What, if anything, can I take from a week in Singaporean schools?
Often, we focus on isolated and exotic aspects of foreign education systems. We are encouraged to copy the Finnish approach to autonomy or the Shanghai approach to maths. We borrow policies, but they work only as part of a system: teacher autonomy in Finland relies on social consensus about schools, extensive teacher education, state-authorised textbooks and centrally-directed allocation of curriculum time; Finnish teachers are not just free to do as they please (Oates, 2015). Focusing on isolated, attractive policies distracts us from aspects of the education system which are less obvious, but which underpin the policies we envy.
The so-called Singapore model is rather Singaporean and emerges because of its history and context (Ng 2017, p7).”
More than the teaching, teacher development and school structures, what stood out in Singapore were the policies and culture which made them possible. Once I had grasped Singapore’s social, cultural and economic priorities, practices which initially seemed surprising made sense: despite my reservations, I was able to recognise the rationale for tracking students into separate schools at an early age, for example.
This post introduces and underpins a series on Singapore’s education system by describing that context, showing how schools are influenced by the economy, society and politics. I cannot pretend to have understood every aspect of Singapore’s approach during a short visit, and I would welcome corrections and developments of these points.
Singapore is a project of national survival
Singapore became a nation in 1965 through turbulent separation from federation with Malaysia, its much larger neighbour. Almost immediately, Britain, its military guarantor and biggest employer, prepared to withdraw its forces. Singapore faced linked fears: unemployment, inter-communal violence and Malaysian hostility. Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister, sought: “To keep united Singapore’s multilingual, multicultural, multireligious society, and make it rugged and dynamic enough to compete in world markets (Lee, 2000, p.8).” Education receives the second greatest share of public spending after defence (Ng, 2017, p.24), because Singapore is a project of national survival, in which education is “nation building”, in one interviewee’s words.
Education and the economy are intimately linked
Singapore lacks natural resources – it even imports water – so “People are our strength”, as one experienced teacher put it. Professor Pak Tee Ng described schools and the economy having developed “hand in hand”, as changes in the education system both reflected and enabled Singapore’s economic development:
- 1960s -1970s: Survival and standardisation: building schools, providing universal basic education, developing low-skilled industries such as repairing ships and manufacturing textiles and fish hooks.
- 1980s – 1990s: Efficiency and local accountability: schools were challenged to compete, league tables were introduced, Singapore sought to “improve the quality of the new investments and with it the education and skill levels of our workers (Lee, 2000, p.63), developing industries such as electronics and petrochemicals.
- 1990s – 2000s: Excellence: more decentralisation and autonomy for schools, developing students to work in services and the knowledge economy
- 2012 – present: Values: developing students’ values, character and citizenship, to allow more innovation and creativity (Lee, 2000, pp.49-69; Ng, 2017; OECD, 2010).
Ahmed, a civil servant, described education as serving the economy: it is “meant to fuel the needs of economic growth.” Curriculum designers meet industry leaders to identify growth areas for businesses and skills shortages: Singapore is developing more life sciences companies; this requires graduates with the necessary skills, which, in turn, depends on the supply of teachers. Conversely, Pak Tee Ng explained that study pathways must lead to jobs: Singapore wishes to avoid producing graduates, expecting graduate jobs, for whom no such jobs are available (Ng, 2017, p..185-186; Lee, 2000).
Political leadership is exceptionally stable
The People’s Action Party has held power without interruption since independence: this has provided stable leadership in education. We were told that ministers initiate policies for which they know their peers will take credit. Teachers and civil servants can work unhindered by political turbulence: the curriculum for each subject is reviewed on a six-year cycle and changes are introduced with at least three years’ warning.
Funding is assured
Another consequence of political stability and consensus around the value of education is that school funding is ‘assured’, if not enormous, as Pak Tee Ng put it, allowing teachers to get on with their work. We were assured repeatedly that, where individual students wanted for anything, help was available: “There has never been a case where education has been denied due to poverty” one former teacher put it, and “All schools that you see are pretty amazing.” We heard about generous funding for teachers’ professional development, for students’ foreign travel, and for maths manipulatives for every classroom.
Education should maintain communal harmony
At independence there was extensive communal violence in South East Asia, particularly against Chinese communities: maintaining harmony between the Chinese majority and the Malay and Tamil minorities was seen as crucial. Classes are taught in English (students also study their ‘mother tongue’); primary schools are integrated, because most Singaporeans live in public housing in which there are quotas for each ethnic group proportionate to society. Teachers even schedule mother tongue lessons so that students do not begin breaks ethnically divided.
Singapore is small and connected
No matter where you start on the island, “If you could actually maintain a speed of 100 km/h in a straight line (which would be over Singapore’s speed limit of 90 km/h and impossible in rush hour congestion), you will drop into the sea in half an hour (Ng, 2017 p.22).” Numerous interviewees emphasised how this supports communication and implementation: “The driving power of a common purpose is enhanced by the close-knit nature of the education fraternity (Ng, 2017, p.180).”
Singapore is different, but “There is a great deal that the world can learn from Singapore’s experience,” which “can trigger ideas for real and substantial points of departure for school improvement in other countries (Ng, 2017, p.7).” Learning from Singapore is easier if we recognise the education system’s stability, connectedness, and pursuit of national survival and prosperity; it is easier if we reserve judgement on unfamiliar practices until we understand why they exist and what makes them possible.
As part of an international group, I visited a pre-school and two secondary school, a junior college and a tuition centre; I met teachers, middle leaders and school principals; spoke to academics, civil servants and teacher educators; met parents, pre-school children, high school and vocational students. Some meetings were official, others were informal; we heard the ministry view and we met teachers so frustrated they were considering emigrating. I’ve changed the names of interviewees (except public figures).
I’m grateful to Teach for All which sponsored our visit to Singapore, to the members of our group, and to every Singaporean who patiently helped me make sense of Singaporean schools and society. I’m also very grateful to the British and Singaporean teachers and educators who offered comments on drafts of these blogs: all mistakes remain my own.
The next post examines students’ experiences of school, and looks at the pressure they are under to succeed.
The rest of this series
Education in Singapore: 2) Stressed students?
Education in Singapore: 3) Why do students like school?
Education in Singapore: 4) A creative and critical curriculum?
Education in Singapore: 5) Attracting, developing and keeping teachers
Education in Singapore: 6) “The best trained teachers in the world”
Education in Singapore: 7) The secret of Singapore’s success
Education in Singapore: 8) Borrowing policies for England