Singapore’s education system achieves impressive results, but what can we learn from it? Much of its success reflects Singapore’s context and priorities, rather than models other systems can copy. Nonetheless, Singapore’s thoughtful approach to the teaching profession merits particular attention. In a primarily Confucian culture, teaching is a respected profession, but it is not by chance that Singapore has developed a young, well-qualified, respected workforce (OECD, 2013). Until recently, Singapore suffered from teacher shortages, but careful government action has allowed it to recruit the full number of teachers it needs and to raise standards of entry. This post examines how Singapore attracts teachers, the career progression it offers and begins to discuss the reasons why they stay; the next post describes the training and professional development they receive.
How does Singapore attract teachers?
Singapore has made becoming a teacher attractive. Teaching is respected (NCEE, 2016), but training as a teacher offers many benefits including a salary, student accommodation and the chance of an international teaching placement; lucrative scholarships are available too. Teachers commit to spending three years in the profession (or paying back the costs of their training, with interest). After graduating, they are guaranteed a job and are posted to a school by the Ministry of Education (Ng, 2017, p.10). Teachers’ pay has risen and salaries compare favourably with accountants and engineers in public service (NCEE, 2016); professional development is excellent; other perks include vacation bungalows, clubs and subsidised mobile phone contracts. Teachers’ contributions to Singapore are promoted more widely, through advertising, Teachers’ Day and the ‘President’s Awards for Teachers’ (Ng, 2017, pp.152-3). Becoming a teacher is clearly attractive: the result, according to a leader at the National Institute of Education, is that Singapore is recruiting ‘better and better’ teachers.
Where do teachers’ careers lead?
Teachers’ career progression is planned carefully. Most teachers are employed by the Ministry of Education and move between posts roughly every three years. They are evaluated annually around all their responsibilities, including mentoring other teachers (NCEE, 2016) and work reviews (but not on students’ results directly: we were told that, while there is pressure to gain high results, it is accepted that teachers are just one influence upon them). Teachers’ appraisal grade and ranking determines their promotions and bonuses; their appraisal is also used to guide them towards one of three specialist career tracks, which develop them to become experts in teaching, leadership or curriculum design (NCEE, 2016).
These career progression tracks are attractive to teachers. Progression is financially rewarding: we were told master teachers are paid very well. It is satisfying: senior teachers enthusiastically described how they creation of a career progression track for teachers (five years ago) had allowed those not interested in leadership to remain in the classroom but support their peers more. Progression also leads to developmental training: School Staff Developers receive ten days of “very useful” training in leading professional development; school leaders complete a six-month course before becoming principals.
Career progression tracks also benefit the education system (while offering interesting developmental assignments for teachers). Teachers in the leadership and curriculum design tracks cycle into and out of the Ministry of Education. Most civil servants in the Ministry are current or former teachers: after an initial eight years or so, school teachers may spend three years at the ministry, sometimes after a period of study abroad. One such civil servant described how much better she understood the curriculum’s rationale having seen it from the inside; when she returns to school, it will be with a deeper understanding of the curriculum. Likewise, the Academy of Singapore Teachers – the central support for professional development – is “teacher owned and teacher led”, as one interviewee put it. This permeability between schools, the Ministry and the Academy ensures teachers with recent experience are at the heart of decision-making, and that leaders in schools have a good understanding of the wider goals of the system: it also encourages communication and the alignment.
Singapore has been very successful, but life for teachers is not idyllic. In TALIS 2013, 46% of teachers agreed that ‘I wonder whether it would have been better to choose a different profession’, the highest percentage of all participating countries bar Sweden (more on Sweden here). One teacher we met had spent the whole of the previous night marking tests: on TALIS 2013 teachers reported having the second-highest workload (47.6 hours a week), second only to Japan. Good retention is partly due to the bonds which keep teachers in school for a number of years after training (or must be repaid). There are retention bonuses at key points, and many teachers leave after receiving these.
Nonetheless, having previously suffered teacher shortages, Singapore’s careful approach to recruitment and retention has allowed the country to achieve its target number of 33,000 teachers. The ‘resignation rate’ in Singapore’s schools is reported to be around 3% per year (Ng, 2017, p.150), (although movement between schools can be high). Making teaching attractive means that there is a strong pool of potential school leaders and curriculum specialists: we were stuck that many of those we spoke to in senior positions had themselves attended Singapore’s elite schools; one explanation is that large numbers of Singapore’s elite students become teachers (and then leaders). The attractiveness of teaching has also allowed Singapore to make entry more selective. Routes into teaching for teachers with lower qualifications have closed: now only primary and Physical Education trainees can become teachers through diplomas. To begin the PGDE course, potential teachers must first complete a teaching placement in schools.
By making teaching attractive and offering excellent career prospects, Singapore has created a teaching workforce with enormous potential. Finding the raw material is not enough however: the next post describes the training and professional development teachers receive to become the “best trained teachers in the world”.
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: 3) Why do students like school?
Education in Singapore: 4) A creative & critical curriculum?
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?