Singapore’s schools have long been reputed for didactic teaching, rote learning and academic brilliance. Their pupils lead the rankings in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test of 15-year-olds around the world, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which measures ten and 14-year-olds.
But decades of economic growth have changed priorities. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD reckons Singapore’s education system is experiencing “a silent revolution almost entirely unnoticed in the West”. Politicians now hope to marry good exam results with the promotion of skills that will help pupils work in the city’s growing service sector, and even to lead contented lives. “It’s not just about teaching how to be smart, but how to become better human beings,” enthuses Heng Swee Keat, the country’s finance minister, who was in charge of education 2011-15.
Unlike most revolutions, this is a gradual, long-term project. The most noticeable changes so far have been to reduce pressure on children taking exams. In 2012, the government abolished league tables for secondary schools, which it felt skewed teachers’ priorities. It also stopped publishing the names of top scorers and widened the criteria used for entry to the best secondary schools. From 2021, primary school leavers will no longer receive a precise score, and will get a broad grade.
More significant changes lurk beneath the surface. The education ministry has published a fuzzy-sounding list of “21st century competencies” (including “self-awareness” and “responsible decision-making”) that it wants every pupil to acquire. Wong Siew Hoong, director-general of the ministry of education, says they inform almost everything his department does. Exam questions, for instance, have been reframed to be more open-ended, to encourage critical thinking as well as knowledge of a subject. Teacher appraisals measure not just academic performance but also the social development of pupils.
Teacher training is also changing. All teachers get 100 hours of training a year. They learn new pedagogical techniques which encourage group work and discussion between teacher and pupils. As Yan Song, a pupil at Deyi Secondary School who moved from China mid-way through his education, puts it, in Singapore they focus “on how you behave as a human being.” In China, by contrast, “you just study from day to night”.
The final change has been to align classrooms with workplaces. By 2023, almost all schools will have “applied learning” programmes in subjects like computing, robotics and electronics, and also drama and sports. The emphasis in all of them is on practising in “real-world” environments; there won’t be any exams. At Deyi Secondary School for instance, broadcast journalism is used as a way to improve communication skills. The ministry of education has also hired 100 career-guidance officials. Many previously worked in industry. They keep tabs on labour shortages and work with schools to inform children about their options, often trying to push them beyond ‘iron rice bowl’ careers like banking, the civil service and medicine.
But some habits are hard to change. Many children receive after-school tutoring. Jacqueline Chua, who runs Paideia Learning Academy, a tutoring centre in a leafy part of town, says parents are not less keen on her services. “The system drives behaviour,” she explains. “Kids are stressed because their parents are stressed… And that’s because they understand what’s before them.” The primary-school leaving exam, taken at age 11 or 12, is a critical pressure point. Pupils who excel end up in the best, most selective schools, and can expect a future of foreign study and top government jobs. Those who do poorly go into vocational streams. The government has no plans to end selection.
The direction of travel is nonetheless clear. Officials say they see no reason why results should slip in the quest to develop more well-rounded pupils. Educationists from around the world have long sought to replicate Singapore’s success. Many are in awe of the quality of teacher training, tightly-focused lessons and the government’s long-term planning. With such strong fundamentals, Singapore’s system is well-positioned for reform. As Heng, the finance minister, notes, “If you want to connect the dots, you have to have the dots in the first place.”