Source: FT, Jul 2016
A city-state of just 5.5 million people, Singapore is routinely ranked at or near the top in global comparisons of mathematical ability and boasts one of the most admired education systems in the world. In a league table based on test scores from 76 countries published by the OECD in May last year, Singapore came first, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The rankings, based on testing 15-year-olds’ abilities in maths and science, reinforced a sense that western children were slipping behind their Asian peers. The UK was in 20th place and the US 28th in the table.
Education is still discussed by the city-state’s politicians primarily in terms of economic utility. In his speech in May 2015, Lee Hsien Loong described a conversation with the South Korean minister for education. “We compared notes and I told him in Singapore we try to train people for the jobs they can fill. When our students graduate they find jobs straightaway. He was envious,” Lee said.
The Singapore curriculum is more stripped down at primary level than in many western countries, covering fewer topics but doing so in far greater depth — a crucial factor in its effectiveness, according to the OECD’s Schleicher. “When you look at England and the US, [their curriculums] are mile-wide and inch-deep,” he says. “They teach a lot of things but at a shallow level. Mathematics in Singapore is not about knowing everything. It’s about thinking like a mathematician.”
It is taken for granted in the west that some children have greater ability at particular subjects than others. Not so in Singapore, where diligence is prized over talent. Tim Oates, who was in charge of a review of England’s national curriculum in 2010-2013 and is now director of research at the exam board Cambridge Assessment, says this approach is finally being adopted in the English system. “It is a different approach to ability — really, a major overhaul of the way in which children are viewed,” he says. “A switch from an ability-based model of individualised learning, to a model [which says that] all children are capable of anything, depending on how it is presented to them and the effort which they put into learning it.”
Linked to this idea, the Asian approach to maths also favours teaching the class as a whole, rather than breaking the class into smaller groups of different abilities to work through exercises. The whole-class approach allows the teacher to spot weaknesses and intervene swiftly if a child needs help, rather than waiting for them to get stuck on a problem and calling for attention.
Singapore’s success is not about money. The city-state spends about three per cent of GDP on education, compared with about six per cent in the UK and nearly eight per cent in Sweden.
But the Singapore system is remarkably effective at offering teachers the freedom to improve their practice. Teachers are given time in the school day to evaluate their work, and to observe each other’s lessons. A successful teacher is not pushed towards management, as is often the case elsewhere, but given opportunities to be a mentor or take a hand in designing the curriculum. Schleicher of the OECD says: “In other school systems we make the best teacher a poor administrator.”
Yet for all the admiration Singapore’s school system earns abroad, it is frequently disparaged at home. Privately, parents confide fears that the exam-oriented system places too much strain on their children, and worry that the emphasis on academic achievement from an early age can come at the expense of a balanced upbringing. Children are often tutored after school for hours in order to pass their exams.
In contrast, the education system in Finland — which is also highly rated by the OECD — emphasises social development ahead of academia in a child’s early years, focusing on play rather than classroom work. Melissa Benn, the British writer and education campaigner, says: “There is a tradition in European education of starting school later in life, and much more inquiry through play. I think there’s a strong argument for emphasising the benefit of play.” Every country has its own distinctive approach to education, Benn argues, adding: “What England is good at is a more relaxed and more independent way of thinking.”
Within Singapore, there are also concerns that the existing system sharpens inequality, and that streaming skews the system against late developers. While the government’s educational motto is that “every school is a good school”, not every Singaporean parent subscribes to this belief.
Perhaps the most stinging criticism, and one that’s often aired in private by concerned parents, is that Singapore’s system deters creativity.
While Singapore is not the only country to look at Silicon Valley and wonder about its own lack of entrepreneurial spirit, parents here worry that a prescriptive education may dull their children’s creative edge. An academic at a Singapore university told me that many of his students had been fashioned into “learning machines”, unable to deal with a situation that did not have a binary “right or wrong” answer.
In a parliamentary debate this year, the Singaporean MP Kuik Shiao-Yin expressed concern that an ingrained aversion to loss was creating a generation of “grantpreneurs” who chased government grants for small businesses rather than taking risks to build innovative companies.
A potential danger for Singapore is that advanced economies increasingly require soft skills — such as imagination or the ability to take risks — as well as hard ones. A system that was effective in an era when mass manufacturing provided employment risks being insufficient for an age when creativity and innovation bring the greatest career rewards.