School lessons from Singapore
10 Mar 2009 The Guardian
Lessons from Singapore
Education is the Singapore government's top priority, says Mike Baker
How do you achieve a school system consistently in the top three in the world for maths and science, fourth for literacy, and described by experts as leading the world in teaching quality? Moreover, how do you manage to get 80% of pupils to pass five or more O-levels when they are taught in their second language in classes of 35? The answers are found in Singapore.
I have just accompanied winners of the Teaching Awards on a study visit to Singapore. It was organised by the charity CfBT Education Trust, which has sent British teachers to several countries to see what they can learn from other school systems.
So what did they expect to find? One assistant headteacher from the Midlands expected to see "a very traditional curriculum, rows of pupils, teacher in front, students there to learn". And indeed she did. But she also saw a whole lot more: traditional methods blended with more progressive thinking, and a focus on teaching the whole child, not just on exam results. It gave the British teachers plenty to ponder.
International comparisons are fraught with difficulties; it is easy to forget that what works in one country will not flourish in another. But Singapore has many similarities to the UK. The official language of school instruction is English, there is a national curriculum, and the national examinations are O- and A-levels, administered by Cambridge Assessment.
It was soon clear to the British teachers that there are similar challenges. Singapore is a multi-ethnic, multilingual society. Pupils are obsessed with mobile phones and computer games, and are, as one Singapore school principal put it, the "strawberry generation: easily bruised and damaged".
So why does it work? First, education is the government's top priority. That is not just rhetoric: a country with no natural resources (it even has to import water) knows it lives and dies by its collective brainpower. The ministry of education is very close to schools; as all teachers and principals are civil servants, they regularly rotate through postings to the ministry.
Teachers speak approvingly of the way the ministry supports initiatives with targeted funding. Or, as one former headteacher put it, the system runs on "top-down support for bottom-up initiatives".
For example, there is a drive to boost learning outside the classroom. The government provides funds for school visits, clubs and extra-curricular activities, enabling them to make such activities compulsory. Pupils are regularly graded on these activities, and the grades count towards entry to further education.
In another reform, the ministry announced recently that all primary schools would move to single-session teaching, with the juniors taught in the morning and the infants in the afternoon. This will bring smaller classes, better pupil-teacher ratios, and allow a programme of compulsory extra-curricular activities for the juniors in the afternoon.
Like England, Singapore is undergoing a big school building programme. But there is no disruption while the builders are in, as the whole school decamps to a vacant school nearby. The government maintains spare capacity for this very purpose.
In a reform called the Integrated Programme, schools with more able pupils are encouraged to bypass exams at 16, allowing greater curriculum flexibility right through to A-levels.
One visiting headteacher from Essex was struck by the real stretch offered to more able pupils, the "clear articulation of ideas between government and schools", and the way the whole system not only "talked the talk, but also walked the walk".
Perhaps the real key to Singapore's success, though, is the rare combination of traditional teaching and discipline, and a holistic, child-based approach. In the UK, we tend to see these as mutually exclusive opposites.