Singapore has, from the very beginning, established meritocracy as a core societal value

Interview/ Professor S. Gopinathan, cofounder, Singapore Education Consulting Group

Professor S. Gopinathan Professor S. Gopinathan

What are the key reasons for Singapore’s successful education system?

Singapore’s success in education can largely be attributed to two key reasons at the macro level. First, the belief in education remains a deep part of the national narrative on how Singapore can succeed. As Singapore is a small multi-ethnic nation with a lack of natural resources, there was a need to be innovative with alternate strategies for economic development from the moment independence was thrust onto the nation in 1965. Early political leadership saw human capital development through education and training as crucial to Singapore’s success. There were large efforts to increase public literacy, numeracy, and the necessary skills to establish a workforce attractive for foreign companies to invest in Singapore. It is a belief that is pervasive and widely held by all that education is crucial for the future. Second, the complementary reason for Singapore’s educational success is the amount of attention that Singapore pays to teacher selection, preparation, deployment, incentivisation and retention.

What are the requirements of becoming a teacher in Singapore?

Selection for teaching is a rigorous process. Singapore seeks to recruit teachers from the top third of each academic cohort. In addition to ensuring core competencies for successful teaching, this sends signals throughout society that teaching is a profession well valued by the state. Also, teachers are recruited by the MOE and not by the university. This ensures that teacher recruitment is centralised and done in accordance with ministry policies, standards and demands. Once teachers are accepted into the training pool, they are sent to the NIE for their training. Upon graduation, they are deployed as teachers to the various public schools around Singapore.

What are the pressures faced by children? And, what systems have been put in place to counter this?

Singapore has, from the very beginning, established meritocracy as a core societal value. There is clear acceptance among citizens and students that ability and performance are what counts in terms of opportunities for advancement in studies. This also inevitably leads to a high degree of competition. Many parents in Singapore invest considerable family income in additional private enrichment classes. Even though Singapore students perform well, some are also quite anxious and not too confident about their abilities. Some systems are in place to counter the stresses of a high-performing education system. There are school counsellors or teachers trained as counsellors in each school to help with a student’s socio-emotional wellbeing. Two counsellors are specially appointed in each primary school and four in each secondary school. More attention is being paid to the ‘at risk’ children in the early years of elementary schooling, and there is now much greater MOE investment in early childhood education.

What are the key aspects that school systems in other countries could adapt from Singapore?

It is important to understand that each education system is embedded within a sociopolitical and economic environment. For example, Singapore’s model of bilingualism reflects the importance of English for economic development as well as the fact that we are a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society and we see heritage languages as a resource for identity. Next, policy has been consistent about the need for high-quality schools and academic institutions. Resourcing has always been high and at sustainable levels. Curricula are frequently revised to keep abreast of changing social and economic needs. Teachers and school leaders are now highly regarded because the government and ministry has invested in them and expect high performances. While policies should not be borrowed in its entirety, there are lessons that any country can learn from another.

Professor S. Gopinathan, a former Dean of Education at the NIE, is an expert on education policy development in Singapore, in particular, and teacher education in general. He has experience in establishing colleges of education in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Jakarta, Indonesia. 

The Singapore Education Consulting Group is an education consulting company that brings together policy planners, implementers and school leaders to raise international educational standards. Their consultants have advised governments, agencies and schools in Asia and the Middle East.