FOR a number of years now, Singapore has been recognised as having one of the best school systems in the world, topping the OECD’s 2015 global education rankings, coming top in the 2016 TIMSS report and claiming first place in the most recent PISA rankings.
These reports, which indicate that graduates from Singaporean schools are years ahead of their western counterparts, provide sufficient evidence to declare Singapore a 21st Century education superpower.
And Singapore’s educational prowess is not confined to high schools; the National University Singapore has been the highest ranking university in Asia for the past two years, competing head-to-head with world-renowned institutions from England and the U.S.
What makes Singapore’s record all the more impressive, is that this progress has been achieved in just a matter of decades. When Singapore separated from the Federation of Malaya in 1965, the country’s per capita income was US$500, and the education system was segregated according to ethnicity and religion.
To tackle these inequalities, the country’s leaders promptly introduced a universal state-funded education system which promoted the ideals of meritocracy. Since then, education has remained at the forefront of Singapore’s vision for development and has been instrumental in the country’s per capita income growth, which has now reached US$55,000.
Singapore’s educational success is widely attributed to three factors; curricula, pedagogy, and teaching standards.
In the aftermaths of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Singapore embarked on its most successful series of reforms, with the adoption of a new educational vision, ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’, which emphasised innovation, creativity and lifelong learning.
Singaporean students’ solid foundation in literacy and numeracy can be attributed to two highly successfully innovations introduced during this period, the STELLAR approach to English, which was developed to ensure the country’s multilingual learners received a solid foundation in literacy, and the Mastery Method for Mathematics.
Singapore’s Mastery Method proved so successful that it has increasingly been adopted elsewhere, becoming particularly popular in the U.S. Central elements to this approach include giving students ample time to focus on core mathematic principles through a range of problem-solving exercises which utilise visual and hands-on aids, and ensuring students become proficient at each step of their learning – they do not progress until they have thoroughly mastered each skill.
Alongside the successful implementation of modern pedagogies, Singapore has also benefited from investing in the development of proficient educators. This has been achieved by selecting teachers from the top third of high school graduates and then providing them with intensive teacher training at the National Institute of Education (NIE). During a graduate’s first few years in the actual classroom, there remains a close working relationship with NIE to support the new teacher.
Another educational challenge which Singapore has been able to tackle successfully is reforming vocational training for the 21st Century economy.
Previously, societal prejudice towards vocational education had made many students reluctant to follow this line of education, considering it inferior to traditional university. Recognising the importance of quality vocational learning, the Institute for Technical Education (ITE) revamped the country’s vocational curricula and developed new courses with a greater focus on advanced skills. Vocational education was rebranded as ‘hands-on, minds-on, hearts-on’ applied learning and the sector is now recognised as a legitimate career path which learners can be proud of.
Lifelong learning is another area in which Singapore has set examples that other nations are now following. In 2016, the country introduced the SkillsFuture educational initiatives, to provide Singaporean adults with the incentive, and economic support (credits, worth S$500 (US$378)), to develop new skill. The aim of the programme is to support the country’s aspiration to become an advanced economy with advanced technological infrastructure, higher standards of living and a highly developed economy.Research and development at Singaporean universities has also been prioritised by the government and the National University of Singapore (NUS), in particular, has benefited from far-sighted policies which have given institutions the necessary levels of autonomy and adequate funding to be able to innovate.
While Singapore’s educational successes have been examined and admired by educators and policymakers worldwide, imitating the city-state has proved problematic.
Monitoring academic standards and implementing education reforms in a country with just over 500,000 students and less than 400 state schools, is more easily managed, and more likely to reap rewards, than in larger countries. Furthermore, the stability of the Singaporean government with its shared commitment to equity and meritocracy, has given the city-state a degree of stability rarely experienced elsewhere.
Singapore’s unique location, at a centuries-old international trading crossroads, has created a diverse and rich culture which supports personal development. Much of the Singaporean population adhere to Confucian ideals, which value education and diligence. Most parents in Singapore take their children’s education very seriously, and will strive to give their children the best possible opportunities, providing them with books and private tuition.
Given Singapore’s unique circumstances, the city-state’s status as a education superpower looks secure, and unlikely to be challenged for the foreseeable future.
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator.