Singaporean students achieve impressive results. Singapore topped the PISA international league tables in 2015, having come close to doing so in 2012 and in 2009; it has also scored well in other international tests such as TIMSS and PIRLS since the 1980s (Ng, 2017, p.3). “The fact that we are ranked highly in international league tables means quite simply that we are ranked highly in international league tables (Ng, 2017, p.5)”: nonetheless, it’s hard not to be impressed by students’ achievements.
The success of systems like Singapore’s often evokes criticism. Critics suggest that this success rests on student stress, rote learning and a conformist approach, to the detriment of students’ happiness and their ability to think creatively or critically. It’s certainly wise to examine context before borrowing a policy: Singapore’s success owes much to political, economic and cultural priorities. However, It would be equally unwise to assume that we can learn nothing from Singapore, or to accept a narrative of stressed and constricted students uncritically.
The next three posts explore students’ experiences of Singapore’s success. This post examines stress, tuition and tracking. Subsequent posts examine pastoral care and student responses to this pressure, and the creative and critical aspects of the curriculum. I hope to show that the criticisms have merits, but risk blinding us to the achievements of Singaporean students and teachers.
Singapore tracks students into different ‘streams’ at an early age. Education is intended to prepare them for a role in Singapore’s economy (more here). A 1978 report from Goh Keng Swee, then Deputy Prime Minister, argued that one-size-fits-all schools were failing to cater for students’ needs. Singapore’s current approach is the result: tracking is designed to cater to individuals’ needs and to prepare them for work efficiently. One percent of pupils enter a Gifted Education Programme in Grade 4 of primary school, but the key event is the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) at age twelve. Students’ results permit access to schools (there is particular social capital attached to ‘brand name’ schools like Raffles Institution) and to streams within those schools – technical, academic or express. The streams lead to different qualifications (or the same qualifications but at a different pace) and, in turn, access to vocational or higher education and to jobs. It has become easier to move between streams if students do particularly well, but it remains unusual: Mary, a tuition centre owner, described the PSLE as judging students’ potential accurately.
Since educational results lead to different streams, parents do all they can to support their children, notably through tuition, “the partner for a student’s life”, in Mary’s words. One parent suggested that up to 90% of children learn from the school syllabus in pre-school. Another described empty desks in offices during exam season as mothers take leave to tutor their children. While Mary had felt uncomfortable about tuition, she had learned “the hard way as a mum” that it was unavoidable, a ‘necessary evil’: she felt that schools do not cover PSLE material well enough, pitching teaching low so all students can succeed in lessons. Schools ‘own’ their successes, but Mary argued that they do not realise the help that has gone into it: both schools and tuition centres publicise their students’ successes.
How extensive is tuition? Mary estimated that 90% of students go to tuition centres for at least one subject; a 2015 poll put the figure at 70%, with more in primary than in secondary. Self-help groups provide subsidised support for those who cannot afford tuition. We visited a tuition centre, where students receive additional teaching and practise taking exams in groups of five to ten. Homework, tuition and co-curricular activities make for long evenings, but tuition did not seem as extensive as I’d expected: Mary said that most students attend for 2-4 hours once a week; she mentioned an extreme example in which a student attended a second tuition centre for help in the same subject.
Conscious of the importance of education to their futures, likely receiving tutoring, students are under pressure to achieve. Stress was the first thing three high school students mentioned in describing the Singaporean system. One parent said that she thought “children are generally very miserable”: her daughter had visited Europe and seen how much less students her age do there – now she wanted to emigrate. Another parent reported being asked why her son did not know the alphabet already: “He’s four: he should be playing!” A third suggested that while early-childhood education was enjoyable and secondary schools were creative, primary school was rigid. One critical teacher suggested we examine suicide rates. Some interviewees also noted that the biggest pressure to succeed came from peers. Yet, when I asked the three high school students what should be done, I received the same answer many teachers and students gave: educational success is critical; the pressure they feel is both temporary and necessary.
Singaporean students are learning a huge amount. No credible analysis can dismiss this success lightly, nor ignore the opportunities this creates for individuals and society. A curriculum designer also noted that success in schools is motivating for students.
The pressure students are under to work hard – from their peers, parents, culture and the economy, and themselves – is part of this success. Rising standards and pressure on students have a reciprocal effect: pressure on students increases standards, increasing standards add pressure. As Brian Barry noted, education is a ‘positional good’: “in the job market, what matters is not how much education you have but how much you have in relation to others (2005, p.176).” Students who want a choice of career must learn more than their peers: rising standards push them to work harder; tuition and societal pressure are consequences of this, as well as causes. If Singaporean education is an escalator, students must climb faster and faster, as their peers race around them and the escalator accelerates.
Singapore seems particularly honest about the importance of educational success. Students are under pressure to succeed at school because a comfortable life and choice of careers depends on passing the marshmallow test and working hard in school. We can criticise Singapore for pressuring or tracking students, but the mechanism by which success can be achieved is at least relatively transparent and meritocratic.
But this is only half the story. It would be wrong to describe Singapore’s education system without considering testing, tracking and stress; it is equally wrong, but perhaps more common, to overlook the creativity and care of Singapore’s schools and the ambition of Singaporean students. These are the subject of the next post.
What to read next:
Previous posts in this series:
Education in Singapore: 1) Making sense of Singapore’s priorities
Education in Singapore: 3) Why do students like school?
Education in Singapore: 4) A creative & 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?