in school years where their need cannot be reasonably proven. Furthermore, the PSLE grading system is shifting to a numerical grading system, from 1 to 8, in order to stave off the unhealthy emphasis on “A” grades.
Since 2005, when it was noticed that the current education system was overwhelming many students with stress, a new strategy called “Teach Less Learn More” was outlined. This banned the open listing of student’s individual exam results on visible rankings, and reduced any “competitive pressure” placed on students.
As a result, the future direction is ostensibly moving towards more emphasis on quality of education instead of quantity.
2. Concerns on: Inequality
Concerns have also been raised that the education system widens inequality. Inequality primary stems from wealthier families being able to provide supplementary education via private tuition to their children, both before entering school and during school years themselves. This means that kindergarten students already showed educational disparities, which then later widened as they progressed into Primary 1 and 2. These concerns have not fallen on deaf ears, however, as the government has introduced measures to address them.
These measures include children from lower-income families being offered financial support in the form of educational bursaries to level the gap between wealthier families. In order to heal the gap prior to entering school, the government also plans to double pre-school spending by 2022 in order root out the problem before it surfaces.
3. Concerns on: Rote-memorisation
It’s widely admitted that the prevalence of rote-memorisation learning techniques is not suited to the fluid needs of the modern workplace. Nor is it a secret that the emphasis on exam success in Singapore has led to a tedious reliance on rote-memorisation. However, current developments appear to signal that rote-memorisation’s days are numbered.
In order to meet the needs of an evolving global economy, all schools will now be mandated to introduce an Applied Learning Programme (ALP) by 2023. ALPs are designed to prioritise the inculcation of soft-skills like creativity, problem-solving and innovation, something that was previously neglected in its otherwise rote-learning and examophilic system. This is only one example of a policy designed to address this problem.
The many instances above are testament to the government’s undying enthusiasm for maintaining a robust, relevant and results-oriented education system. It also becomes evident that the Ministry of Education prefers to strike a balance between modern and traditional, so as to not fall into one extreme, but to enjoy the best of both worlds instead.
And, most importantly in fact, these policy changes have not stopped. They continue to be updated and revised every year, in a relentless drive to maintain the island nation’s prized position as a global leader in education.
For a nation that treasures an educated bunch of people, it’s of little surprise that Singapore seems to have gotten it right. Its teachers are the envy of the world, student’s exam results trounce fellow developed-countries’ in global rankings, and its policy-making has proven to be incredibly razor-sharp and adaptable. Having become an economic powerhouse in the region, the city-state of humble beginnings is bursting with talent and human capital.
Perhaps, the rest of the developed world couldn’t do much better than to learn from the Singapore model, and spread the wonders of its education system to every aspiring corner of the globe.