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Contemporary Educational Systems


The island of Singapore boasts a strategic position that serves as a gateway between the Indian Ocean to its East and the Pacific Ocean to its West. Its small geographic size, lack of natural resources, and well-managed, meritocratic government has contributed to making education a priority. The emphasis placed on the development of human capital, considered the road towards economic advancement and stability, began early in the formation of this small city-state. Furthermore, education was a means for unifying Singapore’s pluralistic society under a bilingual education system that was respectful of the historical and cultural roots of its diverse population, recognizing the value in all four of its official languages— Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English.


Singapore’s education system has been placed at center stage, recognized globally for its success in recent international assessments, including PISA and TIMSS. According to the PISA 2009 assessment results, which evaluated the competencies of 15-years-olds’ in 65 participating countries across the globe, Singapore placed 5th in reading, 2nd in math, and 4th in science. In the TIMSS 2011 assessment, Singapore’s 4th graders placed 1st in Math and 2nd in Science, while their 8th graders placed 2nd in Math and 1st in Science.


The achievements of Singapore have been the product of a system that believes in continual improvement. This philosophy has been reinforced by strategic partnerships between the country’s National Institute of Education (NIE), the Ministry of Education (MOE) and local schools, unified by the holistic goal of developing a nation that can successfully compete in the global marketplace through education. This tripartite cooperation, coupled with the implementation of the educational reform policies of Teach less, Learn More in 2004 and Thinking Schools, Learning Nations (TSLN) in 1997, have changed the focus and drive of Singapore’s contemporary education system (OECD, 2011). These acting parties and initiatives, backed by an efficient, centralized government, have facilitated the quality assurance of the nation’s education system. Effective teacher training and professional development, innovative teaching through the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), and the internationalization of higher education have helped make Singapore a model system worldwide.

Since Singapore was able to establish universal primary and secondary schooling early on in its educational history, contemporary efforts have been geared towards improving the quality of education. Thinking Schools, Learning Nations is an initiative that has focused on the incorporation of new technologies, better curriculum, and critical and higher order thinking skills. This policy envisions lifelong learning as an integral part of Singaporean culture, an inclusive learning environment comprised of a variety of stakeholders at every level of society: “students, teachers, parents, workers, companies, community organizations, and the government,” according to Senior Minister, then Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong (Ng, p. 6). Educators have recognized the value of a curriculum that utilizes project-based and student-centered learning to motivate and engage pupils so that they are able to “derive excitement and pleasure from learning” (Ng, p. 9).


Quality Assurance

Policymakers are aware that the key to educational quality is through the teacher—that no education system can be greater than the quality of its educators (Pearson Foundation, 2011). The NIE’s educational reforms, which focused on the teaching craft, were sparked by TSLN’s lifelong learning initiative, “[fueling] significant changes in the recruitment, preparation, compensation, status, and professional development of teachers,” forming a comprehensive system for improving teacher quality in Singapore (Darling-Hammond & Lieberman, p. 27). Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong claimed that this reform would “redefine the role of teacher…teaching itself will be a learning profession” (Darling-Hammond & Lieberman, p. 26).

The results of reform policies have placed teacher salaries on equal playing fields as entry-level lawyers, engineers, and business graduates. Teachers are highly regarded and given enormous status, similar to other top performing countries, such as Finland and South Korea (Shawchuck, 2012). The MOE’s active recruitment through the media, the hosting of prestigious recruitment events, and the national recognition from important government officials, including the Prime Minister himself, have contributed to the high profile given to teachers (Darling-Hammond & Lieberman, 2012).

Teaching is a very competitive field in Singapore. Many applicants are turned down each year, as only the top third of each graduating secondary class is accepted into NIE, the country’s single teacher preparation institute. The NIE, housed at Nanyang Technological University, also conducts interviews in an effort to recruit passionate applicants that truly care about the profession and their students (Pearson Foundation, 2011).

Once students are accepted into a teacher prep program, “student teachers are appointed as MOE employees,” receiving full salary and benefits. Tuition fees are covered and upon graduation, students are assured of employment, with the requirement of completing 3-5 years of service. According to 2012 MOE statistics, a total of 30,815 teachers have been placed in 365 schools throughout the city-state. However, since “not everyone can be a teacher,” students that are unable to complete the program must repay the government. (Darling-Hammond & Lieberman, 2012, p. 27).

The National Institute of Education offers multiple pathways for entering into the teaching program, accommodating a variety of students from diverse secondary school tracks. Initial Teacher Preparation Programs include: Postgraduate Diplomas in Education (PGDE) for university students with a Bachelor’s degree; and a full-time Bachelor of Arts or Science program (BA/BSc), part-time Bachelor of Education program (BEd), or a Diploma in Education for all A- level or polytechnic graduates. Each option offers the graduate an opportunity to teach in different grade levels or educational tracks. This way, students specialize in the methodology for primary, secondary, or junior level in at least 1 subject. (Darling-Hammond & Lieberman, 2012)

The NIE philosophy of Teacher Education for 21st Century Model promotes a “3-pronged set of values (V) with skills (S) and knowledge (K),” forming the V3SK framework. The three values paradigms of V3SK include: “learner-centered values, teacher identity values, and the value of service to the profession and community,” closely aligned with the national educational policy reform, Thinking Schools, Learning Nations (Tan, 2012).


To gain hands on experience, all students enrolled in Initial Teacher Preparation must complete a teaching practicum. PGDE students complete a ten-month practicum requirement. BA/BSc students complete an initial two-week experience in a school their first year, and five weeks of observation/reflection at two different grade levels their second year. In the third year of the program, BA/BSc students complete five weeks of guided practice, and in their final year, ten weeks of teaching two or more different subjects at two different grade levels (Darling-Hammond & Lieberman, 2012).

When new teachers begin at their appointed positions, they are not left to fend for themselves. Instead, they are assigned a buddy or mentor teacher for support throughout their first several years in the profession. The ideals set forth by TSLN that promote a culture of lifelong, continual learning allows teachers a total of 100 hours of paid professional development per year, in an effort to become a better teachers (Pearson Foundation, 2011). In fact, the government hopes to meet the goal of “30 percent of the teaching force to have a Master’s degree qualification by 2020” (Darling-Hammond & Lieberman, 2012, p. 39).

High performance is instilled through professional development tracks for educators to continue improving in order to reach their full potential in the field. Teachers can choose to pursue three different tracks for advancement through the MOE’s Education Service Professional Development and Career Plan: the teaching track for those that would like to become a master teacher, the leadership track, or the senior specialist track to focus on curriculum and research. Each pathway has salary incentives (Sclafani, 2008).

Furthermore, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) were created in 2009, as a forum for teachers to share and enhance student learning. Teachers work together to develop better teaching practices. Today there are 271 PLCs, giving teachers a platform to share, test, try, and assess results. This collaborative effort is used to improve any lesson through constructive critique, instilling a spirit of innovative practice. It also serves as a forum for training teachers to use new technology (Pearson Foundation, 2011).

Innovation through ICT

The development of ICT skills as a 21st century competency has been a central focus for education systems worldwide, not only to better prepare citizens to be active participants of a globalized knowledge society, but also as a tool used by teachers to motivate and engage learners. ICT has been used as a student-centered approach to learning, allowing educators to act as facilitators of knowledge. This was adopted early on by the MOE, with the implementation of ICT Masterplan One in 1997, allowing “every school to be fully networked” in order to conduct 30% of class time in hands-on learning through computers. ICT Masterplan Two followed in 2003, taking the use of technology to the next level by changing the classroom culture, focusing on curriculum, assessment, instruction, and professional development. The current ICT plan, Masterplan Three, implemented in 2009, is an extension of the first two, focusing in strengthening best practices through innovation (Ng, 2010).

The MOE is aware that the successes of the first two policies have been the result of Singapore’s manageable size and efficient governance. However, the Ministry of Education has realized that in order to strengthen pedagogy to enhance learning through ICT, it would have to grant schools some autonomy. This trend of centralized decentralization has been implemented in an effort to foster greater innovation in the teaching practice. A bottom up approach to ICT lends itself to a more adaptive and organic integration of ICT in the curriculum through experimental practices that could improve student-learning outcomes (Ng, 2010).

One Professional Learning Community implemented the use of Twitter and smartphones in math class. This was one way for the teachers to monitor and motivate learners in a class of 40 pupils, without losing control of classroom management (Pearson Foundation, 2011). Another initiative includes the use of social media platforms, like Facebook, as a tool to communicate with parents and foster school pride (MOE, 2013). While schools have been granted more autonomy, there is “still strong alignment among the curriculum, examinations and assessments; incentives for students to work hard; and accountability measures for teachers and principals, making policy and implementation much easier and effective through a centralized approach versus a loosely-coupled systems” (OECD, 2011).


Internationalization of Education

“In 2002, the Ministry of Education and National Institute of Education established the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP) to evaluate reforms and enable the MOE to plan medium and long-term policy interventions.” Research has really centered on pedagogy, what happens in the classroom between teacher and student. The CRPP, which has helped to drive the innovative educational practices of Singapore today, is the largest educational research center in Asia. (Ozga, Seddon, & Popkewitz, 2006, p. 176)

In addition to research, this island-state “has also made extensive use of international benchmarking as a tool for improvement and to move up the educational value chain” (OECD, 2011). Forward-looking Singapore has looked to New Zealand as a model for improving Physical Education; Australia, for Art education; Japan, for its Music education; and the United States for its excellence in teaching to non-heritage speakers. As masters of comparative educational practice, Singapore adapts these methodologies to fit their country’s educational needs.

In effort to expand learning beyond international benchmarking, Singapore has also made extensive efforts to internationalize its higher education system in order to become a research hub for scholars from all over the world. Partnerships have been established with top-ranked universities, such as Yale, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and Duke, among the U.S. institutions. NIE hopes that pre-service teachers are able tobenefit from the skills and knowledge gained from an international environment, in order to infuse their teaching with international perspectives, better preparing their students to be part of the global marketplace.

Building off of these internationalization efforts, numerous requests for international consultancy work have been placed with NIE. These requests have been controversial, as many people deem this outside the core mission of NIE. However, by focusing on internationalization as a collaborative experience for knowledge sharing and creation, with an end goal of improving education and student learning, the institute has agreed a variety of international consultancy efforts. These have included building local capacity through the establishment of teacher institutions in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, a “training-the-trainers” transformational leadership program for 30,000 Vietnamese school leaders, and an executive program, Leaders in Education Program International, to build capacity and empower its participants to be active leaders in education.


Singapore has created a culture of lifelong learning, a philosophy that drives the effort of continual improvement to seek excellence. It has demonstrated that its strong performance is linked to successful, collaborative reform efforts between the MOE, NIE, and local schools, united by the common goal of shaping a country through education.

Singapore knows that its education system is not perfect, and its tripartite will continue to develop its quality for its citizens. Singapore continues to adopt reform efforts gained from comparative international learning contexts. For this reason, the MOE has most recently concentrated in a kindergarten initiative to better prepare students for Primary One. They are currently enrolling students in the first five kindergartens to begin in April 2013. The MOE also hopes to increase the teacher workforce to 33,000 by 2015 in order to decrease the student to teacher ratio from 40:1 to 30:1 (MOE, 2013).

By dedicating all efforts to the development of its most precious resource—manpower— Singapore knows that investing in a world-class educational system will help it to sustainably thrive as a competitive nation in the today’s modern, globalized society. By continuing to monitor a well-managed, comprehensive system, and creating further opportunity for innovation, research, and learning, Singapore hopes to remain in the international spotlight.


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TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center (2013). TIMSS and PIRLS. Retrieved April 6, 2013, from http://timss.bc.edu/

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