Singapore’s education system is world-renowned. It’s a model that routinely churns out top students and exceptional grades, particularly in the maths and sciences. Over half of the world’s International Baccalaureate (IB) top scorers come from this tiny island, and Singapore’s A-level scores are equally stellar. Singapore students fare far better than others on international problem-solving tests and a myriad of other academic assessments. The academic success of Singapore’s school system cannot be denied.
It’s come as no surprise, then, that many nations have striven to imitate this very distinctive brand of education in hopes of achieving similar results. Recently, this education system’s success story piqued the interest of Western researchers, who considered incorporating “Singaporean maths” into United Kingdom and United States classrooms. Yet, few dare to look beyond the favourable statistics and high rankings that seem to define this education system.
Singapore sits very comfortably at the pinnacle of world education ranking indexes. This is while Singaporean students sit very uncomfortably under unhealthy amounts of stress.
As it stands, the system is often called a “pressure cooker”. The result-focused nature of it presents a very stifling atmosphere where achieving top grades is the foremost priority. To cope in this environment, students turn to tutoring, practicing exam papers, and often, simply memorising pages off the textbook. High standards define this system – perhaps too high. Even twelve year olds are expected to succeed in a pivotal centralised exam (the Primary School Leaving Examination). It’s worth noting, though, that this exam has been criticised by some educationists as being far too demanding for such young kids. It does not end here. Near the end of high school, students go on to sit for various other exams (N-Levels, O-Levels, A-Levels or IB) in their school careers, with the same pressure for perfect scores.
To be fair, the system has made Singaporean students in demand at many of the world’s top universities, where they often excel. More fundamentally, the system gives Singaporeans a very strong grounding in most mathematical and scientific concepts. The rigour of this system has been an important factor behind Singapore’s remarkable economic success.
However, as Singapore ponders the next step forward for its economy and its people, questions are being raised as to whether this system should endure.
The consequences of Singapore’s approach to education go beyond intense studying and challenging tests. Most of the time, it creates an unhealthy sense of competition; countless students report feeling excessive stress or pressure to be the best. This embeds in society a damaging fear of failure. The environment it creates is conducive to achieving top grades, but less conducive to inspiring a lifelong love for learning and a culture of innovation. Ultimately, the education system inspires grade-obsession rather than the spirit of inquiry. This tends to promote group thinking and discourages the development of differing views. In other words, the nail that sticks out tends to get hammered back in.
Singapore’s move into the developed world means that its future economic success will be determined by innovation and risk-taking. This is pushing Singapore to reform its education system. The authorities are slowly beginning to take a “grades are not everything” approach with gradual modifications to existing exams. Individual interests are also being catered to with the recent creation of schools with a focus on arts and sports. The vocational schools and polytechnics are also being given more attention in recognition that not everyone is academically inclined, and that society needs a variety of skillsets for success.
These moves are encouraging. However, the education system is a reflection of deep-seated values and attitudes that give rise to fairly narrow definitions of what constitutes success. In order for any education reform to succeed, there has to be a drastic shift towards an acceptance of failure as a precondition to success and an appreciation of diverse viewpoints. Only then can Singapore move beyond the textbook answers.