Why Singapore comes top of the class in education


SINGAPORE // The school bell rings but the day is far from over for 12-year-old Fang, who hurries off to the canteen for a quick lunch before rushing back to class for supplementary lessons.

Like most primary 6 pupils in Singapore, Fang — a former student of Raha International School in Abu Dhabi — is preparing for September’s national exams, also known as the Primary School Leaving Examinations, or PSLE.

Those four letters conjure feelings of dread — even despair — for many parents in this island state, known for having one of the best education systems in the world.

Since the 1990s, Singapore has consistently been among the top performing countries in global education league tables and was once touted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as a “poster child” for education development. In 2015, it topped the OECD global school ranking, beating more than 70 countries including Finland, the UK and the US.


But its success did not come about by chance.

Singapore embarked on what scholars called a “survival-driven education” during the early years of independence, from 1965 to 1978.

Then a poor colonial backwater with no natural resources and an ethnically fractured society made up of a hotchpotch of Chinese, Malay and Indian immigrants, its leaders saw education as key to forging a national identity and necessary for economic survival.

In 50 years, unemployment fell from a high of 9.2 per cent in 1966 to 1.9 per cent in 2015. The literacy rate jumped from 72.7 per cent in 1970 to 96.8 per cent in 2015, according to government statistics.

“Singapore’s government provides a very clear vision of what is needed in education,” the OECD’s director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, told The National. “Among all the education systems I have worked with, Singapore demonstrates the most consistent alignment between policies and their implementation.”

The former director of the National Institute of Education (NIE), Professor Lee Sing Kong, who headed the country’s only teacher training institute from 2006-2014 said the success was down to several factors including government policies, teacher training and parental partnership.

“Singapore’s education system is a very coherent system and there is a lot of alignment amongst policy, practice and teacher preparation,” said Prof Lee.

“When you look at our education system, it works in Singapore because of our culture, our national aspiration as well as our environmental landscape — in the sense that we don’t have natural resources, so our focus is literally looking at human capital as a natural resource,” he said. “We want to develop the potential of every child, as best as they can be, to realise the fullest of their potential.”

Fang, 12, moved back to Singapore more than a year ago, after living in Abu Dhabi for six years.

She said she has learned discipline since starting school here, and has seen “a big jump” in her results for science — an achievement she was clearly proud of.

Her mother, Shirley, herself an English teacher, saw the benefits too.

“I think the Singapore system has helped her … to be more rigorous in her thinking, completing the questions, the tests within a time limit and helping her to think more logically.”

But the past 18 months have not been easy.

“She had a problem when she came back. She was too creative, [and had] too many ideas … She couldn’t finish the test within a time limit,” she said.

Shirley also found that there was “immense pressure” in the Singapore system. “There is this constant comparison and also pressure from all sides, from me as a mother, and from the school,” she said.