Singapore 'has built a first-rate education system'

Singapore 'has built a first-rate education system'
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat stressed that there should be no let-up in the pursuit of excellence – it should be “part of Singapore’s DNA”, but he added that there is a need to broaden the definition of excellence and to recognise everyone for achieving their personal best.
PHOTO: Lianhe Zaobao

Over the years, Singapore has built a first-rate education system that offers many choices and pathways to young Singaporeans from primary to university level and, more recently, even through continuing education that helps workers hone their skills and expertise, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

The Government has also ensured that all Singaporeans have access to these varied pathways, regardless of their family background or starting point.

Mr Heng, who has held the education portfolio since he entered politics in 2011, sketched out to The Straits Times how the education system has been built up, "layer upon layer" - in every school, at every level and no matter what the child's starting point is.

He took pains to show how learning, for example, is not just confined to the classroom but also includes music and sports and programmes to build character. This also helps to equip students with skills needed to navigate a more complex and uncertain world.

He pointed out the variety of pathways available to students - from the Integrated Programme schools to the Singapore Sports School to the School of the Arts.

With the recent initiative to build deep expertise and skills in workers, there are even more pathways for those pursuing post-secondary studies, through the Earn and Learn programmes where they gain qualifications while working in companies.

He stressed it was a "student-centric" system that recognises that every child is different, and it is all about helping them discover their strengths and interests.

He also sketched out the various efforts by the Government to enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds to level up and progress through the system.

These include the Ministry of Education kindergartens where one- third of the places are reserved for children from low-income families, as well as the learning support programme in English and Mathematics for students lagging behind.

The Government takes this aspect of building "high averages through the system more seriously than any other school system in the world", he said.

Almost all schools here are publicly funded and almost all school teachers and leaders are employed by the ministry, which can deploy them to the schools where they are most needed.

All this has helped to build a system with "high averages" across the board, he said pointing to the Programme for International Student Assessment figures which show that, in Singapore, a large proportion of those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds perform better than expected.

This has been built on the strong literacy and numeracy foundation laid in previous years, he said. "And this is in sharp contrast to many school systems around the world where a different minister comes in, a different party comes into power, and then you have a new policy that is very disruptive.

"You need very thoughtful long- term strategic thinking and to monitor the results of the changes every step of the way. And there is no substitute for very dedicated implementation. That is our strength."

He stressed that there should be no let-up in the pursuit of excellence - it should be "part of Singapore's DNA", but added that there is a need to broaden the definition of excellence and to recognise everyone for achieving his personal best.

He said that the pursuit of excellence must also be coupled with a sense of purpose and gratitude, so that Singaporeans will contribute back to society.

To sum it all up, he went to describe what lies at the heart of the education system.

"It is really about the child and how do we help the child be successful in life.

"Not just in the material sense but in leading a purposeful life," he said.

This article was first published on August 22, 2015.
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