Postcard from Singapore

I approached two boys in the playground, both wearing red and clutching oranges to give to their teachers for Chinese New Year.

“What are you going to do with your holiday?” I asked.

“Study,” the more confident of the two replied, “I would rather relax and hang out with my friends, but I have to keep up with my work”.

“Why is that? Are you behind in some subjects?”

“No, I’m top of the class, but I don’t want the others to catch up.”

This focus on hard work and competition was echoed in many of my conversations with pupils, parents and teachers in Singapore. The system is structured so that children compete with one another for places in the best schools and top sets from a young age. Combine this with an Asian parenting style known to most as ‘Tiger Mothers’ but to Singaporeans as ‘kiasu parents’ (kiasu=fear of losing) and you get a flourishing tutorial industry and book shops filled with study-guides.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that this pressure alone is what makes Singaporean students so successful in the international PISA tests. If you were to entertain further Asian stereotypes you might expect to see authoritarian teachers, dictating from the front of the classrooms while the students write in silence, but this is not the case in Singapore. Class sizes are on the large side, and the lessons are more teacher-led than in the West, but there is no mindless dictation.

I saw some Maths and Science lessons where the teacher would take the students’ answers, both correct and incorrect, and write them on the board. They’d then get the class to think through which were incorrect, and why, through clever questioning. Although the students were seated still in their seats, you could hear their brains whirring.

The teachers can only do this because they themselves are confident with the concepts they are teaching, and because they are very well trained. Teachers have to pass subject tests to be accepted onto teacher training courses, and the profession is competitive due to salaried training, good pay, and a sophisticated career structure. This career structure incentivises teachers to continue to develop professionally at all stages of their career; no-one ever sits back and thinks they know it all.

Of course, incentivising professional development is not enough to make it happen if teachers are too busy to give it any thought, or if there is no high quality training or guidance available. Singapore’s policies are intelligently aligned (and incidentally designed by teachers as part of their career development) so that these aspects are not a problem. Every school has a manpower grant which is ring-fenced to provide cover when teachers need to be out of school and on courses.

Courses are provided by three main organisations: the Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University, whose academics carry out research and lead training; the Curriculum Planning and Development Department which is based at the Ministry of Education; and the Academy of Singapore Teachers, which is run by Master Teachers (the top of one of three career ladders for teachers) and coordinates local networks as well as running subject based courses.

It is relatively easy for Singapore as a city-state to ensure that their professional development provision is high quality. But this isn’t the only thing stopping England following suit.

We need more funding dedicated to professional development if high quality teaching is as important as politicians keep saying it is. More fundamentally, we need to agree as a country on what we think high quality teaching is, so that we can consistently train teachers to do it.

Lucy Crehan is Senior Research Associate at the National Education Trust

[Originally posted 25 August 2014.]