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Singapore: Unravelling success factors

Singapore’s Education Quality and Learning Outcomes

March 22, 2018

PISA’s performance, coupled with Singapore’s transformative economic growth over the last half century, provides credence to the OECD’s claim that the quality of human capital, achieved through education, is related to a country’s potential for economic growth. This article examines the achievements of Singapore’s education system, the principles underpinning policy, the challenges that were met and have to be met in the new century, and prospects for successfully meeting those challenges.

Photograph: Alamy

PISA’s performance, coupled with Singapore’s transformative economic growth over the last half century, provides credence to the OECD’s claim that the quality of human capital, achieved through education, is related to a country’s potential for economic growth. This article examines the achievements of Singapore’s education system, the principles underpinning policy, the challenges that were met and have to be met in the new century, and prospects for successfully meeting those challenges.

  • By Saravanan Gopinathan

  • 22/03/ 2018

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Why did education and skills development merit such significant attention in Singapore? The answer to this question lies in its social demographics and limitations. Singapore is a multi-ethnic society, with a Chinese majority. There are cultural, linguistic, and religious differences. In 1965, an independent Singapore inherited a school system with four segregated mediums of instruction. Further, Singapore is a small tropical island with no national resources, surrounded by large resource-rich neighbors. An entrepôt economy could not provide the jobs and wealth required to build a modern society.

Thus, education policy in the early years, termed the era of ‘survival’, had to, and did, respond to these challenges. Issues related to the medium of instruction were resolved through a formula of societal multilingualism and educational bilingualism. English is the medium of instruction. In addition, all children learn a second language, and a heritage language, which could be Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil. The choice of English has provided advantages: it enabled the country to industrialize successfully in the 1970s and 1980s, and to become well integrated into the global economy. Given the country’s ethnic plurality, and its newly independent status, social cohesion and loyalty to nation were important educational goals. So, civics and citizenship education were always an important part of the curriculum. Another important feature of the curriculum was the emphasis on mathematics, science, and technology, understandable when the priority was rapid industrialization.

Given the poor state of the education system in the middle 1960s, it is remarkable how much progress was made in two decades. A segregated system was unified. A common curriculum and a rigorous assessment framework were established. Given that English proficiency was crucial to industrialization, the use of English as a medium of instruction was removed from political contestation, and attention was focused on developing curricula and textbooks and preparing teachers. One key element responsible for the transformation was the attention paid to teacher preparation. Steps were taken to ensure that enough well-qualified and motivated tea­chers were in place to implement a rigorous English and TVET curriculum. A curriculum development center was established to spearhead curriculum change and steps were taken to upgrade teacher preparation when the Institute of Education was established in 1991. Beyond K-12, the government expanded both vocational training via polytechnics and the Vocational and Industrial Training Board. The expansion of university places proceeded more slowly.

Another key feature of Singapore’s education system merits attention: while many education systems have moved toward keeping students together, Singapore has a multi-tracked system. This is a response to a problem that all systems face: the range of abilities pupils bring to school. In Singapore, the problem was complicated by the requirement that all pupils attain bilingual proficiency. It can be argued that in Singapore, some of the effects of tracking were mitigated by its strong public system of schooling, and its common curriculum and assessment system. But a stronger justification for tracking is the improvement shown in educational quality terms. Data show that student attention improved consistently and more students stayed in school longer. Over time, their test scores rose. For example, in the 1995 TIMSS assessment, Singapore’s 13 year olds had the highest scores in mathematics and science; while the international average was a score of 500, Singapore students achieved 643.

The post-industrial innovative economy, since 1997

The government, as the state’s economic guardian, was alert to the changes in the global economy that began in the 1980s. It recognized the growing tide of globalization, and the potential consequences for Singapore’s high-wage model if populous ASEAN countries like Indonesia and mainland giants like China opted for an export-led economy. Singapore had to move up the value chain into higher value-added production, expand its services sector, and begin to systematically be more productive, innovative, and entrepreneurial.

This clearly posed a challenge to a successful education system built upon standardization. While its students did clearly master academic content, it was becoming too assessment-driven and could not contribute to the new economy. The system needed a new conception of education quality. Students now needed to know both content and how to apply their knowledge. They needed not just to find solutions but also to find problems!

A small start had been made in 1987, when the government encouraged a few high-performing schools to go independent; with greater autonomy, they could modify and enrich their curricula to stretch their bright students. But the more significant system-wide initiatives were to be found in the Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (TSLN), Teach Less, Learn More, and ICT Master Plans policies. Their principal aim was to move Singapore’s schooling into a more open, ques­­tioning pedagogy with a class­room focus primarily on student learning, not teaching. In 1997, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong took this view:

Schools must be centers for questioning and searching within and outside the classroom; children must be continually pressed to raise questions and accept challenges, to find solutions that are not immediately apparent, to explain concepts, and justify their reasoning…

In making this shift, the Singapore education system faced several challenging questions. Why did a system that did well in TIMSS (and later PISA) need to change? Could a system that defined education quality as good student performance on high-stakes examinations now shift to one that valued both academic and non-academic talents? Could curriculum assessment, and most importantly, teachers, move from being content experts to facilitators of student learning? Could a national school system have greater variety, and a wider range of knowledge-generating pedago­gies? Could learning be fun, student-owned, and purposeful beyond performance on examinations?

This year, 2017, marks the twentieth anniversary of Mr. Goh’s TSLN speech. It is as good a time as any to assess the success of policy initiatives. Overall, it is clear that while high-stakes examinations remain important and the system is still competitive, learning environments in Singapore’s classrooms have changed considerably. This is principally because the ministry implemented a cluster of policies, incrementally changing the key variables. The policy message has remained consistent: parents, employers, and students should embrace the need for 21st-century competencies. Additionally, the school system was further diversified with the creation of specialized schools like the School of the Arts, the Sports School, and the School for Science and Mathematics. Curricula and textbooks were progressively changed to reflect not just established content but ways for students to critique the content, to apply the knowledge to real life problems. For example, the lower secondary social studies textbooks used an explicitly source-based learning approach. Assessment structures have also changed to test students’ deep understanding of content, and their ability to apply their knowledge.

But the key in making the shift to a more knowledge-building pedagogy lay in teachers’ capacity to change their instructional practices. The NIE has played a major role in preparing teachers for their new roles by revamping the teacher education curriculum and offering professional development courses that emphasize the newly required teaching skills. These efforts have borne fruit. An analysis of the 2016 TIMSS results for Singapore showed that Singapore students had done better when “tackling non-routine questions and those requiring them to apply knowledge” (A. Teng, Straits Times, 30 November 2016). Specialists point to teachers encouraging students to use more reasoning strategies in mathematics and science, to think like scientists, develop hypotheses, use data and evidence, and provide explanations for the phenomena they study.

That said, it should be noted that current pedagogical practices can best be described as a ‘hybrid pedagogy’, a balanced emphasis on conceptual mastery of content and on encouragement to move beyond memorizing, to generating and applying knowledge. There is still some way to go, but the country has made a good start on the journey. The contact hypothesis

Building the future on the present

Singapore’s journey in building a world-class education system can be explained in a 3Cs framework. The first C is Culture. Singapore is a nation of immigrants, people who came to Singapore to escape poverty and build better lives. The majority Chinese population has, as an ethnic group, high respect for education as a means of achieving social mobility. When Singapore made rapid economic progress in the first three decades after independence, education qualifications were important in the labor market. Thus, Singapore residents highly value educational performance and achievement, and Singapore’s students are prepared to work hard in school.

The second C is Context. Singapore is a small multi-ethnic country, with few resources of its own and neighbors that have large populations and many resources. At independence, some questioned its legitimacy as a sovereign state. Clearly, it had to demonstrate that it could thrive despite its limitations. The key was developing human resources through high-quality, relevant education and training. As noted earlier, the emphases on English, science, mathematics, and technology were responses to economic imperatives. The need to survive also meant that the government was very focused on achieving its aims and, therefore, planned education policy for the long term. Certain conditions continue, but policies have changed when needed; reform initiatives have been incremental in nature, not ‘big bang’ politically-driven initiatives.

The final C is Capacity. Singapore could not have achieved its success without its ability to both make good policy and implement it effectively. Singapore’s administrative services are probably the best in the world. They were able to recognize the complex, interrelated nature of education and curriculum change. For instance, in attempting to raise standards in math and science, they paid careful attention to teacher quality, ensuring that high school teachers had domain expertise and were well prepared. Curricula, textbooks, and instruction materials were carefully planned and teacher capacity was built up via relevant curriculum development.


The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, Singapore. Photograph: Alamy

In conclusion, education quality in Singapore is best understood as multi-layered. The evidence for student ability and performance is found in the scores that Singapore students earn on international assessments. But underpinning that is a whole ecology of institutions and processes, starting from a whole-of-government vision of high quality education and training, and including the ability to see education as a complex, interrelated process that involves a whole-of-government approach. Thus, many institutions, beyond the MOE, are involved in policy making and implementation. Finally, the wider society holds education in high regard and both families and students have high aspirations. Singapore is thus placed to weather the new challenges that will inevitably confront education in the future.