Singapore Education

Topics: Higher education, Secondary education, Education Pages: 18 (12113 words) Published: November 18, 2014

Rapid Improvement
Followed by Strong Performance
Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories, transforming itself from a developing country to a modern industrial economy in one generation. During the last decade, Singapore’s education system has remained consistently at or near the top of most major world education ranking systems. This chapter examines how this “tiny red dot” on the map has achieved and sustained so much, so quickly. From Singapore’s beginning, education has been seen as central to building both the economy and the nation. The objective was to serve as the engine of human capital to drive economic growth. The ability of the government to successfully match supply with demand of education and skills is a major source of Singapore’s competitive advantage. Other elements in its success include a clear vision and belief in the centrality of education for students and the nation; persistent political leadership and alignment between policy and practice; a focus on building teacher and leadership capacity to deliver reforms at the school level; ambitious standards and assessments; and a culture of continuous improvement and future orientation that benchmarks educational practices against the best in the world.


© OECD 2010




When Singapore became independent in 1965, it was a poor, small (about 700 km2), tropical island with few natural resources, little fresh water, rapid population growth, substandard housing and recurring conflict among the ethnic and religious groups that made up its population. At that time there was no compulsory education and only a small number of high school and college graduates and skilled workers. Today, Singapore is a gleaming global hub of trade, finance and transportation. Its transformation “from third world to first” in one generation is one of Asia’s great success stories (Yew, 2000).

All children in Singapore receive a minimum of 10 years of education in one of the country’s 360 schools. Singapore’s students were among the top in the world in mathematics and science on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007. They came fourth in literacy in the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Their excellence is further underlined by the fact that Singapore was one of the top-performing countries in the 2009 PISA survey (Table 7.1 and Figure 7.1), the first PISA survey in which it participated. Singapore was rated as one of the best performing education systems in a 2007 McKinsey study of teachers (Barber and Mourshed, 2007), and was rated first in the 2007 IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook (IMD, 2007) for having an education system that best meets the needs of a competitive economy. At the higher education level, the National University of Singapore was ranked 34th in the world and 4th in Asia in the Times Higher Education Supplement Rankings of World Universities in 2010 (Times Higher Education Supplement, 2010). How has this little red dot on the map, as Singaporeans frequently refer to their country, a nation that is not even 50 years old, evolved from a backwater undeveloped economy into a world economic and educational leader in such a short period of time? What education policies and practices has Singapore employed? And are the lessons from Singapore’s experience relevant for other countries? This chapter attempts to provide some answers to these questions. First, however, we look at the broader context.

Table 7.1

Singapore’s mean scores on reading, mathematics and science scales in PISA PISA 2000

PISA 2003

PISA 2006

PISA 2009

Mean score

Mean score

Mean score

Mean score







Source: OECD (2010), PISA 2009 Volume...
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