The Singapore Education System: What you need to know
This article will give you the essential facts about the Singapore school system. It’s valuable reading for parents and educators.
The Singapore education system has consistently ranked as one of the highest globally. The Economist explains that when Singapore became independent in 1965, it had “few friends and even fewer natural resources”. So how did it become one of the most important commercial and financial centres internationally?
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, said the strategy was –
“to develop Singapore’s only available natural resource: its people”.
Today, we see the fruit of this commitment, with two of its universities consistently ranked in the top 10 in Asia (NUS and NTU).
The Stages of Education in Singapore
Education in Singapore follows the Western model at its core.
All students attend a public school for a small fee. A “streaming” system puts students in different programs according to their academic strengths.
Year 6 students (11-year-olds) will take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) for essential numerical, literary, and scientific skills. This test is the first significant hurdle for a student in Singapore’s educational journey to jump over.
Depending on the outcomes of the PSLE, the student is sorted into three streams:
- Express Stream (for fast and motivated learners)
- Normal – Academic (for average scorers)
- Normal – Technical (for those specialising in a technical field)
In the last years of high school, students will need to sit their O-level exams (16 year- olds). This final test will determine which graduating college they are eligible to enter.
Junior colleges are generally the quickest route to university. On the other hand, Polytechnics and the Institute for Technological Education provide better pathways to vocational careers.
At every stage, the student’s passions and academic performance help determine the pathway ahead. Private tuition and extra training play a significant role here. Providers such as Easylore help ensure the student is not left behind.
How Important Is Academic Achievement in Singapore?
Academic success is critical in Singapore. Yet, there is a clear mandate to embrace holistic learning. Teachers must focus on academic ability but not at the expense of the student’s self-awareness, resilience and character development. It takes all of these qualities to form the intelligent and responsible world citizen that Singapore wishes to cultivate.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) lists the Desired Outcomes of Education as a helpful guide to ensuring our children grow resilient and healthy. In addition, they emphasise the importance for the child to become:
- A confident person with a zest for life
- A self-directed learner who takes ownership of their learning
- An active and effective team player
- A concerned citizen who is responsible for their community and nation
Syllabus, Curriculum And Teaching
The MOE organises the syllabus and curriculum for the PSLE, GCE O, N and A-Levels (the equivalent level of the Cambridge IGCSE). More time is devoted to core subjects such as maths and science than any other, as they are more practical and requested by employers.
As a result, the curriculum promotes the depth and quality of the material taught instead of simply injecting large amounts of unrelated information.
Teachers help students find the correct answer instead of being drawn into various levels of understanding. They teach closely to the requirements for examinations, tests and handbooks.
Students who do not meet this standard turn to private tutors who play an essential role in filling knowledge gaps.
Contrary to many Western school systems, the Singapore system has primarily maintained a hierarchical and top-down approach in class. Courses are generally ordered and disciplined, and teachers still dominate most of the speaking time.
Teachers also enjoy greater autonomy in the choice of teaching methods for their pupils, whether Eastern, Western or a combination of the two. They have based their practice on a culture that values education above all else.
Because of this, parents go to great lengths to support their child’s learning. They view educational success as something to prioritise, cherish and celebrate. This drive to academic greatness is a significant reason for the popularity of online tuition and essay writing services.
Dealing With Stress
We cannot hide from the reality of stress in the lives of everyone studying and working in the new post-COVID-19 world.
As the pandemic unfolded, social contact between students and teachers declined dramatically. It is no coincidence that mental health problems among students are making the headlines more than ever before.
Mindful of criticism of the damaging effect of stress caused by excessive testing, MOE has recently scrapped exams for Primary 1 and Primary 2.
Exams have also been removed for pupils in Secondary 1 and Secondary 3.
The changes were announced in 2019 by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who said,
“I think we are at a strong position of rigour, we can afford to unwind a bit without undermining the performance outcomes of our students,”
This change of tact aligns well with Western countries that have embraced holistic education for quite some time. Singapore has since made significant strides in the direction of holistic education.
MOE emphasises the holistic learning approach to cultivate and make the learning journey fun and fulfilling.
“to give students more choices in pursuing their interests along pathways that better fit their learning styles.”
Every government school under the leadership of the Ministry of Education has a clear mandate to embrace holistic education. All schools have moved towards a holistic approach that transforms them into 21st-century smart classrooms as part of the smart nation initiative.
Besides achieving good grades, Singapore students are observed for inborn character traits like graciousness, respect, responsibility, resilience, integrity and teamwork.
A child’s natural leadership shows when growing up in a loving family environment. In this setting, a child learns to love others, have a positive outlook in life and be gracious and kind to the needy.
Parents and educators must look at each child’s learner profile and observe their natural talents and behaviour when gaining new knowledge.
Learning should always be fun, and at the end of each lesson, the child should be able to say, “It was tough but fun!”
The Stages of Education – A Detailed View
Singapore’s educational system consists of 6 years of primary education, 4-5 years of secondary education and 1-3 years of post-secondary education.
Preschool is offered voluntarily by the Singapore Ministry of Education and private providers.
These childcare centres are often conveniently located at the parents’ offices. They even drop in to bring out the young child for lunch. The child is secure and comfortable knowing that the parents are always within reach.
While many private centres advocate brain training for children as young as 18 months old, the Singapore Education System officially starts at five years old. Children go into small playgroups that they conveniently call Nursery N1 for the five-year-olds and N2 for six-year-olds.
Children are treated like plants in a nursery where they are well-cared for, loved and nurtured daily with encouragement and empowerment. Children are exposed to play in a social setting to develop them into good communicators while interacting with their peers, exchanging toys and goodies.
After N2, they progress to Kindergarten K1 and K2. At these levels, they get skills-based training like story-reading techniques, motor skills, hand-eye coordination skills and counting. Government and private institutions will follow the syllabus laid out by the MOE to develop lesson plans and worksheets accordingly.
Primary school starts at age seven and is compulsory.
Before the age of seven, a child’s cognitive ability to adapt and learn new things is fluid and malleable. Once the child reaches the age of seven, their character and habits start to become more rigid. Nevertheless, educators work diligently to cultivate a growth mindset for lifelong learning to benefit both the child and society.
For government schools, primary education consists of six years. For government schools, it’s split into:
- Lower block (Primary 1 and 2)
- Middle block (Primary 3 and 4)
- Upper block (Primary 5 and 6)
International schools use Grade 7 to 12 terminology.
After six years of schooling, students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to determine which secondary school and stream they will attend.
Mother Tongue Language
The Mother Tongue Language (MTL) is offered in Singaporean schools as a second language. It is a compulsory subject.
There are three official MTLs primary school students can study:
Singapore is a multi-racial country home to Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian people.
MOE states the importance of learning the mother tongue language so children can:
- Communicate more effectively in their MTL.
- Appreciate their cultural heritage.
- Connect with wider communities across Asia and the world.
Express consists of two programs: O-Level and Integrated. The GCE O-Level program is a 4-year course leading into the GCE O-Level exam. The integrated program is a 6-year course leading to the GCE exam at A-Level Examination, International Baccalaureate Diploma or NUS High School Diploma. Students in the Integrated Programme do not need to take the GCE O-Level examination in Secondary 4.
The core subjects taken by an Express student at the upper secondary level are:
- English language
- Mother tongue language
- Higher Mother Tongue
- Double or Triple Pure Science
- Biology, Chemistry, Physics
- Combined Science with Electives
- Combined Science of (Physics and Chemistry or Biology and Chemistry)
- Design and Technology, Art or Home Economics
- Pure Geography/ History/ Literature with Social Studies or;
- Combined Humanities (Social studies and Geography or History)
- Principles of Accounting
The lower secondary school students (Secondary 1 and Secondary 2) will take all these subjects in their first two years. Then after this the streaming process takes place.
Students will complete their GCE O or N exams at the end of their secondary education. They will then decide on their path forward.
Depending on your child’s interests, strengths and learning goals, they can:
- Attend a junior college or Millennia Institute for a 2-3 year International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme course
- Take the GCE A-Level examination;
- Attend an ITE National Certificate Program for two to three years (INITE);
- Or go to Polytechnic.
Singapore and the Ministry of Education have done well.
Its teachers are highly valued, student test scores outperform those in other developed countries, and its policy-making has adapted when needed.
Singapore must not be complacent, though. There are always more innovative and effective ways of doing things and new complexities that need to be addressed. For example, the introduction of the metaverse will transform online education when it becomes more developed over the next 5 to 10 years.
Singapore began humbly, and thanks to decades of visionary leadership, resilience and discipline, it has grown into a place brimming with talent and human capital. With the proper support from parents and tuition providers, children entering the Singaporean education system are in good hands.
by Ande Schurr from Schurr Productions
Ande is based in Singapore and manages Easylore’s content and social media strategy. He’s also an educator trained in New Zealand’s education system. Ande is passionate about videography, tennis and exploring Singapore’s wildlife reserves with his wife. He can often be found queuing up for soup at Xiang Nong Lao Huo Tang in the Red Hill Food Center!
with assistance from Princess Charlene Jade from Charlene Jade Studios
Charlene is an MOE-Registered Instructor, Private Tutor, ABLE Senior Coach, English Teacher and Info-Comm Technology (ICT) Trainer. She gets tremendous satisfaction from the thousands of children and youth around the world she has had the pleasure of teaching.