Singapore’s education system achieves top results on international tests, and Singaporean students like school more than Finnish students (more here). How has this been achieved? My visit convinced me that there’s a secret, but no ‘secret ingredient’.
I don’t mean this by way of criticism: something amazing is happening. But visits to other countries have left me in awe of a lesson, a school or a training approach. No single thing in Singapore left me thinking: ‘We have to do that’. Often, I thought ‘Our best schools/trainers/trusts already do that.’
For example, trainee teachers’ final practicums (placements) are ten weeks long, include eight observations and three ‘focused conversations’ between mentors and trainees. These are all laudable features, but the practicums are no longer than in many other countries (NCEE, 2016); the observations are no more frequent, and there seems to be no secret reflective protocol improving Singaporean teachers’ experiences of training. The National Institute of Education even shares a problem with many initial teacher training providers in England: mentors are too busy to attend training.
So, if there is no secret ingredient, what is the secret of Singapore’s success?
“We are systemic…”
In Singapore, Pak Tee Ng explained: “we are systemic… the different parts come together.” The government’s intentions are put into practice tightly and yet flexibly in what he calls ‘centralised decentralisation’ (2017): there is central direction and consensus around what is to be achieved, but schools are encouraged to find the best way to achieve these goals. (We saw one example of this in the experimental curriculum design at Nanyang High School (more here)).
Singapore’s educational success is due to the cumulative effect of many aligned elements of the system. For example, teaching is attractive, so entry to teaching is selective. These carefully-selected teachers receive good training, careful induction and excellent professional development. This creates a pool of effective teachers, who go on to staff the Ministry of Education, National Institute of Education and Academy of Singapore Teachers. Once there, they design excellent curricula and effective support for teachers: this creates a virtuous cycle; good support and leadership attracts and retains teachers, and so on.
I’ve tried to show how this fits together in the model below:
This model is not even complete: there are many more interactions: between schools, through clusters, between the ministry and the National Institute of Education, and so on.
Each aspect of the education system is well-implemented: their alignment and coherence have caused Singapore’s scucess. As Professor Ng puts it: “The way that Singapore has approached these changes matters even more than the changes themselves (2017, p.179).” Dr Lim Lai Chang at Singapore Management University made the case even more strongly: “It doesn’t matter what your model is, just stick to one and do it well.” Success is not a result of any one policy: “Every part of the system is integrated and interacts intensely together to develop and implement a coherent and sustainable action plan (Ng, 2017, p.188).”
Attending to control factors
Singapore’s approach can be interpreted through the ‘control factors’ described in a recent Cambridge Assessment report (2017). Control factors are influences on teaching, such as the curriculum, funding, inspection and professional development. Control factors need to cohere for a policy to work: a new approach to assessment will only succeed, for example, if it aligns with the curriculum, if teachers have the resources and professional development to apply it, and if exams and inspectors reward it. In England, changes to assessment or accountability are often introduced without considering the need for resources, funding, or even time. Conversely, the report offers Singapore as an example of the “conscious pursuit of ‘coherence’ across control factors (Cambridge Assessment, 2017, p.30).”
Why is Singapore able to achieve this? Many Singaporeans explained it was simply because Singapore is small. Context is important (more here): with stable political leadership, only 360 schools and half an hour’s drive to the sea in any direction, “All my teachers can be here in an hour,” one curriculum specialist noted. Moreover, teachers, academics, teacher educators and policy-makers know one another, having all progressed within the same, small system.
Nonetheless, I began to wonder whether Singapore’s size is a polite fiction – an answer Singaporeans have adopted to excuse their visitors’ lack of coordination. Singapore’s success has taken intentional effort, based on consensus over the purpose of education. I asked Dr Ridzuan Abd Rahim at the Ministry what foreign visitors miss about Singapore, and he emphasised the effort which goes into effective communications and thinking about the flow of information: success, he argued, rested on excellent implementation.
It is relatively easy to find an excellent school somewhere in a system. It is much harder to find an excellent school system. This is what Singapore is constantly changing to become – an excellent system of schools for all, not a system with some excellent schools for a few (Ng, 2017, p.188).”
In this, Singapore has been successful – but a tightly aligned system incurs costs too. An initial teacher trainer described every teacher’s educational philosophy as unique, but it is unclear how sustainable this is in a highly structured system. Reading a draft of this post, one Singaporean teacher commented that it had helped him to understand his discontent. In such a system, he said, “perhaps the needs and aspirations of the cogs in the system (such as me) are subordinate to its overall functions and imperatives.” Too much is decided by line managers, he argued, and, as someone “quite literally at the very bottom of the food chain” he wished there were more opportunities for his “voice to be heard”, whether nationally or locally… “Are system coherence and individual voice mutually exclusive?” The fear is that in “a system that prides itself of structures, flows, processes, the humans within this system really do end up being viewed as units of production. And maybe that’s my fundamental quarrel with it: that the Singapore education system seems to have no problem with doing that to its frontline employees, its teachers.”
Is this cost worth it? Professor Ng compares the chance of being taught occasionally by a maverick genius as in Dead Poets Society with Singapore’s approach: Singapore “does not leave it to chance whether children meet a caring teacher (Ng, 2017, p.144-5).” A well-functioning system need not rely on a few inspired, heroic, Stakhanovite teachers and leaders. Singapore has been described as a country where each ethnic group had to give up something in order to achieve something greater collectively. Perhaps individual teachers have had to give up something too, in order to ensure that every student receives consistently effective teaching.
I returned from Singapore with few anecdotes about methods we should adopt in schools or classrooms immediately, but in awe at the coherence and alignment of the education system and the effects it has had. My final post discusses what England can learn from Singapore; this post begins that by underscoring the need to:
- Consider all the control factors in planning change.
- Build greater consensus about the purposes of education.
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: 5) Attracting, developing and keeping teachers
Education in Singapore: 6) ‘The best trained teachers in the world’
Education in Singapore: 8) Which policies can England borrow?
I’m particularly grateful to Oliver Caviglioli for his comments on a draft of the system diagram, and to the Singaporean teacher whose comments are included in the discussion of the system.