Singapore is today regarded as a high-performing education system, and going by the 2015 PISA Assessment, perhaps the best in the world in the subjects examined by PISA. Its performance has both been consistent, improving over time, and in a number of assessments beyond PISA, like TIMSS and PIRLS. This performance, coupled with Singapore’s transformative economic growth over the last half century, provides credence to the OECD’s claim that the quality of human capital, achieved through education, is related to a country’s potential for economic growth. In this essay, we examine the achievements of Singapore’s education system, the principles underpinning policy, the challenges that were met and have to be met in the new century and what prospects there are for successfully meeting these challenges.
The Early Years (1965 - 1997)
It is essential to understand Singapore’s social demographics and limitations to appreciate why education and skills development merited such significant attention. Singapore is a multi-ethic society, with a Chinese majority. There are cultural, linguistic, religious differences, and an independent Singapore in 1965 inherited a segregated four medium of instruction school system. Further, Singapore is a small tropical island with no national resources, surrounded by large resource-rich neighbours. An entrepôt economy could not provide jobs and wealth to build a modern society.
Thus education policy in the early years, termed the era of ‘survival’, had to, and did respond to these challenges. Medium of instruction issues were solved through a formula of societal multilingualism and educational bilingualism. Medium of instruction is English and all children learn a second language, a heritage language, Mandarin, Malay or Tamil. The choice of English has had advantages, enabling successful industrialisation to take place in the seventies and eighties, and enabling Singapore to be well integrated in the global economy. Given ethnic plurality, and its newly independent status, social cohesion and loyalty to nation were important educational goals. So, civics and citizenship education were always an important part of the curriculum. Another important feature of the curriculum was the emphasis on mathematics, science and technology, understandable when the priority was rapid industrialisation.
Give the poor state the education system was in the mid-sixties, it is remarkable how much progress was made in two decades. A segregated system had been unified, a common curriculum and rigorous assessment framework had been established, and given the importance of English proficiency to industrialisation, the use of English as a medium of instruction had been removed from political contestation and attention was focused on curriculum development, textbook development and teacher preparation. One of the key
elements responsible for the transformation was the attention paid to teacher preparation. Steps were taken to ensure that there were enough well-qualified and motivated teachers to implement a rigorous English and TVET curriculum. A curriculum development centre was established to spearhead curriculum change and steps take to upgrade teacher preparation with the establishment of an Institute of Education in 1991. Beyond K-12, the government expanded both vocational training via the Vocational and Industrial Training Board and polytechnics; expansion of university places was much slower.