This week on Dateline Janice Petersen visits Singapore to see exactly what makes the school system there one of the best in the world.
Singapore has the highest achieving students according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranking in 2015. The country is placed at top of the leader board in Maths, Reading, and Science.
In comparison, Australia is placed significantly lower, coming 25th in Maths, 16th in Reading and 14th in Science, well behind nations like Estonia, Poland, and New Zealand*. How has Singapore climbed to the top, while Australia has fallen behind?
This Tuesday on Dateline, Janice Petersen, along with some of Australia’s best teachers, visit Singapore to see exactly what makes the school system there one of the best in the world.
With limited natural resources, the island nation’s most valuable resource is its people. Singapore has relied heavily on its education system right from post-colonial times to cultivate its human capital.
Leu Mei, one of the key architects of the mathematics curriculum for the Ministry of Education in Singapore tells Dateline that education has always formed the base for long term social and economic planning. “As educators, we are not educating our children for today, not for tomorrow, we are educating them for the future economy in twenty years’ time”, she adds.
Former school teacher Janice Chuah feels that the secret to the success of Singapore’s education system lies in the way they teach, “It moves away from the rote (memorisation) learning to more critical thinking”. She adds, “One of the key principles in Singapore’s education system is to lift the bottom, but not cap the top”.
Where Australia has a national assessment at the end of secondary school, in Singapore this exam equivalent is taken at the end of primary school (PSLE).
High scorers gain entry to top academic schools while low scorers find themselves in schools focused on vocational training where students are prepared for jobs in retail and hospitality industries.
This system puts a lot of pressure on kids and their families.
Despite making it in one of Singapore’s top academic streams, 17-year-old Charmaine says she struggles to keep up. “I kind of developed a fear of failure. It did not bring the best out of me. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I got really low when it felt like I would never have a future”, she tells Dateline.
But being placed in the vocational stream actually took the pressure off 14-year-old Maria. “My experience with PSLE wasn’t very well. I would get teased and I just didn’t want to be in such an environment”. Maria is now studying hospitality at one of the vocational school. “I enjoy coming to school, I don’t dread it as much as I used to”, she adds.
While many see ending up in a vocational school as a failure, Leu Mei shares why Singapore pays equal importance to build skilled workforce. “Being a small nation, there has been no agriculture, no natural resources. We can only invest in the mass of the size of the fist in the head”.
“Right from decolonisation days in the sixties, we felt the need to build people with skills, who can work in factories and offices”, she tells Dateline.
Another defining feature of Singapore’s education system is that teachers are well-paid and highly respected.
After witnessing a Singaporean classroom for the first time, Principal Denise Lofts from Ulladulla High School told Dateline “Teachers are very much appreciated; their profile within the community is high. Wouldn’t that be great in our own country if that was the desire?”
With the teaching profession being so aspirational in Singapore, it’s now become very competitive. Only applicants from the top 30 per cent from all University graduates are accepted into a teaching degree.
Students in Singapore are also taught by specialised teachers Year Three onwards. But in Australia, specialised teaching doesn’t start until high school. In fact, less than 1 in 4 high school kids in Australia are taught by qualified Math teachers, due to chronic shortage of teachers.
Tuesday, 15 October at 9.30pm on SBS.