SINGAPORES EDUCATION SYSTEM
Leadership, High Quality Teachers and Principals and performance management key to success
Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, responsible for the OECD Pisa survey and much admired by Michael Gove, the education secretary, looks with admiration at Singapore’s Education system and claims that there are important lessons the world can learn from Singapore. He writes in a blog ‘To those who believe that systemic change in education is not possible, Singapore has shown several times over how this can be achieved. To become and remain high-performing, countries need a policy infrastructure that drives performance and builds the capacity for educators to deliver it in schools. Singapore has developed both. Where Singapore is today is the result of several decades of judicious policy and effective implementation. On the spectrum of national reform models, Singapore’s is both comprehensive – the goal has been to move the whole system – and public policy-driven.
I was struck most by the following features.
Meritocracy. I heard not just from policy makers or educators but also from students of all ethnic backgrounds and all ranges of ability that education is the route to advancement and that hard work and effort eventually pays off. The government has put in place a wide range of educational and social policies to advance this goal, with early intervention and multiple pathways to education and career. The success of the government’s economic and educational policies has brought about immense social mobility that has created a shared sense of national mission and made cultural support for education a near-universal value.
Vision, leadership and competency. Leaders with a bold long-term vision of the role of education in a society and economy are essential for creating educational excellence. I was consistently impressed with the people I met at both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labour. These Ministries are staffed by knowledgeable, pragmatic individuals, trained at some of the best universities in the world. They function in a culture of continuous improvement, constantly assessing what is and isn’t working using both data and practitioner experience from around the world. I was speaking with Minister Heng about our Skills Strategy only to realise that he had already studied most of my slides. They also respect and are respected by professionals in the NIE as in the schools. The close collaboration between policy, research and practice provides a guiding coalition that keeps the vision moving forward and dynamic, expecting education to change as conditions change rather than being mired in the past.
Coherence. In Singapore, whenever a policy is developed or changed, there seems enormous attention to the details of implementation – from the Ministry of Education, to the National Institute of Education, cluster superintendents, principals and teachers. The result is a remarkable fidelity of implementation which you see in the consistency of the reports from different stakeholders.
Clear goals, rigorous standards and high-stakes gateways. The academic standards set by Singapore’s Primary School Leaving Examination and O and A-levels are as high as anywhere in the world, and that is also what you see from their results in PISA. Students, teachers and principals all work very hard towards important gateways. Rigour, coherence and focus are the watchwords. Serious attention to curriculum development has produced strong programmes in maths, science, technical education and languages and ensured that teachers are well-trained to teach them. Having been very successful as a knowledge transmission education system, Singapore is now working on curriculum, pedagogy and assessments that will lead to a greater focus on high-level, complex skills.
High-quality teachers and principals. The system rests on active recruitment of talent, accompanied by coherent training and serious and continuing support that promote teacher growth, recognition, opportunity and well-being. And Singapore looks ahead, realising that as the economy continues to grow and change it will become harder to recruit the kind of top-level people into teaching that are needed to support 21st century learning.
Intelligent accountability. Singapore runs on performance management. To maintain the performance of teachers and principals, serious attention is paid to setting annual goals, to garnering the needed support to meet them and to assessing whether they have been met. Data on student performance are included, but so too are a range of other measures, such as contribution to school and community, and judgements by a number of senior practitioners. Reward and recognition systems include honours and salary bonuses. Individual appraisals take place within the context of school excellence plans. While no country believes it has got accountability exactly right, Singapore’s system uses a wide range of indicators and involves a wide range of professionals in making judgements about the performance of adults in the system.
So is there nothing that Singapore can learn from the world? Actually there are a number a points. You can mandate good performance, but you need to unleash greatness. Finland provides an example for how you can shift the focus from a regulating towards an enabling policy environment. Perhaps it was no surprise then that when I was meeting State Secretary Wong for lunch, he was just returning from a visit to Finland. Singapore’s educators realize that the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test, are also the skills that are easiest to digitize, automate and outsource; and that value is less and less created vertically through command and control and increasingly so horizontally by whom you connect and work with. There is much talk about educational success being no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about the imaginative skills to connect the dots and to anticipate where the next invention will come from; about ways of working, including communication and collaboration; and about the tools for working, including the capacity to recognize and exploit the potential of new technologies. And more than that, the centre of the current discussion is on ethics, values and the capacity of students to live in a multi-faceted world as active and engaged citizens. But much of this is still rhetoric and Singapore’s educators, like educators elsewhere, struggle with finding appropriate answers to what students should learn, the ways in which they can learn these broader competences and how teaching and schooling needs to change to achieve this. Despite building many bridges and ladders across the system, PISA shows how social background still creates important barriers for student success. Like others, Singapore finds that the emphasis on meritocracy alone provides no guarantee for equity, and that it takes effective systems of support to moderate the impact of social background on student and school outcomes and to identify and foster the extraordinary talents of ordinary students. There is considerable interest in Shanghai’s success with attracting the most effective school principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms as well as in Ontario’s approach to creating awareness of and addressing social disadvantage. While Singapore does so well in allocating public resources to maximize value for money, the system looks much less efficient when you take a broader perspective and consider the large amounts that parents spend on private tutoring. When measured in PISA metrics, private tutoring actually adds very little in value to the high quality education in Singaporean schools but it does, apart from the money, take up a disproportionate amount of student learning time. They would make much better use of the country’s economic and human resources by accepting rather than ignoring the demand for such more personalized learning and building it into the regular school days of public schools, as countries like Denmark or Finland have successfully done. So, all in all, while there is a lot the world can learn from Singapore, there remain lessons too which Singapore can continue to learn from the world. In short, there seems always much to gain from education systems collaborating to address tomorrow’s challenges to their strengths today.
All true, I am sure. But there are worries and concerns. Singapore relies heavily on out of school tuition and has been accused of hot-housing pupils and there are worries about how its system doesn’t seem to support creativity and innovation. Can you name a single famous Singaporean who has had an impact on the world in any sphere (apart from that one politician!)