A major plank of the argument made in the previous blog (The Other End of Empire) for an upside for Scotland’ independence, using Singapore as an example was its education system. A central priority virtually since their independence, some 20% of the country’s entire budget is spent on education and with result that are statistically impressive. The structured system though which children progress for almost twenty years is credited with part of the success. But even more important is the status that the entire population accord it and the esteem in which its professionals are held.
Schooling in Singapore begins at the age of 4 in nursery, then 5-6 in kindergarten, before proceeding into the more structured primary school system at age 7. Upon clearing the Primary School Leaving Examination after six years, pupils proceed to secondary school, going into more advanced schoolwork and preparing for the GCE (General Certificate of Education) O-Levels. From there, the path branches, one of which leads to a Polytechnic, where they can specialise in areas of study with more relevance to industry. Doing well in O-levels will net a student a place in a Junior College, preparing for the next and final phase of schooling, university.
All this need not result in better education. But some respected international studies indicate that it does. The Learning Curve has brought together an extensive set of internationally comparable data on education inputs and outputs covering over 50 countries. This, in turn, has enabled a wide-ranging correlation analysis, conducted to test the strength of relationships between inputs, outputs and various socio-economic outcomes. It also underpins an initiative to create a comparative index of educational performance which, as might be imagined, is anything but straightforward. They have established some axiomatic factors in good education:
- Strong relationships between education inputs and outputs are few
- Income matters, but culture matters more
- There is no substitute for good teachers
- When it comes to school choice, good information is crucial
- There is no single path to better labour market outcomes
- A global index can help highlight educational strengths and weaknesses
In formulating these axioms, they have developed five lessons for education policy-makers:
- There are no magic bullets The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement.
- Respect teachers: Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.
- Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.
- Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education: Parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.
- Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.
So, bearing the two lists above in mind, what—if anything—can be drawn from a comparison of Scottish with Singaporean education? Given that countries are now competing in global markets with a fluidity that makes mockery of sovereign borders, there is no merit in an argument that we should be looking closer to home. Let’s not delude ourselves: both English and Scottish education, for all its abilities and dedicated teachers, is churning out substandard graduates, be they from primary, secondary or tertiary level. Take five crucial parameters:
- Early Years. Despite Scotland having introduced nursery places for 3- and 4-year-olds, they are little more than creches that enable parents to work. Singaporean pre-schools have broad, balanced and purposeful curriculum, delivered through planned play activities. Children develop skills such as speaking, listening, persistence, as well as early reading, writing and numeracy. While the highly-rated Scandinavians do not introduce such structured learning until 6, they do utilise the earlier years for learning social interaction, especially outdoors with nature.
- Primary. Whereas in Scotland, children supposedly progress together as classes with a single teacher each year, the pressure on funds and composite classes, as well as the introduction of specialist teachers (e.g. music; languages) rather undermines that. In Singapore, this consists of a 4-year foundation stage from Primary 1 to 4 and a 2-year orientation stage from Primary 5 to 6. The overall aim of primary education is to give students a good grasp of English language, Mother Tongue (e.g. Malay) and Mathematics. Unlike Scotland, pupils do not progress either illiterate or innumerate.
- Secondary. Whereas in Scotland (and even more so in England) there is a narrowing focus on fewer subjects as pupils progress towards sixth year, in Singapore Schools in Singapore boast a holistic education, which is another word for having a well rounded education. In this, it is more like the European Baccalaureat. Although specialist schools exist, the emphasis is to bring all pupils to competence in a wide range of subjects.
- Tertiary. Comparable in stature and ability to colleges and universities elsewhere, the biggest difference in Singapore lies in the status of vocational institutions. As Singapore acts as an entrepôt for half the world (and the dynamic half at that) there is immense demand for well educated hands-on professionals, craftsmen and artisans. There is no stigma attached to such careers and certainly no perception that they are inferior to ‘white collar’ doctors of lawyers.
- Teachers. As in other countries where the standard of education is exceptionally high, the social status of teachers as professionals is also exceptionally high. This is a product of the teachers themselves and willing respect and encouragement from parents. What EIS and other teaching unions fail to grasp is that the more they ignore the educational welfare of pupils and focus entirely on teachers’ pay and conditions as if they were hard done by, the less this positive perception of teachers is achievable here in Scotland.
- Society. In part deriving from the large ethnic Chinese grouping, who have always placed high importance on education as a vehicle for success and happiness, the status and importance of education is higher in Singapore (both among parents and pupils) than it is in Scotland. In Scotland, this priority exists, but mainly among the middle class and those sending their children to private school.
These are clearly only an overview of differences and there are certainly many whose opinion is that the Singapore system is too rigid, churning out too many generalists and stifling creativity. Such thinking led to Burgess Hill and the like in the 1960s and major changes in curriculum in both Scotland & England through the eighties. The net result was barely any improvement for the better pupils and the beginnings of illiteracy and innumeracy among the worse.
All people are different and will succeed in their own different ways. But, unless they are equipped with a minimum (and standard) set of skills during their education, they will struggle to recognise—let alone achieve—that success. It is NOT a question of money. Many politicians and educators point to poor school results from poor areas but draw the wrong conclusion and throw money at the problem. But instead, if the society in those sink areas adopted the attitude of the Singaporeans (or US immigrant poor in the Bowery or impoverished 18th-century Scots who soaked up the teachings of their parish school dominie to create the Enlightenment) then Scotland would finally be back on the road to leading the world in education.