50 Secrets of Singapore's Success: Education
By S. Gopinathan and V. Naidu
Education principally serves two primary functions, to equip a country’s youth for gainful employment, and to build social cohesion. At independence Singapore’s education system found itself struggling to address both these needs, but yet today a mere 54 years later it is lauded as one of the best in the world. How did we get there? How did a country whose economy was based primarily on entrepôt trade become one of the world’s leading global cities and a hub for global finance? How despite having a multi-ethnic population, did it successfully maintain racial and religious harmony?
The Answer: By developing one of the world’s best education systems. High education quality is notable at all levels of the system, from grade 1 through certificate and diploma TVET institutions, and universities.
Today all public schools are English-medium institutions which teach a common curriculum developed by our Ministry of Education. Singapore’s preoccupation with inter-ethnic integration and social cohesion led to the creation of a state-managed national system of education. Common schooling experiences contributed significantly to building social cohesion.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said: “Our only natural resource is our people” and Singapore, with no discernible natural resource beyond a deep-water port, and a small population, successfully matched and in many instances surpassed the growth rates of its neighbour countries. Its education system, primarily the public-school system, was a key driver of this success.
Singapore’s emphasis on meritocracy was applied at all levels of society, particularly in our education system. Meritocratic principles are the basis of what Singapore’s education system is (in)famous: for rigour, competitiveness and high-stakes national examinations. Students take national exams at Grades 6, 10, and 12 and are ranked and sorted against their peers; like a well poured cup of coffee the cream rises to the top!
Another reason for Singapore’s success in building a high-performing education system was that the political and administrative leadership recognized that institution-building in education required a strategic and sustainable vision. In the creation and implementation of policies, it is not unusual to find MOE, MOM, EDB, etc. working closely together. The result is a strong ecology of “linked up” institutions – K-12 schools, post-secondary institutions and universities providing, in a coordinated manner, multiple pathways for learning and skills enhancement.
Fidelity to policy and a commitment to effective implementation is another important factor when trying to understand the success of Singapore education system. Education policies designed for the long term are allowed the time needed to reach maturity; effective implementation strengthens confidence in the system. Ministers are not known to radically undo the policies of their predecessors, but are willing to tweak at the margins with the benefit of hindsight, for fear of destabilising the system. Singapore does not do large-scale education reform; timely and incremental change is the norm.
Yet another reason for Singapore’s education success is the amount of attention that Singapore pays to teacher selection, preparation, deployment, incentivisation and retention. Both initial teacher training and professional development, and career development are considered very important in Singapore. So is performance management of teachers. Equally, a lot of attention is paid to selection and training of school leaders.
The government has been encouraging the nurturing and recognition of talents beyond academics, recognising other talents which include sporting and musical prowess, leadership abilities and community service. The government has also taken great pains to improve the quality of education in poorer performing schools by giving them access to innovative pedagogies and educational technology.
Recognizing the need for more advanced skills in a post-industrial economy, the government has embarked upon a major workforce skills development and adult learning initiative – Skills Future. TVET institutions and universities have been given a major role.
Singapore’s founding leaders envisioned a global city that was a world leader in the provision of high-quality professional services, led by a highly educated, disciplined and professional workforce. Today, Singapore is that global-city but its education system is still very much local.
SIS GROUP OF SCHOOLS
The SIS Group of Schools uses the Singapore curriculum for its Pre and Primary Schools, and the Cambridge curriculum for its Secondary School and the IBDP for its Junior College Program – uniting the world’s best curricula in one school.