The Singapore Education System

July 23, 2012
Singapore Democrats

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Satyawathi Yadav

“Education…has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.” These words spoken by G M Trevelyan rings true of the Singapore education system, despite the Government’s many attempts with initiatives like “Thinking Schools, Learning Nations” and “Teach Less Learn More”.

While in theory these initiatives look and sound good, in practice, they have failed. In this paper I will highlight what has worked and what hasn’t and the reasons behind the success and shortcomings of the Singapore education system.

Both the above mentioned initiatives serve to make a distinction between the academically inclined and the less academically inclined student. While the Ministry of Education (MOE) argues that the Subject Based Banding (SBB) in primary schools is flexible, allowing pupils to learn at their own pace and learning abilities. (For further information on this subject, click here.)

While the MOE has clearly stated that no child will be disadvantaged by this new policy, it is clear that this is still streaming. (A rose by any other name…) At the end of six years of primary education, the students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) the weeding process begins.

Is it fair to judge a child’s ability at such a young age? What does such a process do to a developing mind? Is it fair to put the pressures of high expectations on a child 10 years of age? (In fact, the pressure begins in kindergarten when some parents even put their children through private tuition – which probably makes us the only country to do this.)

Streaming or SBB or whatever else one would like to call it, serves to marginalize and alienate a child who for whatever reason may not be meeting the high standards.

These streaming policies are not just a cause of concern for the students but also for teachers. Such a system tends to pur pressure on teachers to focus on “teaching” what will be tested, hence leaving them with no space to focus on the broader curriculum in more exciting, creative and motivational ways.

Such streaming goes against the very notion of “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” or “Teach Less, Learn More.” How can we expect our future generations to think critically and creatively if all we ever teach them is to memorise and regurgitate in an examination? How can we expect our future generations to think outside the box, when all they’ve ever experienced from the time they begun their formal education is to be spoon fed?

While these streaming policies have succeeded in identifying the better/faster child, it has failed in ensuring that no child is left behind. It has failed in creating a thinking nation and it has failed in removing the shackles that enslave us. These policies have failed in creating the passion for life-long learning which is another stated mission/vision of the MOE.

Let me conclude by sharing a quote by George Bernard Shaw: “What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.”


Satyawathi Yadav studied English Literature at University of Leicester. She is currently a teacher based in Indonesia.