Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories – transforming itself from a developing country to a modern industrial economy in not much more than one generation. As OECD observe, during the last decade, its education system has remained consistently at or near the top of most major world education ranking systems, its curriculum and assessment system prayed in aid of reforms elsewhere.
I was lucky: I spent four days in Singapore as part of an international academic advisory group with colleagues from South Korea and Ontario, working with the Ministry of Education and National Institute of Education to look at the next phase of their education research and development strategy.
Singapore is beginning the third phase of an ambitious long-term programme of education research, and will spend something like $110m (about £50m – but in a school system just one tenth the size of England’s) over the next five years on how to scale up classroom and school interventions which work.
Increasingly, the Ministry is using rigorous research to understand what is going well and what is not: the 2005 TLLM [Teach Less, Learn More] initiative is not reckoned to have achieved its goal of aligning pedagogy with the demands of the emerging Singaporean economy. A fascinating piece of detailed research into pedagogy in Singaporean classrooms, conducted by David Hogan, has set out to explain why, and how to move beyond the performative pedagogy driven by a high stakes assessment regime.
In other areas, Singapore has used international research to move beyond stale debates: just as wars break out again in Anglophone countries between proponents of ‘knowledge’ and ‘skill’, Singapore has made extensive use of Marlene Scardamalia’s work on knowledge building to design continuing professional development for its teachers. Intensive work is being conducted by the Learning Sciences Laboratory on the use of computer games for learning, including the Statecraft X app for citizenship education. Manu Kapur’s work on ‘productive failure’ – essentially, figuring things out with no scaffolds – has attracted the attention of Time magazine.
Teacher education is critical. In the 1990s, after a series of teacher shortages, Singapore began to evolve a strategy for teaching, putting in place conditions that raised the prestige of the teaching profession, providing new teachers with the best training, and putting in place extensive retention and professional development packages. Theory and practice are strongly linked in teacher education, and increasingly linked through the e-portfolio which all teachers use.
For all this, many of the pre-occupations of the Singaporean government and academics were curiously familiar: the performance of boys, the differential performance of children from different socio-economic backgrounds, the place of the arts and culture in education, the relationship between technology and effective teaching, the engagement of lower attaining pupils in the mathematics curriculum, the role of education in a culturally diverse society.
Others echoed education debates which rage back and forth in England, for example, the worry that highly competitive examinations drive teacher behaviours which do not promote good learning. One senior government official lamented that for all the high test scores, “we have a lot of studies in Singapore which show us that children can score highly on maths tests without understanding mathematics”. There is huge concern about the impact of a steeply hierarchic secondary school system on overall performance. For all the concern with citizenship education, the school system still operates under tight political constraint.
But what Singapore does have is a superbly designed delivery system for education. There is a clear strategic focus on policy from the ministry of education, which is staffed by ferociously able civil servants, many with PhDs, based on broad consent across politicians and professionals. The place of the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University is key in translating policy into action and undertaking research which feeds back on the impact of policy. Whilst it can be seen as a monopoly provider of teacher education, leadership development and education research, the fact that NIE is the only provider gives it and the ministry a clear strategic role on leading the system.
But as one senior civil servant told me “even within a small system [just 30,000 teachers], it is not always a given that different sectors can work well together. It has taken us some years to build the structure and culture for things to come together. Ultimately, people are the key”.