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Sunday January 14th 2018

Singapore’s educational system sets high standards but inhibits innovation

Blowin’ In The Wind

Singapore has a government-run education system geared to provide manpower for business and industry. It has a “strong focus on mathematics, science and technical skills”. The school system has been changing since 1997 to promote creative thinking and lifelong learning to keep up with the knowledge economy.

Singapore’s small size makes it easier to manage and change with the times. The government has also created bright career prospects to attract good educators.

However, there are two problems. While the education gap between the Chinese, Indians and Malays has narrowed since independence in 1965, there is still a “long tail” of stragglers behind the top achievers.

Another constraint is the assessment system, which sets high standards but also inhibits innovation.

So says a report on education issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It also looks at the education systems in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Japan, Ontario, Finland and Brazil.

The report says:

While Singapore has significantly closed its achievement gaps and focused on bringing up the lowest achievers, there is still a stronger correlation between socio-economic status and achievement than Singapore education leaders would like.


The report, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education, can be downloaded from the OECD website as a PDF file.

This table showing Singapore’s spending on education is taken from the report.

Singapore’s education expenditure OECD average
2.8% of GDP 5.2%
15.3% of total public expenditure, of which: 13.3%
21% on primary education  
33% on secondary education  
34% on tertiary education  
12% on unknown
(Source: Unesco Institute of Statistics; data from 2008)


(Note: Singapore’s education spending has gone up, as you will notice if you read the following excerpts from the report.)

Here are excerpts from the chapter on Singapore:

Education spending rose to 3.6% of GDP in 2010, approximately 20% of total government expenditure and second only to defence. The linkage to economic development is tight and is driven from the top of the government…

Singapore has a uniquely integrated system of planning. The Manpower ministry works with various economic agencies (such as the Economic Development Board) responsible for promoting specific industry groups to identify critical manpower needs and project demands for future skills. These are then fed back both into pre-employment training and continuing education and training. In other countries, labour and education markets make these adjustments slowly over time, but the Singapore government believes that its manpower planning approach helps students to move faster into growing sectors, reduces oversupply in areas of declining demand more quickly, and targets public funds more efficiently for post-secondary education. The ministry of Education and the institutions
of higher and post-secondary education then use these skill projections to inform their own education planning, especially for universities, polytechnics and technical institutes.

In short, the ability of the government to successfully manage supply and demand of education and skills is a major source of Singapore’s competitive advantage.

Close links between policy implementers, researchers and educators
At the institutional level, both policy coherence and implementation consistency are brought about by the very close tripartite relationship between the ministry of Education, the National Institute of Education (NIE, the country’s only educator training institution), and the schools. The ministry is responsible for policy development, while NIE conducts research and provides pre-service training to educators. NIE’s research is fed back to the ministry and is used to inform policy development. Since NIE professors are regularly involved in ministry discussions and decisions, it is relatively easy for NIE’s work to be aligned with ministry policies.

According to David Hogan, Senior Research Scientist at NIE and interviewed for this report, the degree of institutional alignment in Singapore is very unusual in global terms. Singapore is a “tightly coupled” system in which the key leaders of the ministry, NIE, and the schools share responsibility and accountability. Its remarkable strength is that no policy is announced without a plan for building the capacity to meet it. And while there is variation in performance within schools, there is relatively little variation between schools. By contrast, more loosely-coupled systems have a much harder time bringing about reform initiatives and are often typified by an endless parade of new, sometimes conflicting policies, without building the capacity to meet them. The teacher preparation programmes in universities are also often not aligned with the reform policies. Consequently, practitioners become cynical and wait for successive reform waves to pass.

In recent years, Singapore has loosened its tight coupling somewhat. More autonomy has been given to schools so as to encourage more innovation… However, there are (sic) still strong alignment among the curriculum, examinations and assessments; incentives for students to work hard; and accountability measures for teachers and principals. This makes policy making and implementation much easier and more effective than in loosely-coupled systems, like the US’s (sic) system.

The advantages of a small scale
In trying to understand Singapore’s success, it is also important to remember its small size. Singapore’s national education system is more like that of a city or a small state, with approximately 522 000 students and 360 schools. Professor Lee Sing Kong, Director of the NIE, likens it to “turning around a kayak rather than a battleship”. The stability of the government and the broad popular consensus on the purposes of education also make it possible to pursue policies for long enough to see if they have any impact.

Commitment to equity and merit

At independence, there were large attendance and achievement gaps between the Chinese population, on the one hand, and the Tamil and Malay populations on the other. These gaps threatened the political stability of Singapore, as well as its economic development… Today, with a secondary school graduation rate of 98% (10th grade), the gaps in educational attainment have been substantially reduced. However, there is more work to be done. In the TIMMS results, for example, Singapore has very high mean achievement scores in mathematics and science but there is also a long tail to the achievement distribution. On other measures too, socio-economic status has a significant impact on achievement.

Valuing technical education: The Institute for Technical Education

In many countries, technical education is looked down upon as a dead-end option, of low quality and typically out of step with the changing needs of employers. But vocational education has been an important pathway in Singapore’s journey to educational excellence. In 1992, Singapore took a hard look at its own poorly-regarded vocational education and decided to transform and reposition it so that it was not seen as a place of last resort. Dr Law Song Seng led the creation of the Institute for Technical Education (ITE), which transformed the content, quality and image of vocational education. Its goal was to build a world-class technical education institution that is “effective, relevant and responsive to the knowledge-based economy” (Lee et al., 2008). ITE’s founders brought in leaders with a broad vision and staff committed to caring for students. They completely revamped the curriculum and workforce certification system, developed courses in new industries and consolidated existing technical campuses into three mega campuses with a sophisticated technology base and close ties to international corporations. To combat the societal prejudice against less academically-inclined students, ITE promoted and rebranded its kind of “hands-on, minds-on, hearts-on” applied learning. The result has been a doubling of enrolment since 1995, and ITE students now constitute about 25% of the post-secondary cohort. More than 82% of students in 2009 completed their training and are placed in jobs. Pay levels for ITE graduates have also been strong, and the ITE track is now seen by students as a legitimate path to a bright future. Part of the reason for the success of the technical education at ITE is that students get a strong academic foundation early in their academic careers so they can acquire the more sophisticated skills required by leading edge employers. The ITE received the IBM Innovations Award in Transforming Government, given by the Ash Centre for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School and has been recognised world-wide as a global leader in technical education.

Future challenges for Singapore’s education system

However, one constraint is the assessment system, which sets high standards but also inhibits innovation. The Singapore ministry of Education recognises the need for change but there is, as yet, no agreed approach for measuring the new kinds of complex 21st century skills. Just as importantly, it is difficult for teachers, themselves trained in a teacher-dominated pedagogy, to fundamentally change their practice. Singapore leaders worry that as the economy continues to grow and change and as these new demands are being placed on teachers, it may become harder to recruit the kind of top-level people into teaching that are needed to support the new kinds of learning. Finally, the economic changes associated with globalisation are increasing the levels of inequality in Singapore, as in many other countries. While Singapore has significantly closed its achievement gaps and focused on bringing up the lowest achievers, there is still a stronger correlation between socio-economic status and achievement than Singapore education leaders would like.

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2 Responses to “Singapore’s educational system sets high standards but inhibits innovation”

  1. Blog Towkay says:

    I think one often overlooked aspect of education in Singapore is Discipline. With all the focus on academic achievements and innovation, our Singaporean parents appear to only care about how well their children perform in the schools. But increasingly, we see more ill-disciplined kids who openly challenge the teachers. The problem is, when our over-worked educators try to discipline the wayward kids, they receive complaints and abuses from the parents. Gone are the days when our teachers are well respected figures who are able to help the parents discipline the children. Perhaps this should be another thing the Ministry of Education should look at.

  2. Denial Tan says:

    Teachers are now afraid to offend students because parents will complain like hell. Nobody respect the teacher anymore and teacher bullying is getting from bad to worst.

    Because of the emphasis of ‘results’ nobody gives a damn about moral, respect and upbringing. Will have more scholars watching kiddy porn, more police officers spiking drinks with semen and more under skirt peeping toms. We will have more and more perverts.

    There are already a good number of mini LKYs who boss around like god in the office. Go to some companies and you see the tugs and goons behavior of many managers and bosses who had a little authority.

    With this generation of tugs behaving children, they will become the super-tugs behaving parents in the future.

    We already saw the rising cases of maid abuse here.

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