Education system in Singapore


This year, Singapore celebrates its bicentennial of its founding in 1819 by Englishman Sir Stamford Raffles who set up the first premier school named after him. Raffles Institution (RI) is the alma mater of many illustrious Singaporeans, including Lee Kuan Yew. Education has moved up the quality ladder since, playing a key role in the city-state’s leap into First-World league.


A tri-yearly Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) survey by the Organisation of Economic and Co-operation Development (OECD) placed Singapore in the top spot among 70 countries in science, maths and reading of 15-year-old secondary school students. This achievement has been attributed largely to the attention given to problem-solving drills in the school curriculum. Indeed, periodic exams and assessments of students have been a hallmark of the Singapore education system. There is mandatory Primary Six Leaving Examination(PSLE), the General Certificate of Education (GCE) ‘O’ (ordinary) and GCE ‘A’ (advanced) exams. The examination grades served as objective yardsticks for students progress from one level to the next, all the way to university.


Primary education is compulsory for school-going children. Parents must enrol their children aged 6 or 7 in public schools for six years of secular education. Exceptions are made for homeschooling and religious education in Muslim madrasahs. But all must take the PSLE exams to chart their next level of education. The medium of instruction is English, the working language in the multiracial republic. Pupils at the Primary or foundational level learn English, a mother tongue, science, and mathematics. In addition to this is the co-curricular activity outside the classroom.


Tests used to begin early for the pupils until this year when the Primary One and Two exams and assessments were eliminated in order to make learning less stressful and more joyful for the children. But the policy of differentiating them according to learning abilities at the end of Primary Four is still in force. The rationale is that fast- and slow-learner should be given leeway to progress at their own pace. This means segregating them into Special, Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams in Primary Five. This early streaming has been criticised as unfair to late-bloomers. However, the impact will be felt further down the road.


In the meantime, Primary Six students who passed the PSLE exams will transit to secondary level based on the T-score in the four subjects of study. They will spend more years studying a wider range of six to ten Science and Humanities subjects and Engiish, leading to the GCE ‘O’ level exams. At this point, the results obtained by the cohorts in different streams will affect their chances for pre-university and post-secondary education in 19 junior colleges, polytechnics, and art schools such as Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of The Arts as well as Institute of Technical Education(ITE).


The better performers in the Special and Express streams will be selected for junior colleges and Millennium Institute. Under an Integrated or Through-Train Programme, brighter students can skip the ‘O’ level exams and go directly to take the GCE ‘A’ or International Baccalaureate diploma. In contrast, Normal(Academic) students sit for the N-level exams and must put in one more year before they qualify to take the GCE ‘O’ level examination. Normal (Technical) students will do directly to the ITE for vocational courses.


ITE used to be derided as “It’s The End” of the road for low-achievers who will likely end up with manual low-paying jobs. Nowadays, the upgraded ITE colleges offer industry apprenticeships and two-year diploma courses for skilled technicians and vocational trades as well as skills supporting professions like engineering, accountancy, nursing, medicine, architecture and law. As a result, ITE graduates land well-paying jobs too.


Industry-oriented polytechnics have also been an attractive option for those keen to pursue standard and specialised courses in engineering, business studies, accountancy, mass communication, digital studies and biotechnology, nursing, optometry and nautical studies.


In practice, 10 percent of Special stream cohort and 50 percent of the Express stream cohort take the fast lane to university while 20 percent of Normal (Technical) students join the polytechnics and the rest the ITE colleges.


In 2008 the percentage of university graduates among 25-year-olds stood at 21.8 percent; the percentage has soared to 31.6 percent within the past decade. Polytechnic graduates have increased from 12.1 percent to 15.1 percent. Those with secondary and post-secondary qualifications made up 17.5 per cent and 9.5 percent respectively. The other 26.5 percent has below secondary qualifications.


The paper chase among the 3.99 million resident Singaporeans, out of a total of 5.64 million, has led to higher government expenditure on education of $12.8 billion in 2018, despite the falling student cohort as a result of lower birth rates.


To keep up with demands for university, new universities have been set up, complementing the comprehensive National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technology University. In 2000, the Singapore Management University opened, specialising in business and management. The newcomers include Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore University of Social Sciences, and Singapore Institute of Technology. Various overseas universities have also established local campuses or tie-ups with local tertiary institutions. These include INSEAD Business School, University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, New York University Tisch School of Arts, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Stanford University, Waseda University, Cornell and New York University Schools of Law.


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