Views on Singapore’s Competitive Education System

Views on Singapore’s Competitive Education System

words Evelyn Peiqi Ooi Widjaja illustrations Amy Sihyeon Jeong

Singapore has one of the most highly ranked education systems in the world. In the 2015 PISA (an international standardized assessment that measures the cognitive proficiencies of 15 year-olds around the world), Singapore ranked 2nd in Maths, 3rd in Science and 3rd in Reading – just behind China (Shanghai) and Hong Kong.[1] The results show that Singapore’s 15-year-olds perform significantly well on standardized tests and some international education researchers and government officials have taken this as an indication of the excellent quality of Singapore’s education system. As a result, Singapore’s education system is frequently studied and adopted as an exemplary model.

However, the high PISA rankings mask the constant pressure felt among students, parents and teachers in Singapore due to the system’s focus on high-stakes tests. Teen suicide is becoming a worrying problem — the number of suicide cases among those aged 10-19 years old has doubled to 27 cases in the first half of 2015 compared to the previous year. This rate is especially concerning because Singapore’s overall reported suicide rate in 2015 was the lowest since 2012. [2] In late October 2016, there was a tragic incident of a Primary 5 student committed suicide by jumping from the 17th floor of his home as he feared his parents’ beratement for failing two out of five subjects in his mid-term exams.[3]

To reduce pressures associated with high-stakes testing, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) made significant changes to a scoring system that determines students’ placement into secondary schools in 2016. Previously, students graduating elementary schools were ranked based on a point-difference scoring system of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PLSE). A one point difference in the exams could lead to drastically different school placements. For instance, a student who scored 259 points was placed at a mediocre ranked secondary school, whereas a student who scored just one point more (260 points) was given the opportunity to go to a top ranked school. Since 2016, the introduction of an eight scoring band (Achievement Level 1 for those who score 90 on all subjects; Achievement Level 2 for students who with average scores between 85-89, etc) gave students more chances of gaining access to  elite schools. Since then, students who score 85 and 86–a point difference–now have more or less the same opportunities to enter a good quality secondary school.  Although this change should reduce some amount of academic stresses, Singapore’s MOE continues to hold onto its central tenet of streaming students to different tiers of schooling based on academic merit.

It is yet unclear how Singapore’s education system will change with the integration of future skills into the curriculum. In January 2016, the Committee of Future Economy was created by the Singaporean government to review economic strategies to position the country to face the next 5-10 years. The government is especially concerned about helping Singaporeans to develop skills that will match the job demands of the future. Specifically, the Committee aims to create programs to help people to develop technical and generic skills and increase opportunities for up-skilling.[4] Although these initiatives are focused on the level beyond secondary school, these programs will likely have an impact on the K-12 curriculum. Will Singapore’s education system become less focused on standardized testing? It is currently doing well? If so, in what way? How can it improve?

To understand the opinions and concerns of stakeholders in education, I interviewed a teacher, parent and a student in Singapore.

Parent perspective – Fadli, Father to two children – ages 7 and 1

Q: Singapore is said to have one of the best education systems in the world. Do you agree with the statement, and why so?

A: Yes, I partially agree. Singapore’s education system is among the most highly regarded in the world especially in Maths and Science. On the other hand, it is also known as a pressure cooker because students are conditioned to perform well academically from a young age.

As parents, we have two choices. We either follow the crowd or set our own standards in guiding our children through school. But, there is a general mentality that if you do not follow the crowd, your child will be left behind.

Parents who have the money spend a significant amount of extra fees for their children’s after school classes. Some parents even take a year of no-pay-leave from work to help their children through high-stakes exams like the PSLE (taken when children are around 12 years old) and the O-levels (taken when children are 16-17 years old).

Q: What do you like the most about the education system in Singapore, and what do you think can be improved on?

A: Singapore has a highly skilled workforce – more than half are university graduates. Furthermore, literacy rates among Singaporeans are among the highest in the world. Students tend to perform well in international rankings such as the PISA.

However, I think there is too much emphasis on being book smart. I think that education in Singapore should be balanced with outdoor activities and take more consideration of the emotional wellbeing of students. Perhaps Singapore can look to Finland and Sweden for examples of a balanced education where students not only perform well in tests, but also enjoy their school life.

Q: Despite the government’s effort to move away from rote learning towards project-based learning, students still seem to do best in memorizing and scoring well in tests. What is your opinion on the method of teaching, and what would you like to see introduced in the curriculum?

A: Although the government is making efforts to move away from rote learning, a small group of anxious parents will be keen to give their child a headstart in life. This means getting their children the best tuition teacher and enrolling them in expensive classes, which reinforces the competitive spirit and memorization to score well in tests. In other words, parents play an important role in shaping how the child learns.

I would like to see more opportunities given to students to broaden their interests and talents, develop life skills, and a sense of curiosity and love for learning. Academic rigor is important, but it shouldn’t be over-emphasized to the point where other skills cannot be developed.

As a parent, I want to provide the best learning environment for my children and be physically there for them whenever it is possible in their learning journey.

Q: The support of the community/ecosystem – teachers, school, neighbors, government – is integral to having you teach your children well. Does Singapore’s ecosystem help give you the right support?

Yes. Teachers support children’s learning and establish a rapport with parents and regularly communicate with them via Whatsapp even after school hours. Schools expect parents to follow up on what is taught in school. For example, my daughter attends religious class every Saturday and she has a “Homekit” book for me to work with her on her home assignments. She also has a communications book, which is a two-way communication tool between parent and teacher. Teachers provide feedback about the child’s progress and vice versa for parents to note down their concerns in the book.

Teacher perspective – Ms. Lee, Primary School Teacher in a government school

Q: Singapore is said to have one of the best education systems in the world. As a teacher, do you agree with the statement, and why so?

A: I do not fully agree. The education system still places a lot of emphasis on academic results through test scores, which means that teachers are under great pressure to complete the curriculum before each exam cycle–half by the mid-year exam, and the whole curriculum by the year-end exam. Teachers’ competency is questioned if students do not perform well.

A small minority of parents who are overly anxious call me before the exams to ask for more materials to be provided to help their children before the exam. My competency in teaching is tacitly accessed by my ability to provide these extra materials. Parents apply a great amount of pressure on their children to perform well through monitoring their children’s work and through teachers.

Q: As a teacher, what do you like the most about the education system in Singapore, and what do you think can be improved on?

A: The MOE is very supportive in providing money and resources to upgrade school facilities and fund co-curricular activities and immersion trips. These programs help pupils develop a strong sense of civic responsibility and communication skills, which is something different from scoring well on tests. For example, students are brought to Shanghai, China to immerse themselves in the Chinese culture and extend their learning beyond Chinese language learning in the classroom.

Q: Despite the government’s efforts to move away from rote learning towards project-based learning, students still seem to do best in memorizing and scoring well in tests. What is your opinion on the method of teaching, and what would you like to see introduced in the curriculum?

A: Despite the Ministry’s effort to push for more holistic assessment–a certain portion of the grades is dependent on project work–most of the grade is determined by students’ final examination results. I hope to see lower weight placed on final examination results so that there can be more flexibility in the curriculum. This way, I can have more time in the classroom to explore different ways of teaching my students. Also, with less pressure to complete the curriculum, I can try to get to know my students better and build better relationships with them.

Q: The support of the community/ecosystem – teachers, parents, neighbors, government – is integral to having you teach well in school. Does Singapore’s ecosystem help support you as a teacher?

A: Singapore’s ecosystem is generally quite supportive of teachers. The support comes from a couple of stakeholders, such as MOE, the school management, colleagues and parents. MOE launched an initiative to give an award to students who exemplify good values and character. Schools will roll out the program and based on a structured assessment, with teachers picking a student for the award. Teachers feel empowered this way. When we tell our students the importance of building their character, we have awards to affirm them. Having a good management-level personnel in school also affects our teaching. For example, some teachers are exhausted from a high teaching workload. A good school management would respond by delegating our administrative responsibilities to other personnel in school. Also, it is up to the principal of the school to set guidelines on whether to allow direct communication through phone/Whatsapp between teachers and parents.

Q: When teachers face complaints from parents, how did the school management help or react at your school?

A: Within my school, my colleagues have been very encouraging. We also share teaching expertise with each other. Parents’ trust and support for us boosts our morale to teach. On the other hand, if parents doubt our competency, it will affect how we think about our teaching.

Students perspective – Ang Aik Siang, polytechnic graduate

Q: Singapore is said to have one of the best education systems in the world. Do you agree with the statement, and why so?

A: I agree that Singapore has one of the best education systems. By having opportunities to interact with friends from other countries like Thailand and Vietnam, learning geography and social studies in school, I have learned about the context and general knowledge needed to converse with friends from foreign countries now. I also think that Singapore using English as its medium of teaching is advantageous for me on the global level.

Q: As a student, what do you like the most about the education system in Singapore, and what do you think can be improved on?

A: Personally, I did not enjoy studying in Singapore. As someone interested in arts and music, there was limited room for me in secondary school to learn the subject in an environment with a heavy emphasis on science and mathematics. I think the government should include an option for students interested in arts and music to take these subjects.

Q: Despite the government’s effort to move away from rote learning towards project-based learning, students still seem to do best in memorizing and scoring well in tests. What is your opinion on the method of teaching, and what would you like to see introduced in the curriculum?

A: I believe that one of the objectives of education is to get a job in the future. Currently, schools compress knowledge into textbooks and focus on excelling in tests. More room should be given to students with interests to learn new skills relevant to the workforce. The polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education function to provide skills for the workforce, but I personally think these institutions do not provide sufficient diversity and room in teaching new skills.

Q: The support of the community/ecosystem – teachers, school, classmates, government – is integral to helping you to learn and have a good education. Has Singapore’s ecosystem been supportive to you?

A: The government is very supportive in giving financial support to students with intentions to further their study in the form of bursary, subsidies and scholarships. This is very encouraging for people intending to obtain a degree. Some of the teachers in secondary school could provide better care and support for students. I had better experiences with my polytechnic teachers.

Singaporean students generally view success as excelling in studies and getting a high paying job. For students who intend to deviate from the norm, there is a sense of judgement against them for doing so. Classmates have a tendency to be less supportive of others who choose a different path or have a different perspective of success.

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