Policy borrowing is rarely successful  I began this series of posts by emphasising the need to understand Singapore’s political, economic and social priorities (explained here) if we were to make sense of its educational success.  In the previous and penultimate post, I argued that Singapore’s success can be explained by its systematic approach, not individual policies (here).  Borrowing policies from other countries uncritically is unlikely to deliver improvements.  So although I believe there is much to be learned from Singapore, it may be helpful to explain first why England seems unlikely to imitate Singapore (and achieve similar educational success) any time soon:

  • Singapore has a consensus about the purpose of education.  In Singapore, we met unanimity that education is designed to prepare Singaporeans for employment and citizenship.  I don’t believe England will ever achieve similar consensus.  Incessant calls that ‘Schools should teach… (knowledge/critical thinking/wellbeing/employment skills/cooking/British values/etc)’ show that in England we expect schools to do more, and more conflicting things: teachers should help children children become good citizens, employable adults and happy people, while teaching literacy and numeracy, creativity and critical thinking and passing on the best which has been thought and said.  I would be astonished to see consensus in England around a narrowing of these goals – among parents, teachers or policymakers.
  • Singapore is systematicIn Singapore, curriculum design, textbooks and training are carefully aligned – choreographed – to support one another.  I don’t see any signs of such an approach in England.  Firstly, a systematic approach rests on the Singaporean consensus about the purposes of education.  As importantly however, in England I see little evidence of systematic thinking among the myriad institutions, authorities and agencies which recruit, develop and support teachers, develop curricula and help students.  (To be clear, this is not for want of trying by many brilliant people: but much of our system and the policies to which we are responding are not designed with alignment in mind).
  • The Singaporean government has extensive control over people’s lives.  To give two examples, Singapore allocates teachers to schools and sets quotas for the ethnic mix among residents in public housing.  England is unlikely to pursue this degree of state intervention in people’s lives.
  • Singapore recruits and retains teachers brilliantly, and trains and develops them impressively.  Singapore has gained an excellent pool of teachers (and future leaders) by making a career in teaching extremely attractive.  I don’t think England is ready to pay and resource teacher careers to match this attractiveness (or to take the politically toxic step of increasing class sizes to do so).  (I’m slightly more optimistic about our approach to teacher education).

So, what can we borrow?

England will never be ‘like’ Singapore; we certainly cannot borrow policies from Singapore and expect them to work in England.  Nonetheless, “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).”  We can take Singapore’s approach and consider how the principles might apply.  For example:

  1. Build consensus.  We should be able to achieve greater consensus around some aspects of education which would survive any conceivable change in government.  For example, overwhelming evidence suggests that expertise depends on a student’s knowledge of the domain.  This is a poor subject for political debate: a minister acting upon a differing opinion is likely to do far more harm than good.  Some questions are – rightly – political: on others, it should be possible to get the government and opposition around a table to examine the evidence, reach agreement, and then offer consistent leadership upon (or, better still, to leave alone).
  2. Clarify our purposes.  Singapore has made a clear split: lessons are for academic development; students develop independence and strong relationships with peers through co-curricular activities.  In England, we make our lives unnecessarily difficult by trying to teach character in maths lessons and maths through extra-curricular activities.  I argued recently that we should split the two: any time we can clarify our priorities and try to focus on doing one thing well at a time, we are more likely to do so.
  3. Plan teachers’ careers.  No one believes teachers are the ‘finished article’ after a year’s training and a year newly-qualified.  Singapore designs a career structure and professional development accordingly.  We need to get beyond the (insightful and worthwhile) discussions of the last few years and specify what more we want teachers to know and be able to do, the opportunities and support they will need and the rewards towards which this will lead.  I’d particularly like to see the development of a clear career structure, and the sabbaticals, further study and participation in policy-making and teacher education which teachers experience in Singapore, through which teachers can improve, via which the can contribute, and from which they can return to the classroom.
  4. Think systemically.  The Cambridge Assessment paper on the control factors used by governments (more here) notes that most English government initiatives focus on assessment and accountability.  We often pull the lever marked assessment without planning the ways that the levers for training, support, textbooks and funding may need adjustment too (Cambridge Assessment, 2017, calls this the ‘cycle of planned failure’): 
    Cambridge Assessment, 2017

    New policies in England must undergo an Equality Impact Assessment; education policies should also undergo a ‘Control Factor Assessment’, to establish which other policies they will affect, and be affected by, and how policies will need to be coordinated to succeed.

  5. Finally, most nebulously, design for and expect every student to achieve success, whatever kind of school and qualification they are working towards.  Meeting a student who had struggled at school, entered vocational school and was still trying hard and keen on education was particularly inspiring.  No matter what set you are in and what school you attend, you should have the support of great teachers and curriculum designers, and you should be expected to succeed, by peers, teachers and parents.  There are schools in England which manage this too – we need to learn from them and spread this approach to every school…

We are never going to have an education system like Singapore.  We don’t have shared goals, we are not sufficiently aligned, we do not have the skill in implementation, we do not have the political consensus, and we have not spent fifty years single-mindedly pursuing excellence.  Yet we can seek consensus, clarify our purposes, support and develop our teachers, plan implementation properly and challenge and support our students.  We should not try to borrow Singaporean policies; we should try to borrow the careful, thorough and aligned way in which Singapore approaches 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: 7) The secret of Singapore’s success


Cambridge Assessment (2017). A Cambridge Approach to improving education: Using international insights to manage complexity

Ng, P. T. (2017). Learning from Singapore: The power of paradoxes. New York, Routledge.