Schooling, the Singapore way

What India can adopt from the island nation’s top-notch education system

50-jahnavi-Iyer Curious minds: Jahnavi Iyer and classmates dissect a sheep’s heart at the Yuving Secondary School in Singapore.

When Jahnavi Iyer’s biology teacher at the Yuving Secondary School in Singapore found that Jahnavi and a couple of classmates were curious about the sheep’s anatomy, she gave them a sheep’s heart to dissect. It wasn’t in the syllabus. The teacher took the decision on her own; she had the flexibility and resources to do so. It is an everyday example of Singapore’s approach to school education, arguably one of the best in the world.

“The most commendable part of the Singapore school system is the high level of infrastructure [such as labs and playgrounds] across all schools,” says Jahnavi’s father, Vishwesh Iyer, a communications consultant in Singapore. “This standardisation means that students in all schools, irrespective of their public rankings, enjoy access to the same level of facilities.”

Jahnavi, 16, says the school system is holistic in its approach. “Co-curricular activities are compulsory, allowing each student to develop non-academic skills along with academic ones,” she says. “Many awards are given to appreciate both academic and non-academic talents, thinning the lines of difference and giving equal importance to both.”

This all-round approach to education has not affected Singapore’s reputation as the best test-taking nation in the world.

In 2016, Singapore ranked first in two prominent international tests. One, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), held every four years for students aged 10 to 14, by the Amsterdam-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Two, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is dubbed ‘The World Cup for Education’. The PISA is conducted triennially by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for 15-year-olds in maths, reading and science.

Practical learning: Studying a plant at a class outdoors. Practical learning: Studying a plant at a class outdoors.

After the results were announced, Dr Andreas Schleicher, director, education and skills, OECD, said Singapore’s students “are not just leading the world in scientific knowledge,” but excelling “in their capacity to think like scientists in the way they creatively use and apply their knowledge.”

Started in 2000, the PISA has gained prestige, especially among politicians, who use the scores as a yardstick of their country’s intellectual potential and progress. Besides testing the cognitive skills of students, the two-hour test assesses their ability to solve problems in new and unfamiliar conditions.

Indian students are reputed internationally for excelling in science and maths. So, it came as a shock when India ranked low (72nd among the 74 countries) in the PISA in 2009. The Union government dismissed the results, saying the questions were ‘out of context’ for Indian students and then boycotted the PISA tests of 2012 and 2015. Hence, today, we do not know how 15-year-old Indian students size up against their international peers.

In December 2016, the government expressed interest in rejoining the PISA. “We have agreed to join the PISA, but there are certain issues that have been taken up with the organisers to participate in the 2021 tests,” said Anil Swarup, secretary, department of school education and literacy, in the ministry of human resource development. “Though evaluations are important, an obsession with evaluations would not improve the state of affairs. The education sector requires interventions to improve the quality of education. The focus has to be on intervention.”

What kind of intervention is required? Could India learn from Singapore? “The Indian system is so fragmented that no homogeneous action is possible,”says Iyer, originally from Rajkot, Gujarat. “If you compare some of the best Indian schools with their counterparts in Singapore, the Indian schools might fare better. However, when you take the entire student population together, obviously the numbers do not stack up because of the deep distortion in the economic and social strata of the population.”

Students work on a project at their school’s art and environment club. Students work on a project at their school’s art and environment club.

Still, it is worth looking at how this small Asian country developed into an education powerhouse, overtaking the wealthiest countries in Europe and North America. Today, educators from around the world visit Singapore to understand how it has achieved this feat.

Singapore invests heavily in the quality its teachers. They are recruited from the top 5 per cent of graduates, and all teachers are trained at the prestigious National Institute of Education (NIE). There is also a comprehensive system for training, compensating and developing teachers and principals. The best graduates are attracted to teaching as there is high prestige and status associated with the profession. The ministry of education (MOE) plays an active role in monitoring, evaluating, modifying and upgrading the system. There is optimum alignment between teachers, the NIE and the MOE, which makes the system successful.

In recent years, the MOE has been moving to a system that is more flexible and diverse, with the aim of providing students with greater choice to meet their different interests and ways of learning. There is also a focus on ‘Teach Less, Learn More’. When the PISA and TIMMS results were published, the MOE said the results highlighted the deliberate curricular shifts it has made over the years to trim syllabi, give more time to higher order thinking skills, and make students learning rather than teaching the focus of a school’s effort.

In Singapore, majority of students who took the 2015 PISA test were from local schools. The rest were from private and international schools. Neha Vivek, 14, who moved from India to Singapore in 2011 and studies at Chatsworth International School, says: “Interactive classwork has really helped me change the way I see things. Here, students are given the chance to set up in-class activities using infographics, posters and videos to showcase their knowledge. This helps those who don’t do well in a test-taking scenario, and show the teacher what they understand.” Neha enjoys the practical learning at her school. “I understand my work, rather than remember it. For example, for a maths project, we had to measure the soccer and basketballs courts in school. We took one-metre sticks and ran around measuring the courts. We then had to use those measurements to answer questions.”

Singaporean citizen Divya Sharma, 40, has two sons; one studies in an Indian school in Singapore, and the other in a local school. “The local curriculum is well-structured and the child is expected to understand concepts and use this knowledge in practical situations,” says Sharma. “In the Indian system, though we would like to believe we are using practical situations for learning, it is not reflected in the curriculum. The practical aspect is mostly left to the educator to implement, and in most cases, never happens due to a lack of time, resources or interest.” She says discipline is an important part of the local education. “The kids are taught to follow routine, and teachers are strict and don’t give in easily. There is a consequence to every wrong action and parents are encouraged not to interfere. Resources are also plenty as it is government aided.”

There are numerous positives to the system, but high expectations of success are bound to be a fallout. “Singapore focuses relentlessly on education and the kids practically slog 24/7,” says Neha’s mother, Preeti Mulloth, a lawyer. “As a result, the academic results are fantastic. The downside is that such pressure affects their overall skills, behavioural patterns, and also affects them emotionally, due to high stress levels.”

All-round education: Neha Vivek (standing, third from left) and classmates at the Chatsworth International School, Singapore. All-round education: Neha Vivek (standing, third from left) and classmates at the Chatsworth International School, Singapore.

Mulloth, who has worked with and trained young Singaporean lawyers, says: “They are trained to work hard, with 100 per cent dedication from a very young age with zero shortcuts whatsoever, and this is reflected in their work. However, while their academic knowledge and writing skills are exemplary, they lack in presentation and oratory skills.”

The stress begins at a very young age. The most dreaded abbreviation in Singapore, perhaps, is PSLE: the Primary School Leaving Exam, a public exam taken when students are 12 years old. The exam pretty much determines a child’s academic future. The high scorers gain entry to the best secondary schools and are allotted the ‘express’ stream which fast tracks them for university education. The others are streamed into the ‘normal academic’ or ‘normal technical’ courses, which have a more complicated route to technical and vocational education, and for some, to university.

Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to have a high-stakes examination for children as young as 12. Hong Kong, too, had a similar exam, but it was done away with a few years ago. In March 2017, India’s Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) mooted a similar concept; for a uniform assessment policy for classes six to eight. But in January this year, the CBSE repealed the decision, as the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights had objected that it violated the Right to Education Act.

Clearly, having uniform assessments for children so young is increasingly seen as undesirable. In response, Singapore is changing the scoring system of the PSLE to reduce stress. The MOE has also shifted focus from academics alone, to holistic development of the child.

While Singapore has recognised the flaws in its system, and has made relevant changes, what key aspect can India take away from it?

Improving the quality of teaching is clearly an imperative. Systemic changes need to be made in the way teachers are recruited, trained and compensated, across all school boards.

“With the right kind of exposure and continuous professional development opportunities, our teachers in India are exemplary,” says Lakshmi Ramachandran, mentor, Global Public School, Kochi. “Yet, it is a pity that teaching does not attract the best talent. The modern education system is based on one formula: cheap, compulsory and common. The fact that it is compulsory, perhaps, is a strength, yet free and compulsory education for all still remains a distinct dream. Cheap education does not translate into quality education. There must be a greater focus on quality, keeping the need to nurture a generation of creative and flexible thinkers. Inclusive education must be translated into reality.”

Unlike Singapore, in India, it is not possible to standardise the quality of teaching, facilities and investment across the country, as education features on the Concurrent List in the Constitution; this means that each state drives its own agenda.

However, there are some changes in the pipeline to look forward to. First, in February, Union Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar announced that the National Council of Education Research and Training syllabus would be reduced from the 2019 academic session. Second, the Kasturirangan committee is expected to finalise the draft of the new education policy in the coming months. The existing policy was framed in 1986 and revised in 1992, almost 18 years ago. A member of the committee said: “The new policy is focused on doing away with inequality in education. It will be a modern policy for modern India.”