Published in TES magazine on 31 August, 2012 | By: Joy Hetherington
Singapore, the uber-ambitious city state on the bottom of the Malaysian peninsula, has found itself the focus of Michael Gove’s attention this summer as he sings the praises of its education system. But having taught there for several years in a state college, I can’t say that I share his admiration in the slightest – there is much to its education culture that Britain should certainly avoid replicating.
To my mind, any education system where it is necessary to put your teachers on suicide watch, as I was, in the run-up to A-level results day, is a system sick to its very core. Indeed, the problem is endemic among the pupils, too. Such is the pressure on the country’s youth to succeed academically, suicide is one of the top causes of death among young Singaporeans. In a survey conducted by the country’s English-medium national newspaper The Straits Times, 36 per cent of children rated failing examinations and tests as their “greatest fear”, compared with 17 per cent who cited the death of their parents or guardians. So it was no exaggeration when my Chinese Singaporean boss stated on my first day at work: “Education is everything in Singapore.”
So high are the education stakes that it is not unusual for Singaporean parents to physically punish their children for under-achieving academically. Visit any convenience store in Singapore and you will find canes for sale. Although they are used to address a range of discipline issues, sales peak in the build-up to important exam periods, which in Singapore is quite a lot of the time. In schools, caning is legal and widely accepted – it is delivered “traditional British style” to boys only.
For those who support early streaming, the Singapore system is a dream come true, with its exam and test-led culture. Technical qualifications can be attained by the less academically able, Normal levels by the averagely academic and O levels by the most academic. This system seems to be the model for Gove’s plans for a new English O level. In Singapore, 60 per cent of children are in the “express” academic classes, a quarter are in the “normal academic” classes and 15 per cent are “technical”. Stigmatisation is an understatement of this divisive model.
You would think that in this culture, where academic success is so desperately sought, having gained entry to one of the country’s 20-odd selective junior colleges (read sixth form) would be something to celebrate. But, at the college where I taught, this wasn’t the case. Why? Because it wasn’t one of the well-known top five and the students saw themselves as having failed.
The route to riches
In Singapore, as in a number of Asian countries, education is seen by parents and educators as the route to success and riches. In this rapidly developing society, the population is driven by economic gain and success. For the majority, this is judged mostly in monetary terms. It is summed up in the popular acronym the 5 Cs – cash, credit card, condo, car and country club membership. Attain these five and you’ve cracked it.
The intense desire to win is summed up by a Singapore word “kiasu”. Translated from Chinese Hokkien dialect, it means “fear of losing”. In this race for riches, Singaporean parents invest huge sums in private tuition to give their children a head start. This, not the state-funded system, is one of the main reasons for the country’s high performances in international league tables. The official school starting age is 6, but for many children, tuition kicks in well before then. Tuition after school hours is the norm and takes precedence over play.
Tony Blair may have said “education, education, education”, but in Singapore you should add “tuition, tuition, tuition”. Intensive tuition prepares Singaporean children well for future years of gruelling study. It is not unusual to see pupils clogging up the tables of cafes with their laptops and textbooks out of official school hours and at the weekends. When I walked into work at 7am each morning, the pupils were already studying before the assembly bell went off. Many didn’t leave school until 9pm after attending extra-curricular lessons. While I can see the appeal this might have to Western parents struggling to get their children to do their homework, it takes its toll during the day on sleepy teenagers struggling to concentrate in class.
Although I hate to bow to stereotypes, there is no doubt that Singaporean students are better than their Western counterparts at learning facts and regurgitating them. This may explain Singapore’s excellent reputation for teaching maths and science but it’s a bit of a bummer when you’re trying to teach anything that requires critical and creative thinking. This, no doubt, is the product of long-term exposure to rote learning in Singapore schools and colleges.
The more enlightened, and there are many at the Ministry of Education, have been battling for years to encourage teachers to diversify. That’s why the ministry has sunk millions of Sing dollars into training its teachers to use more creative and student-centred techniques – basically more Western-style teaching techniques.
Singapore is a young country, a progressive country, always with its eye on the future. But if the education secretary in the UK attempts to replicate its schools system it would be a monumental backwards step for Britain.