SINGAPORE — Every year in mid-October, social networks go up in flames in Singapore. Disgruntled parents are attacking the Ministry of Education on Facebook, Twitter and other forums, accusing it of running overly complicated tests for their children. They say their children came home from the maths section of the PSLE – the primary school leaving exam – in tears. The results fall at the end of November.
In the Asian city-state, many families see this test as the exam of a lifetime. Performance at the PSLE can affect the quality of the course through to university. In high school, children find themselves divided into three different “sectors” according to their level.
Parents spend years preparing their children for these tests in math, science and English. They give hours of homework help and spend a fortune on private lessons.
Fortunes in private lessons
According to the latest National Household Expenditure Survey conducted by the Department of Statistics, Singaporean families in total spend more than $1 billion on private tuition every year, or nearly $1 billion. “Nearly 70% of primary school children now take private tuition,” said Jason Tan, a professor at the city-state’s National Institute of Education (NIE). In kindergarten, the ratio is now 40%.
At the Terry Chew Academy, downtown, private math lessons are offered to children as young as 5 years old. Geometric shapes, basic calculations, recognition of series of numbers, introduction to cryptarithms… “Mathematics skills in kindergarten are the best indicator of your child’s future academic success”, warns the brochure, which also promises to initiate kindergarten children in the sense of competition. The cost is S$960 (€680) for 12 lessons of 90 minutes each in small groups of up to eight children.
Bills increase with age and as children approach the PSLE they occupy at age 12. They then reached a much higher level than children of their age in other developed countries.
Kindergarten math skills are the best predictor of your child’s future academic success.
At each edition of the Pisa study (Programme for International Student Assessment), organized every three years by the OECD among 15-year-old students, Singapore eclipses all the others. In the 2015 survey of more than 70 countries, the tiny nation of 5.7 million people topped the rankings in math, science and reading.
In 2019, it was relegated to second place behind China, but in a poll deemed unfair by experts. Chinese results were only compiled from selected schools in Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. “Nationally, the performance of Chinese students in the Pisa exams is rather poor,” notes an expert.
A still very young education system
In the West, Singapore’s performance is all the more impressive in that it is the fruit of a still very young education system. When Singapore declared its independence in 1965 after 140 years of British colonial rule, the ruling political party, the PAP (People’s Action Party) and its leader Lee Kuan Yew inherited a disorganized education system.
Education was not universal and varied among different communities which had their own networks of schools operating either in English, Chinese, Malay or Tamil. Curricula, textbooks and examinations often differed from school to school and no common goals were defined. “One of Lee Kuan Yew’s priority missions was to rebuild the school to support national economic development and encourage social cohesion among this multi-ethnic and multi-faith population,” explains Jason Tan. “These two objectives are still at the heart of the system, even if numerous reforms have modified the organization of the education system.
Recentralized under the authority of the Ministry of Education, which still has the second largest budget in the country in 2022, the school quickly focused on skills in English, mathematics and science to strengthen the international attractiveness of a country devoid of natural resources. Sixty years later, they remain essential priorities at the elementary, secondary and pre-university levels.
An original and fun pedagogical approach
In mathematics, Singaporean children have a much more concrete approach to problems than their European peers. Before approaching an operation with numbers, they will visualize, on their paper or on the board, a drawing with fruits, sweets, or pupils, then a diagram with bars and blocks, in a rather playful approach. Each operation, whether addition, division or fraction, will be presented in a concrete scenario before being transcribed into abstract mathematical language. In this way, the child experiments with multiplication before formulating it.
Throughout their school career up to “Primary 6” (12 years old), they will almost systematically model their problems, even the most complex ones. Each stage of learning is then marked by rigorous tests in class which gradually prepare for the PSLE.
In science, the programs also encourage learning by doing or playing. Teachers try to ask questions by having their students work in pairs or teams on the manufacture or assembly of concrete objects. They will use small robots equipped with batteries and diodes to understand, for example, the lesson on electricity.
well paid teachers
In Singapore, teachers are very well paid. Recruited from the best universities, they receive a very long initial training and are much better paid than their European counterparts. A secondary school teacher will earn S$50,250 per year (€36,000) at the start of their career. On average, a primary school teacher with at least five years of experience can expect to earn 3,200 euros per month. They will also receive bonuses and enjoy a high level of respectability in Singaporean society.
In return for this recognition, they pledge to work hard, but not just in front of their students. As in other East Asian countries, which do well on the Pisa tests, Singaporean teachers manage very large classes (often 40 students) but have far fewer teaching hours than teachers Westerners.
Instead, they spend almost half of their professional time communicating with parents by email or text, preparing their classrooms and evaluating lessons with their colleagues. They regularly observe each other’s lessons before exchanging best practices and receive nearly 100 hours of continuous training each year to adapt to the changing needs of the country.
While it is presented as a model for other countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, the Singapore system questions its own shortcomings. The pressure on children to take tests at a very young age will affect their fate. Hours spent in class and tutoring to the detriment of extracurricular activities and free time.
The growing inequalities between wealthy families able to finance heavy private tutoring programs and the poorest households, often from Tamil or Malay minorities, who can only count on complementary courses sometimes subsidized by the State.
“Our overall success tends to mask these inequalities,” acknowledges the NIE researcher. “And it highlights the elephant in the room. What do we owe our performance in the international rankings to? Public school or private lessons?” he asks. “More and more, our model based on meritocracy is challenged by a form of parentocracy,” worries Jason Tan.
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