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Play And Pay: Why Singapore's Education System Is Top Of The Class

For years, Singapore has topped education rankings and inspired other school systems. Among the keys to its success is a playful approach to education and highly paid teachers. But many worry about the pressure the system places on children.

Students at Sri Mariamman Hindu temple in Singapore

Students at Sri Mariamman Hindu temple in Singapore

Yann Rousseau

SINGAPORE — Every year in mid-October, social networks are set ablaze in Singapore. Upset parents attack the Ministry of Education on Facebook, Twitter and other forums, accusing it of having organized tests that were too complicated for their children. They say their children came home from the math section of the PSLE – the Primary School Leaving Examination – in tears. The results come in late November.


In the Asian city-state, many families see this test as the exam of a lifetime. Performance on the PSLE can affect the quality of the course of study all the way through to university. In high school, children find themselves put in three different "streams," depending on their level.

Parents spend years preparing their children for these tests in math, science, and English. They give hours of homework help and spend fortunes on private tutoring.

Fortunes in private tutoring

According to the latest National Household Expenditure Survey conducted by the Department of Statistics, Singaporean families spend a total of more than $1 billion on private tuition each year, or almost $1 billion. "Nearly 70% of elementary school children now take private lessons," said Jason Tan, a professor at the city-state's National Institute of Education (NIE). In kindergarten, the ratio is now 40%.

In the Terry Chew Academy, in the city center, math tutoring is offered to children as young as 5 years old. Geometric shapes, basic calculations, number series recognition, introduction to cryptarithms... "Kindergarten math skills are the best indicator of your child's future academic success," warns the brochure, which also promises to introduce kindergarten children to the sense of competition. The cost is S$960 (€680) for 12 lessons of 90 minutes each in small groups of up to eight children.

Bills go up with age and when children get closer to the PSLE that they sit aged 12. By then, they have reached a much higher level than children of their age in other developed countries.

Kindergarten math skills are the best indicator of your child's future academic success.

In each edition of the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) study, organized every three years by the OECD among 15-year-old students, Singapore trumps all others. In the 2015 survey conducted in more than 70 countries, the small nation of 5.7 million people dominated the rankings in math, science and reading.

In 2019, it was relegated to second place behind China, but in a survey deemed unfair by experts. Chinese results were only compiled from selected schools in Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. "On a national scale, the performance of Chinese students in the Pisa tests is rather mediocre," notes an expert.

An education system that's still very young

In the West, Singapore's performance is all the more impressive because it is achieved by an education system that is still very young. When Singapore declared its independence in 1965 after 140 years of British colonial rule, the political party in power, the PAP (People's Action Party) and its leader Lee Kuan Yew inherited a disorganized education system.

Education wasn’t universal and varied according to the different communities that have their own networks of schools operating either in English, Chinese, Malay or Tamil. Curricula, textbooks and exams often differed from one school to another, and no common objectives were defined. "One of Lee Kuan Yew's priority missions was to rebuild school to support national economic development and encourage social cohesion in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious population," says Jason Tan. "These two objectives are still at the heart of the system, even though many reforms have changed the organization of the education system."

Recentralized under the authority of the Ministry of Education, which in 2022 still has the second largest budget in the country, school quickly focused on English, math, and science skills to boost the international attractiveness of a country with no natural resources. Sixty years later, they remain key priorities in primary, secondary and pre-university grades.

\u200bVisitors select books during the 2015 Singapore Book Fair in Singapore

Visitors select books during the 2015 Singapore Book Fair in Singapore

Bao Xuelin/Xinhua/ZUMA

An original and playful approach to education

In mathematics, Singaporean children have a much more concrete approach to problems than their European peers. Before approaching an operation with numbers, they will visualize, on their paper or on the board, a drawing with fruits, candies, or students, then a diagram with bars and blocks, in a rather playful approach. Each operation, whether it be addition, division, or fractions, will be presented in a concrete scenario before being transcribed into abstract mathematical language. This way, the child experiences multiplication before formulating it.

Throughout their school career up to "Primary 6" (age 12), they will almost systematically model their problems, even the more complex ones. Each stage of learning is then marked by rigorous classroom tests that progressively prepare for the PSLE.

In science, programs similarly encourage learning by doing or playing. Teachers attempt to raise questions by having their students work in pairs or teams on making or assembling concrete objects. They will use small robots equipped with batteries and diodes to understand, for example, the course on electricity.

Highly paid teachers

In Singapore, teachers are very well paid. Recruited from the best universities, they receive very long initial training and are much better paid than their counterparts in Europe. A secondary school teacher will earn S$50,250 per year (€36,000) at the beginning of their career. On average, a primary school teacher with at least five years of experience can expect to earn 3,200 euros per month. They will also receive bonuses and enjoy a high level of respectability in Singaporean society.

In exchange for this recognition, they commit themselves to work hard, but not only in front of their students. As in other east Asian countries, which do well on the Pisa tests, Singaporean teachers manage very large classes (often 40 students) but have far fewer hours of instruction than Western teachers.

Instead, they spend almost half of their professional time communicating with parents via email or text messages, preparing their classrooms and evaluating lessons with their colleagues. They regularly observe each other's classes before exchanging best practices and receive nearly 100 hours of in-service training each year to adapt to the country's changing needs.

Parentocracy

While it is held up as a model for other countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, Singapore's system is questioning its own shortcomings. The pressure on children to pass tests at a very young age that will affect their destiny. The hours spent in classes and tutoring to the detriment of extracurricular activities and free time.

The growing inequalities between wealthy families able to finance heavy private tutoring programs and poorer households, often from Tamil or Malay minorities, who can only rely on supplementary classes sometimes subsidized by the state.

"Our overall success tends to mask these inequalities," admits the NIE researcher. "And that highlights the elephant in the room. To what do we owe our performance in international rankings? To public school or private tutoring?" he asks. "More and more, our model based on meritocracy is being challenged by a form of parentocracy," worries Jason Tan.

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