Singaporean students are under significant pressure to achieve. They receive extensive tutoring and support, particularly in the run-up to the exams, which track them into different schools. Examining Singapore with this in mind, one can easily craft a narrative of stress and misery, and there is certainly truth in this (more here). Given this, the following statistic is striking:
“In a recent OECD report, a significantly higher percentage of Singapore students reported that they were happy in school (87.9%) compared to their Finnish counterparts (66.9%) (the OECD average was 78.9%) (Ng, 2017, p.13).”
There must be something more to the Singaporean system than stressful test preparation, but focusing on tests and stress may cause the distant observer to overlook another side of Singapore’s schools. This post seeks to explore this other side of Singaporean schools, suggesting reasons why students are thriving by examining one school’s culture, and one student’s ambition.
A caring school culture at Eunoia Junior College
Singaporean schools support academic success, but they also attend to pastoral care, school culture and a balanced education. Eunoia Junior College, a new school serving students in the two years before university, had made extensive efforts to offer varied cultural experiences and to create a powerful student culture, under the leadership of two Deans of Students and a Head of Department for Character and Citizenship Education:
- A strong school culture: The school is a year old, and has sought to create a shared culture for students from different schools with different backgrounds. For students’ orientation every class had taken a photo, written a story and sewed them together, setting a record for quilting. The school had asked students to help choose the uniform and the school’s design, but had saved other decisions for future cohorts. House competitions encourage participation and competition; significant milestones are marked with cohort rallies, college anthems, and involve parents. (For a taste of the results, see the reports of the first College Day, here).
- A broad education: Cultural days are designed to broaden the experiences of the – predominantly Chinese – students. An Unconference Day was created with students: they chose what to learn and delivered some sessions, such as juggling and flower arranging. Students experience theatre, music, art, a ‘Eunoia Got Talent’ competition, and Mother Tongue Language Fortnight, in which they share their home culture. Each month, a ‘Deep Dive Day’ allows students to choose from a range of activities which inculcate values, including forum theatre and external speakers from industry. In a few sentences, teachers mentioned the value of the ‘joy of learning’, ‘student voice’, helping every student have a ‘passion pursuit’ and being part of the ‘maker movement’: this did not feel like an environment in which students just studied.
- Extensive pastoral care: Alongside a form tutor, each student has a ‘life coach’ – a teacher as a mentor – alongside support from a counsellor (there is one in every school). The code of conduct had been written with students: if they misbehave, parents receive a note, while students receive both consequences and counselling; teachers described relying on relationships to foster good behaviour and engaging students individually.
How representative is Eunoia? A new school offers the opportunity to create a culture; Eunoia had focused on this intentionally and described themselves as being ahead of other schools on ‘holistic’ education. Conversely, new schools have much to prove and a Junior College is an academically elite institution: Eunoia would not be prioritising a broader education if this were not deemed important.
Ambition at every level
Singapore presents a paradox: academic potential is assessed early and students are tracked accordingly (more here), yet students’ effort is seen as critical to success (Crehan, 2016). To an outsider, and perhaps to a Singaporean too, a PSLE exam result that does not allow entrance to an elite school may be seen as a failure. How do students respond?
We were privileged to have dinner with a group of Singaporean sixteen and seventeen year-olds, most of whom were studying in vocational schools. I spent much of the evening talking to Jenny. Mostly, we discussed her experience in the vocational education programme and her current internship at a hotel – she was enjoying it, but finding the long hours on her feet exhausting. If Singapore is an educational rat race, attending a vocational programme might be seen as a failure. Certainly, Jenny described having struggled in her school subjects. But she also described having liked school, and spoke, with pride, about how, having kept trying, she had eventually understood difficult topics. She planned to save money, be independent and look after her grandfather. She wanted to go to university: she could see that not getting a degree would stifle her career chances, as she watched an experienced colleague being passed over for promotion for younger graduates. Her ambition and desire to learn remained strong, despite academic struggles.
Jenny brought home to me the effect of tracking students and rocketing expectations in Singapore. Students are tracked early, but whereas in England entering a low set or a secondary modern school may lead students to see themselves as failures and give up, in Singapore, the culture and value of learning is such that students keep going.
Having focused on meritocracy and rewarding success, Singapore is now offering a variety of study routes and alternative high schools (Ng, 2017, Ch. 4). Students’ potential may be seen as sufficiently innate that students can be sorted at twelve, but all students can benefit from continuing to study and to strive. Tracking students is genuinely designed to provide a form of education which suits the student and, since teachers are centrally allocated and resources are plentiful, all students receive good support. Singapore values academic success, but there are excellent vocational routes for those who do not attain it (since education’s role is to prepare students for work, this must mean all students). Whoever you are, and wherever you are, you need to keep trying, because effort and success in education matter (Lucy Crehan discusses this paradox in greater detail (2016, Ch. 8)).
Singaporean students achieve impressive educational results. Tutoring, tracking and stress are part of this story, but focusing on this alone overlooks a more interesting story in which academic success coexists with a broader and more balanced education. We visited just a handful of schools (and no primary schools), but we saw enough to suggest the need for a balanced account of Singaporean schools’ successes.
When I asked why students seemed to like school, one critic of the Singaporean system focused her answer on co-curricular activities. Singapore renamed extra-curricular activities co-curricula: they are not outside the curriculum, they are part of it. Education promotes both academic and broader success, in the service of the nation building and economic success Singapore prioritises.
Singaporean students appear to value success in education, no matter where they are studying. School is demanding, but it is a short-term investment providing later opportunities, supported by a Confucian culture, as one teacher explained. The system may look tough, but no matter where you end up, continued effort permits better jobs and better opportunities: education was described to us as ‘very meritocratic’ and having ‘transparent meaningfulness’. Students may be tracked into different schools, but they keep learning.
Another possible effect of PISA success and a focus on exams is the narrowing of the curriculum. The next post turns to Singaporean concerns about whether students learn creativity or critical thinking.
Particular thanks to staff at Eunoia Junior College for welcoming us, to Jenny, and to the teacher who organised dinner.
What to read next?
Previous posts in this series:
Education in Singapore: 1) Making sense of Singapore’s priorities
Education in Singapore: 2) The pressure on students
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) Which policies can England borrow?