Singapore Lessons

As it may be for many of you reading this, for me Singapore was simply a name of a place a long way away that did well in international testing for maths, science and English. More than actually being a real country, or city-state or whatever I might have half-thought it was, Singapore was a both a tool Michael Gove used to dismantle the education system as we know it and a stick with which he beat our best teachers.

I was delighted, then, to have been invited to go there recently to give a small address to members of the British Council, national curriculum planners and English language teachers as well deliver a keynote to a group of educators followed by a ‘Thunks Masterclass’ with Singaporean students, observed by their teachers.

It was only a flying visit of a day and a half and I do not claim to be an expert on Singapore and its triumphs and travails when it comes to education, but the visit does give me a perspective worth sharing. Or rather two.

Firstly, Mr Gove was rather selective when it came to returning home and decrying the UK for not being as good as Singapore. There is great work going on in schools there undoubtedly but there is also a bigger picture. For example, he trumpets how their school success is down to the free market approach but there is evidence that all is not well in that particular garden:

‘It is highly contestable whether fostering competition does improve the quality of education for all students and promote greater choice and diversity. First, competition among schools does not take place on a level playing field because the terms of competition are to a large extent dictated by the government. For instance, the number of independent schools and autonomous schools is determined by the government, and non-independent schools enjoy less flexibility than independent schools do in determining their own enrolment figures or the number of teachers that they wish to employ. 

In other words, non-prestigious, non-academically selective schools are simply unable to compete effectively with well-established, academically selective schools’

Of course, Gove has an agenda to promote the market in education. It’s what big business put him and his party there to do. So let’s forgive him that one and look at what the educational outcomes of the Singapore system are, over and above playing a good game when it comes to PISA and TIMMS. Wherever I looked and whoever I spoke to, the conversation was about what could be done to foster independent thinking, critical thinking, creative thinking or indeed any sort of thinking that went beyond just maths, science and English. The ambitious and enlightened education minister Heng Swee Keat certainly says the right thing when he talks about ‘student-centric, values-driven education’ (I don’t remember Gove bringing that one back either). But it’s hard to do the soft important stuff when the hard important stuff gets in the way. As one Singaporean blogger puts it:

‘Anybody who has gone through 15 to 20 years of studies in Singapore will tell you the same thing. There is an overbearing focus on grades and paper qualifications are elevated to unholy heights and worshipped. Students are taught to be risk-averse in our rigid and conformist education environment. Plenty of precious energy and attention is diverted to practicing answering questions correctly. The school curriculum runs on a syllabus with answers to questions that are either right or wrong… Students are reduced to giving textbook answers to textbook questions.’

And what about the social and emotional costs of such relentlessly high performance?

According to the website the Singaporean Disease, a UNICEF survey showed exam stress was the single biggest cause of unhappiness in Singaporean children and a more recent survey for local newspaper Straits Times revealed that more local children were scared of failing a test than they were of their parents dying.

Talking of parents, there is the double–edged sword here. On one hand they want their children to do well in such a high-pressure system (where the use of private tutors is clearly the elephant in the room that OECD and Gove don’t seem to want to acknowledge, whether it’s Singapore, Hong Kong, Chile or wherever it is that they claim is doing well because of a market-drive state education system). On the other hand, they know how soul-suckingly hard life was as a child growing up in the system and why on earth would they want to put their children through the same thing, especially as the outcomes are of increasingly dubious merit anyway? As one parent blogger points out, referring to the manner in which the education system has ‘started to turn toxic over the last 20 years’:

‘Today’s schoolchildren literally bend over backwards for their schoolbags, cry over schoolwork that requires their parents to attend classes in order to understand, and then when they finally graduate, they find out that much of what they’ve learned in school doesn’t actually apply in real life.’

Funny but I don’t recall Gove mentioning that either. Which brings me to the second point I learned.

Scratch the surface of any hard-pressed, rote-learning, tested-to-exhaustion 16-year-old Singaporean student and you will find a mature, competent, clever, funny and creative thinker desperate to get out. As any of you will know who have used them, Thunks are a quick and easy way to get children thinking and I approached this Masterclass, observed by about 30 local teachers, with trepidation. What if the students simply sat there without joining in? What if the idea of there being no right or wrong answer simply floored them? What if they just dismissed it as rubbish and pleaded to go back to their maths studies? It could be a long and embarrassing hour.

From the outset though they were brilliant. Their ability to reflect, to flick between ideas, to look at the world through different lenses, to be faced with challenge and uncertainty and to come out smiling, to deal with a world of ambiguity yet still hypothesize and reflect in partnership with other students was among the best I’ve seen anywhere. And all with near perfect English.

Gove rightly cites Singapore and Hong Kong as being nations of ‘restless self improvers’ (and I currently live in Hong Kong so more on that another time) and it is for this reason that we should most look to the East. It is not the young people in the schools that will hold back the Singaporean education system in its efforts to embrace thinking and values and become a truly world-class 21st century system. Nor is it the vision of its leaders. Education there is being held back by the predominant teaching model in its schools where teachers (who don’t receive the same holiday entitlement as the children, something I’m sure Gove will have noted) are, according to the OECD, ‘trained in a teacher-dominated pedagogy’. The pedagogy, however, is in turn held back by an assessment process that is fact driven and knowledge dominated, one that ‘sets high standards but inhibits innovation’ in the OECD’s words. I came away more convinced than ever that the first country to create an assessment system that is genuinely fit for purpose will be the one who wins.

When Singapore addresses those two concerns – and it is working at it – then we really will need to look East with apprehension.

One final thought. There is a genuine sense in Singapore of teachers being valued by the people setting the agenda in schools as well as by the wider community. In fact, the Ministry of Education proudly uses the line ‘To have teacher who care we must care for our teachers’. I think this is something else that Gove overlooked on his flying, cherry-picking visit.

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