Why Singapore comes top of the class in education
SINGAPORE // The school bell rings but the day is far from over for 12-year-old Fang, who hurries off to the canteen for a quick lunch before rushing back to class for supplementary lessons.
Like most primary 6 pupils in Singapore, Fang — a former student of Raha International School in Abu Dhabi — is preparing for September’s national exams, also known as the Primary School Leaving Examinations, or PSLE.
Those four letters conjure feelings of dread — even despair — for many parents in this island state, known for having one of the best education systems in the world.
Since the 1990s, Singapore has consistently been among the top performing countries in global education league tables and was once touted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as a “poster child” for education development. In 2015, it topped the OECD global school ranking, beating more than 70 countries including Finland, the UK and the US.
But its success did not come about by chance.
Singapore embarked on what scholars called a “survival-driven education” during the early years of independence, from 1965 to 1978.
Then a poor colonial backwater with no natural resources and an ethnically fractured society made up of a hotchpotch of Chinese, Malay and Indian immigrants, its leaders saw education as key to forging a national identity and necessary for economic survival.
In 50 years, unemployment fell from a high of 9.2 per cent in 1966 to 1.9 per cent in 2015. The literacy rate jumped from 72.7 per cent in 1970 to 96.8 per cent in 2015, according to government statistics.
“Singapore’s government provides a very clear vision of what is needed in education,” the OECD’s director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, told The National. “Among all the education systems I have worked with, Singapore demonstrates the most consistent alignment between policies and their implementation.”
The former director of the National Institute of Education (NIE), Professor Lee Sing Kong, who headed the country’s only teacher training institute from 2006-2014 said the success was down to several factors including government policies, teacher training and parental partnership.
“Singapore’s education system is a very coherent system and there is a lot of alignment amongst policy, practice and teacher preparation,” said Prof Lee.
“When you look at our education system, it works in Singapore because of our culture, our national aspiration as well as our environmental landscape — in the sense that we don’t have natural resources, so our focus is literally looking at human capital as a natural resource,” he said. “We want to develop the potential of every child, as best as they can be, to realise the fullest of their potential.”
Fang, 12, moved back to Singapore more than a year ago, after living in Abu Dhabi for six years.
She said she has learned discipline since starting school here, and has seen “a big jump” in her results for science — an achievement she was clearly proud of.
Her mother, Shirley, herself an English teacher, saw the benefits too.
“I think the Singapore system has helped her ... to be more rigorous in her thinking, completing the questions, the tests within a time limit and helping her to think more logically.”
But the past 18 months have not been easy.
“She had a problem when she came back. She was too creative, [and had] too many ideas ... She couldn’t finish the test within a time limit,” she said.
Shirley also found that there was “immense pressure” in the Singapore system. “There is this constant comparison and also pressure from all sides, from me as a mother, and from the school,” she said.
April Ng, a mother of three, who lived overseas for seven years, said her children also struggled when they first returned to Singapore. While her eldest daughter, now 10, only missed two years of preschool in Singapore, she found that she had already lagged behind her peers here.
“At six years old in Singapore, you are chasing the academics already,” she said.
“Testing has become so imbued in our system,” agreed secondary school teacher Ms Lim, who has a postgraduate degree in formulating school curricula and syllabi.
“It’s true that we are very good at ace-ing examinations. Any Singaporean student who goes through the entire Singapore [education] system knows how to sit for an exam, because we’ve trained them to do that since kindergarten,” said Ms Lim who has been teaching for more than a decade.
However, she said, “[Singaporean] kids are very risk averse, not very tenacious, not very resilient. They feel it’s a failure when they’ve failed a test. There are so many other tests in life. There are bigger hurdles.”
To shift the focus away from grades towards a more holistic education, the education ministry in July announced sweeping changes to the scoring of Primary School Leaving Examinations — a source of much anguish for parents who worry that poor results will mean their children cannot attend good secondary schools.
From 2021, the PSLE score will reflect the student’s individual performance instead of his performance relative to his peers, which is the case now.
“The government felt that the pressure exerted on the student to pursue that one mark, and the pressure on parents to help empower their children to pursue that one mark, is creating a tremendous amount of stress and pressure,” said former NIE director Prof Lee. “Therefore they want to blunt it, so that you achieve marks within a band, and ... there isn’t a last mark that will determine your child’s positioning.”
But parents and teachers alike are not sure the obsession with grades will go away so easily.
“It will take a long, long time to move away from the idea that grades are everything,” said Esther Leng, 36, a partner and founding member of The Education Advocates, a specialist tuition centre in Singapore.
“While the ministry of education is trying to take away the emphasis on grades, I think that the social aspect of it will not allow the ministry to move so quickly ... I think really that it’s a whole society. It’s really difficult to undo the years of what I would like to call ‘indoctrination’ that we’ve had, that grades are everything.”
“It’s a whole cultural mentality,” agreed one mother, who preferred not to be named. “It’s from our Chinese culture. Because of the Confucian values and ethics that we were taught, we feel we need to study, we need to work hard so we can be a better person.”
After nearly 8 hours in school, Fang is finally home. But her mother says she still has stacks of homework from school — which typically takes another one and a half hours to complete each day.
“It’s quite sad that she has no time to play,” her mother laments. “I tell her that play is a thing of yesterday now that she is in primary 6 and sitting for PSLE.”
Asked what is one thing she misses about being a student at Raha school, Fang says matter-of-factly: “I miss having no exams.”
Updated: September 7, 2016 04:00 AM