Sustainable Cities™

Singapore: Respect for learning

Education is Singapore's most important form of capital, and the government considers money spent on education as a necessary investment - not as an expense. Teachers are highly educated and highly respected in Singapore, where politicians would never dream of criticising the job done by teachers. However, respect for the school system is not based on a blind belief in authority and the three Rs. Singaporeans do not simply manage well in tests and learning things by heart, they are also making tremendous headway in design and innovation. Less homework and more creativity and group work are part of the recipe.

Fejring af nationaldagen på Hong Wen School. Foto: martywindle 6. august 2009 , Flickr Creative Commons

"We are working for the nation's future", says the lettering on the tarpaulins at schools under construction in Singapore. As a small country surrounded by large neighbours and vast labour resources, Singapore has chosen to count on education as the most important competition parameter. And there is room for more than just hard values on the school timetable - creativity and innovation are being given increasing priority.

In 2004, Singapore's Prime Minister held a landmark speech, which initiated a showdown with the Anglo-Saxon school tradition which for many years characterised Singapore's education system. The schools, government and the universities, where the teachers are trained, now work together to introduce greater flexibility, group and project work

Singapore is rated number 10 by the Pisa survey and teacher training was given top marks in the McKinsey Report, which looked into how the best schools in the world function. Singapore's school system is also spoken of highly in a World Bank study of its education system. The success of Singapore's well-run school system is not entirely due to financial investments, but also largely to the effort made to engender respect for teachers.

Pupils on schooltrip. Photo by amasc March 8 2008, Flickr Creative Commons

Each teachers his or her own office space with a computer at the school and parents can visit them, on their own premises, if they have any questions. Teacher training in Singapore is research-based; teachers get a bachelor degree, and the idea is that they become researchers in practice. People with a teacher training also have more career prospects - teaching, management or research. All teachers have 100 hours of paid in service training every year during working hours, and their work is systematically evaluated. The evaluation system is based on the schools' own reports which attach greater weight to the process than to status.

The schools make room for other professions to come in and help support the work of the teachers. This means that teachers can concentrate on what they are experts at: teaching the children and not spending time looking for books or collecting payments for school camp. Saravanan Gopinathan, head of the international education think tank at the National Institute of Education in Singapore believes the status of the teaching profession is closely related to political rhetoric. Problems with the school system are managed by the schools and the trade union, not discussed in the press. For politicians to criticise teachers is unthinkable.

"We have a free press, so of course parents write readers letters now and then. However, there is widespread understanding both in society and the press that criticising the teachers will have an impact on the country as a whole ". - Saravanan Gopinathan, head of the international education think tank at the National Institute of Education i Singapore.

The ranking system as challenge  

Students, teachers, school heads and schools are continuously assessed in relation to others - as far as the schools and adults are concerned, also in economic terms - on the basis of the mutual hierarchy. The ranking system means that the focus is still on 'hard' and immediately measurable success criteria in teaching and tests. This presents yet another challenge when it comes to engendering independent attitudes on the part of students and actual creativity in the classroom.

The importance of diversity

The population of Singapore is composed of, among others, Chinese, Malaysians and Indians. The common language is English. The teaching staff includes Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. Some teachers wear headscarves, others do not. In Singapore they are very conscious of allowing the different population groups to maintain their own culture and language. This is considered by society as a resource.

Unlike Chinese pedagogy, which is based on the concept of education improving the human mind, the Singapore school system focuses on the population as a resource, made up of different qualities which should be exploited as efficiently as possible.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014