Singapore’s Education System: Rigid, Competitive, and Determined
I met my friend Richard in 2007 while attending Orange Coast College; by chance we ended up in the same geography class. His mother is originally from Myanmar, and his father grew up in Hong Kong. They met for the first time in Taiwan, but soon immigrated to Singapore after getting married. Richard was born in Los Angeles while his parents were visiting the US, but when he was four months old, his family moved back to Singapore. His parents had planned to give birth to him in America so that he could obtain American citizenship in order to return later for university. He spent most of his childhood growing up in Singapore and taking frequent trips to Myanmar and Hong Kong. He also lived in California briefly for a few months during one summer to attend a middle school in America, but soon had to return to Singapore to finish the rest of his secondary education. During these months in America, Richard’s perspective on international education changed drastically, as he discovered how “severely behind” the American system was in comparison to Singapore in the areas of math and science. For example, the material covered in his seventh grade class in America had already been presented to him in the fourth grade during his studies in Singapore. Eventually, Richard set out for America again to pursue his college education in California, and is now a student at the University of California at Irvine majoring in economics after completing his AA degree at Orange Coast College.
Even though Richard’s educational experience is perhaps quite mixed, there are many people from Singapore these days that have experienced similar situations. Because of Singapore’s small size and its limited supply of higher education, many citizens are losing confidence in their country’s education system. This had lead many parents in Singapore to make long-term educational plans for their children at a very young age, and has also given way to a new generation of Singaporeans who have opted for foreign citizenship and educational opportunities. Even though many analysts consider Singapore to have one of the best education systems in the world, with an economy that creates thousands of elites in different fields year after year, many families in Singapore have begun to look elsewhere for their children’s education needs due to a fear of falling behind in the competitive Singaporean system.
Singapore, like America, is a melting pot of different cultures. The four major races that make up Singapore’s population are Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and Caucasian. Since the area was once ruled by the British, Singapore follows after the British style of education, unlike the US. There are four official languages – English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil – but English is the official language in the schools. Therefore, every school subject is taught in English despite the prominence of the other “mother tongues” within the large immigrant groups. Depending on which immigrant group each student comes from, that student is also forced to study their mother tongue from primary school onward, until it becomes an optional course during college. Richard has a Chinese background, so he attended Mandarin language classes for 12 years.
At the age of 5, the majority of Singaporean kids start attending kindergarten; this usually lasts for two years. Even though the kindergarten program is optional, most parents do not want their children to fall behind because of the very competitive environment, and thus enroll their kids. Some of the children also attend cram schools starting at an early age in order to study advanced mathematics and science during their free time, instead of engaging in popular American activities such as sports.
After kindergarten, all students must attend primary school for six years, which is equivalent to elementary school in the US. In Singapore, they refer to the first grade as P-1, and each student is placed in a group of children that remain together from P-1 until P-4, with the exception of their various mother tongue language classes. At the end of P-4, there is a so-called “streaming process” at which point every student must take an examination which separates them into different levels depending on their score. The students are then divided into three competency levels for the next two years of P-5 and P-6: EM-1 (top level, 25% of students), EM-2 (mid-level, 50% of students), and EM-3 (bottom level, 25% of students). At the EM-1 level, in addition to normal courses, students are required to take three science classes: physics, chemistry, and biology; they must also take an advanced course in their mother tongue language, in addition to their normal language class. At the EM-2 level, in addition to normal courses, students are required to take two science classes: physics and chemistry. At the EM-3 level, students take basic courses in math and science which are less demanding. This style of primary school contrasts sharply with the US system, which abstains from dividing young students into various skill levels or testing them extensively. One thing that Singapore shares in common with the US is the existence of optional private schools (organized mainly for religious purposes), however these schools must adhere to the same strict student-division laws that public schools recognize.
At the end of P-6, every pupil must take another examination which is called the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) in order to enter secondary school, the equivalent of the American middle school and high school systems. Students are tested in four subjects in PSLE: math, science, English, and their respective mother tongue. The total possible score of the PSLE examination is 300 points, and its official purpose is to assess students’ suitability for secondary education and to place them in an appropriate schooling level in order to match their learning pace, ability, and inclination. Each secondary school evaluates students’ performance in the PSLE to determine if they want to accept the graduates or not (the most competitive secondary schools usually only accept a score above 220 – the average score is 210). If one gets above 200 points on the PSLE, he/she will likely enter the “express stream” (around 60% of all students) which takes 4 years to complete and consists of an accelerated mix of general education including math, science, language, and other subjects. If one gets between 170 to 200 points, he/she will be placed into the “normal academic stream” (around 20% of all students) which takes 5 years to complete and consists of almost the same combination of subjects as the “express stream.” Besides being an accelerated program, “express stream” courses in math and science are also more advanced. Moreover, a select group of students from the “express stream” are allowed to take a higher level course in their mother tongue. Lastly, if one gets below 170 points on the PSLE, he/she will be placed into the “normal technical stream” (around 20% of all students) which takes four years to complete. Students at this level are forced to take classes in home economics and technical experiments. At the end of the first year of secondary school, if a student’s performance has been outstanding, he/she might be able to graduate to the next stream level. However, this is the only chance they have to switch, and if they end up performing poorly, teachers will send them back to their original level.
At this stage in the education system, a great deal of animosity begins to emerge amongst the lowest ranked students, and they become the target of much condescension in and out of school. Even ambitious students in the lower levels start getting blamed for various problems in society such as crime, which often drives them to give up on school and fall into foul play. Here we start to see some similarities with the American post-elementary education system. While the US does not have entrance exams to enter middle schools or high schools (which are open to all residents), the American system does begin to divide students into varying class levels on a per-subject basis such as college-preparatory, honors, and advanced-placement. However, these class levels are open to any students regardless of their poor performance in previous years – the idea of second chances seems to be more prevalent throughout the entire American education system, in fact. However, it seems we must declare that as in Singapore, many underperforming students in US schools are shunned by some school districts, which often drives them to legitimate foul play and hopelessness in and out of school. It would seem, though, that the conscious presence of condescension among US students themselves is much lower than in Singapore since the division of US students into skill levels is far less outright, obvious, and dire. The grading system in Singapore secondary school is also much different than in America – 75% is an A1 (A+), 70% is A2 (A), 65% is B3 (B+), 60% is B4 (B), 55% is C5 (C+), 50% is C6 (C), 45% is D7 (F).
At the end of secondary school, every student must to take the GCE “O” level examination which separates students into either polytechnic school (vocational school) or pre-university (junior college). Only junior college students are allowed to go on to attend public university in Singapore. However, if a polytechnic student finishes among the top 5% of his/her school, then he/she has a chance to go to university as well.
Ultimately, Singapore’s education system focuses on dividing students into various skill levels and so-called “streams” starting at a very early age. Math is a highly regarded subject in Singapore, and students who fail to succeed at math often find themselves at a dead end in the system, unable to proceed to higher levels of recognition. Even non-mathematical career paths like nursing school require good math skills for students to be accepted. Additionally, every step to the next level in Singapore’s education system is based on examination scores, which instills a fear of exams into students from a very early level and dissuades innovative citizens from pursuing programs like art school or music school. In conclusion, the rigidity and judgmental atmosphere built into Singapore’s education system has created a culture of super-worrisome parents, super-competitive students, and citizens who are willing to move out of Singapore and across the world in pursuit of their educational dreams.
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