Updated version 12 November 2011

I had always been interested in Asia’s success story of Singapore, that transformed itself from a developing country to a modern industrial economy in one generation. This year I had the opportunity of a visiting professorship at Singapore’s National Institute of Education to learn more about this country. If I had to summarise what I learned in one sentence, this is a story about political coherence and leadership as well as alignment between policy and practice; about setting ambitious standards in everything you do; about focusing on building teacher and leadership capacity to deliver vision and strategy at the school level; and about a culture of continuous improvement and future orientation that benchmarks educational practices against the best in the world.

At the institutional level, both policy coherence and fidelity of implementation are brought about by a strategic relationship between the Ministry of Education, the NIE and the schools. That's not just words. The reports I received from policy makers, researchers and teachers were entirely consistent, even where they represented different perspectives. NIE’s dynamic director Lee Sing Kong meets the Minister on a weekly basis. NIE professors are regularly involved in ministry discussions and decisions, so it is easy for NIE’s work to be aligned with ministry policies, and school principals learn about major reform proposals directly from the Minister, rather than through the media. Teacher education programmes are designed with the teacher in mind, rather than to suit the interests of academic departments. Teachers typically go into the field with a first degree, the Master’s programme serves to frame the practical experience gained in schools within a coherent theoretical underpinning later in mid-career – and I met plenty of teachers who had taken that up and continue their education while in the profession. In recognising the need for teachers to keep up with the rapid changes occurring in the world and to be able to constantly improve their practice, every teacher is entitled to 100 hours of professional development per year. Teacher networks and professional learning communities encourage peer-to-peer learning and the Academy of Singapore Teachers was opened in September 2010 to further encourage teachers to continuously share best practices.

The usual complaint that teacher education does not provide sufficient opportunity for recruits to experience real students in real classrooms in their initial education isn’t unknown in Singapore. It is simply difficult, disruptive and expensive to get an annual cohort of 2000 teacher recruits into classrooms. So what to do? Do like Stanford and establish the world’s premier teacher education institution with clinical experience for a hundred students per year and let the rest of the country sink? Singapore is not the U.S. where teacher policy is a function of myriad decisions made by local authorities who often have no idea how their decisions are actually affecting the quality of the teaching profession. So Singapore has gone the other way round – on top of school practicum attachments of between 10 to 22 weeks, NIE is currently bringing classrooms digitally into pre-service education, with technology enabling real-time access to a selection of the country’s classrooms, in ways that don't distract schools from their core business and at the same provide student-teachers with insights into classroom experience in many schools, rather than have a few idiosyncratic experiences only. NIE also carries out an amazing range of classroom-oriented research to help teachers personalise learning experiences, deal with increasing diversity in their classrooms and differences in learning styles, and keep up with innovations in curricula, pedagogy and digital resources.

It is also striking to see how teaching talent is identified and nurtured rather than being left to chance. Like all government employees and many other professions in Singapore, the teachers’ performance is appraised annually by a board and against 13 different competencies. These are not just about academic performance, but include teachers’ contribution to the academic and character development of the students in their charge, their collaboration with parents and community groups, and their contribution to their colleagues and the school as a whole. It was intriguing to see how teachers didn't seem to view this as a top-down accountability system but as an instrument for improvement and career development. Teachers who do outstanding work receive a bonus from the school’s bonus pool.  After three years of teaching, teachers are assessed annually to see which of three career paths would best suit them – master teacher, specialist in curriculum or research or school leader. Importantly, the individual appraisal system sits within the context of great attention to the school’s overall plan for educational excellence.

PISA data show that schools in Singapore have comparatively limited leeway in making hiring decisions. But I learned that the principal of the school to which teacher-students are attached will sit on the recruitment panel and weigh in on decisions about the recruitment of the people they could end up with, well aware that wrong recruitment decisions can result in 40 years of poor teaching. So it’s not all just about your school, but about the success of the system.

I could see how all of this plays out in practice in Qifa Primary School. It was the experience you would expect in Singapore, a charismatic school leader, an engaged team of teachers with a critical and collaborative mindset, and disciplined and yet cheerful students. But what impressed me most was a visit to one of Singapore’s three Institutes of Technical Education (ITE) which cater for the bottom quarter of school performers. I had long wanted to see how the country deals with these students. I was received in the school’s restaurant which, entirely managed and run by students, almost looks like an upgraded Lau Pa Sat with airconditioning, serving dishes from a dozen countries and cultures, a symbol of a country that doesn't see culture as an obstacle but seeks to capitalize on its diversity.

I visited a classroom where a visiting Australian chef was captivating a group of students with an interactive presentation on the latest research on preparing meat, in a first-class learning environment equipped with the up-to-date technology. The facilities and amenities of the ITE were easily comparable to those of modern universities anywhere else. This is a country that invests the same amount of public money into every vocational student as the high school student going to its most prestigious university, that understands that the physical learning environment can shape the image of an institution and that prioritizes the quality of teaching over the size of classes. And the ministry provides the ITE’s with full budgetary autonomy over a ten-year budget envelope to facilitate long-term strategic planning and investment.

Clearly, Singapore seeks to break the East Asian mould where academic achievement is revered as the only route to success, recognising that students learn differently and differently at different stages in their lives. Once seen as a last resort, Singapore’s ITE College West is now a place of choice for students, with 90% of graduates finding jobs in their chosen field, up from 60% decades ago. The ITE also sees a sizeable number of students who make it from the ITE to the polytechnic to the university and to anywhere in life. Principal Yek Tiew Ming explained how the ITE carefully follows its graduates for a decade to learn from their experience and success, and regularly brings successful alumni back to show its current students that the sky is the limit to achievement. The ITE’s also provide good examples for building synergies between public provision and the business sector. Each technical field in the ITE’s is advised by industries in that sector to keep it current with changing demands and new technologies. New programmes can be built for multinational companies looking to locate in Singapore.

All this has changed the way in which political leaders and educators view those students, no longer considering them as failures but as experiential learners. And I was impressed by the students of the ITE as much as by its principal and teachers.

I had taken the outgoing flight with a Western airline and the returning flight to Paris with Singapore Airlines; you fly with the same plane with the same technology, you eat similar food but you experience how much the sense of responsibility, dedication and diligence of the people in charge can make a difference to your experience as a customer.

There are important lessons the world can learn from Singapore. To those who believe that systemic change in education is not possible, Singapore has shown several times over how this can be achieved. To become and remain high-performing, countries need a policy infrastructure that drives performance and builds the capacity for educators to deliver it in schools. Singapore has developed both. Where Singapore is today is the result of several decades of judicious policy and effective implementation. On the spectrum of national reform models, Singapore’s is both comprehensive – the goal has been to move the whole system – and public policy-driven.

I was struck most by the following features.

Meritocracy. I heard not just from policy makers or educators but also from students of all ethnic backgrounds and all ranges of ability that education is the route to advancement and that hard work and effort eventually pays off. The government has put in place a wide range of educational and social policies to advance this goal, with early intervention and multiple pathways to education and career. The success of the government’s economic and educational policies has brought about immense social mobility that has created a shared sense of national mission and made cultural support for education a near-universal value.

Vision, leadership and competency. Leaders with a bold long-term vision of the role of education in a society and economy are essential for creating educational excellence. I was consistently impressed with the people I met at both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Manpower. These Ministries are staffed by knowledgeable, pragmatic individuals, trained at some of the best universities in the world. They function in a culture of continuous improvement, constantly assessing what is and isn’t working using both data and practitioner experience from around the world. I was speaking with Minister Heng about our Skills Strategy only to realise that he had already studied most of my slides. They also respect and are respected by professionals in the NIE as in the schools. The close collaboration between policy, research and practice provides a guiding coalition that keeps the vision moving forward and dynamic, expecting education to change as conditions change rather than being mired in the past.

Coherence. In Singapore, whenever a policy is developed or changed, there seems enormous attention to the details of implementation – from the Ministry of Education, to the National Institute of Education, cluster superintendents, principals and teachers. The result is a remarkable fidelity of implementation which you see in the consistency of the reports from different stakeholders. 

Clear goals, rigorous standards and high-stakes gateways. The academic standards set by Singapore’s Primary School Leaving Examination and O and A-levels are as high as anywhere in the world, and that is also what you see from their results in PISA. Students, teachers and principals all work very hard towards important gateways. Rigour, coherence and focus are the watchwords. Serious attention to curriculum development has produced strong programmes in maths, science, technical education and languages and ensured that teachers are well-trained to teach them. Having been very successful as a knowledge transmission education system, Singapore is now working on curriculum, pedagogy and assessments that will lead to a greater focus on high-level, complex skills.

High-quality teachers and principals. The system rests on active recruitment of talent, accompanied by coherent training and serious and continuing support that promote teacher growth, recognition, opportunity and well-being. And Singapore looks ahead, realising that as the economy continues to grow and change it will become harder to recruit the kind of top-level people into teaching that are needed to support 21st century learning.

Intelligent accountability. Singapore runs on performance management. To maintain the performance of teachers and principals, serious attention is paid to setting annual goals, to garnering the needed support to meet them and to assessing whether they have been met. Data on student performance are included, but so too are a range of other measures, such as contribution to school and community, and judgements by a number of senior practitioners. Reward and recognition systems include honours and salary bonuses. Individual appraisals take place within the context of school excellence plans. While no country believes it has got accountability exactly right, Singapore’s system uses a wide range of indicators and involves a wide range of professionals in making judgements about the performance of adults in the system. 

So is there nothing that Singapore can learn from the world? Actually there are a number a points.

You can mandate good performance, but you need to unleash greatness. Finland provides an example for how you can shift the focus from a regulating towards an enabling policy environment. Perhaps it was no surprise then that when I met State Minister Wong for lunch, he had just returned from a visit to Finland. 

Singapore’s educators realize that the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test, are also the skills that are easiest to digitize, automate and outsource; and that value is less and less created vertically through command and control and increasingly so horizontally by whom you connect and work with. There is much talk about educational success being no longer about reproducing content knowledge, and efforts initiated to develop imaginative skills to connect the dots and to anticipate where the next invention will come from; about ways of working, including communication and collaboration; and about the tools for working, including the capacity to recognize and exploit the potential of new technologies. And more than that, the centre of the current discussion is now on ethics, values and the capacity of students to live in a multi-faceted world as active and engaged citizens. But Singapore’s educators, like educators elsewhere, struggle with finding appropriate answers to what students should learn, the ways in which they can learn these broader competences and how teaching and schooling needs to change to achieve this.

Despite building many bridges and ladders across the system, PISA shows how social background still creates important barriers for student success. Like others, Singapore finds that the emphasis on meritocracy alone provides no guarantee for equity, and that it takes effective systems of support to moderate the impact of social background on student and school outcomes and to identify and foster the extraordinary talents of ordinary students. Educators are inspired by the life-changing opportunities created at the Northlight School. There is also considerable interest in Shanghai’s success with attracting the most effective school principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms as well as in Ontario’s approach to creating awareness of and addressing social disadvantage.

While Singapore does so well in allocating public resources to maximize value for money, parents are spending significant resources on private tutoring. When measured in PISA metrics, private tutoring actually adds very little in value to the high quality education in Singaporean schools but it does, apart from the money, take up a disproportionate amount of student learning time. Singapore would make much better use of the country’s economic and human resources by accepting rather than ignoring the demand for such more personalized learning and perhaps building it into the regular school days of public schools, as countries like Denmark or Finland have successfully done.

So, all in all, while there is a lot the world can learn from Singapore, there remain lessons too which Singapore can continue to learn from the world. In short, there seems always much to gain from education systems collaborating to address tomorrow’s challenges to their strengths today.