6 Reasons Why Singaporean Students are The Best in the World

6 Reasons Why Singaporean Students are The Best in the World

According to the triennial international student survey ‘Programme for International Student Assessment’ or PISA 2012, students from Singapore and Korea have the best problem solving skills in the world. Students from these two countries are quick learners, are highly inquisitive and are able to handle non-routine situations with greater proficiency than their global counterparts. This makes them more likely to be highly constructive citizens and be better prepared to meet the work place challenges of the 21st century.

PISA tests 15 year students on their reading, mathematics, and science skills. PISA 2012 covered 510,000 students from 65 economies; students from 44 economies were also assessed on their creative problem solving abilities.

In addition, as per the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, referred to as TIMSS study (refer chart below), fourth grade students from Singapore possess among the best math and science skills in their age group.

These international assessment results come as no surprise to most Singaporeans. But the apparent success of the Singapore schooling system has left educationists from other countries wondering - what has fostered this overriding focus for achieving academic excellence in the country and what makes the Singaporean teaching style so special?

Replicating the success of Singapore’s education system to other countries may not be as simply transferring its teaching methodology because there are several socio-cultural and institutional factors that are peculiar to this island nation of 5 million people.

Here are 6 reasons why students from Singapore rank consistently high in academic standards.

1. Emphasis on academic curriculum and results at an early age

Singapore's schooling system is one of the most competitive in the world. The classroom instruction is highly curriculum oriented and focused on the students abilities to solve problems (mathematics and science in particular), and preparing them for year-end examinations. Teachers rely heavily on textbooks, worksheets, and stress on practice. This teaching approach is uniform across all class levels and subjects.

After 6 years of primary-school education, at the age of about 12, Singaporean students take a national test (Primary School Leaving Examination) that determines whether they will be eligible for special schools for the gifted, a vocational school, or a special education programme. Another 4-5 years later, students must sit for another national examination at the secondary school level.

2. Government’s focus on education

The education system in Singapore is highly centralized and massively funded. The government invests approximately $10.6 billion each year in education, which covers 510,000 students, 34,000 teachers and 5,500 administrators. The Edusave scheme, with a capital fund of $5 billion, finances student enrichment programmes at schools and rewards students from modest home backgrounds based on their academic merit.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education is committed to building manpower capacity at all levels of the education system. The selection, training and professional development of teaching staff receives great importance. According to Ho Peng, Director-General of Education, “In Singapore, every teacher gets first-class preparation”. Teachers in Singapore are also among the highest paid in the world. The profession of teaching is regarded as highly valuable by Singapore society and attracts the best and the brightest talent in the country.

3. Culture that values ‘individual’ responsibility

Post gaining independence in 1965, Singapore's leaders realized that human capital development, especially schooling, would be key to their success. However, Singapore is not a welfare state and Singaporeans believe that each individual must accept responsibility for his/her success or failure. The Singapore education system reflects this social ethos. The government has created an equal access but meritocratic education system, where children from all socio-economic backgrounds can progress through the education levels as per their abilities. The process begins (as discussed above) through successive streaming during the schooling years.

4. Multi-lingual skills

Singapore is a multi-ethnic nation consisting of people of Chinese, Malay and Indian origin. Therefore, bilingualism is an important part of the education system. Although English is the main language of instruction, students learn Mandarin, Tamil and Malay as second languages throughout their primary school years. Research has shown that learning a second language has significant cognitive benefits, especially for children. These include -

  • Better multitasking skills
  • Improved memory
  • Child is more perceptive. In particular, adept at focusing on relevant information and editing the irrelevant.
  • Has better decision making skills
  • Develops communication and listening skills

5. High level of parental involvement

Most parents in Singapore play an active role in the child development and education. Anxious to give their children a head start, many working parents enroll toddlers as young as 18 months to 5 years in enrichment programmes.  Parents can choose from English, basic math, language phonetics, reading and writing Mandarin, music appreciation, eye training, and even leadership and brain training programmes classes. This is in addition to sending the toddler to full-day kindergarten classes during the week.

Most parents in Singapore believe that their children need to have the basic skills to be prepared to handle the pressure of the competitive schooling system. As a result, per-school enrichment centers have seen substantial growth in their enrolment numbers over the last several years. Small children carrying oversized backpacks crammed with books are a common sight in Singapore.

Education streaming and meritocracy places pressure on the child and the parents.  For instance, if a child is not doing well at school, it is not assumed to be a problem of the teacher, the school, or the curriculum. Rather, it is considered the responsibility of the parents. This has led to a flourishing private tuition market, with parents willing to spend top dollars for tuition.

6. Professional private tutoring structure

Singapore is called the 'tuition nation' because of its significant private tuition take-up rates. The role of tuition has evolved from merely plugging the ‘understanding gaps’ to helping students achieve high grades. Some of the best teachers in Singapore prefer to tutor instead of teach in a school.

Here are some interesting statistics from a 2012 whitepaper published by research firm Black Box on private tuition in Singapore -

  • 80 percent of Singaporeans believe that tuition is beneficial to children’s education.
  • 23 percent think kids should start tuition in pre-school, before they begin formal education.
  • 67 percent of Singaporeans with kids currently have or have previously enrolled their children in tuition.

Singapore’s outstanding results in international assessments clearly show that its education system (based on transfer of curriculum and examination results) is highly effective. But countries like China are rapidly catching up. Not the one to rest on its laurels, Singapore’s Ministry of Education is taking several steps to maintain its manpower competitiveness by continually introducing education initiatives. These include -

  • Investing in research and development for biomedical, nanotechnology, and other new sciences.
  • Decentralizing  the education system to give schools a greater degree of autonomy
  • Creation of niche schools for grooming talent in sports, art, music, and technology.
  • Heavy investments in developing the ‘teacher learning’ process.

What do you think are the reasons for the good performance of Singaporean students? Tell us in the comments below


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