Keynote Address by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and 2nd Minister for Defence at the “Building Blocks for Education: Whole System Reform” International Education Summit on Tuesday, 14th September 2010 at 11.30 am in Toronto, Canada.

Building a National Education System for the 21st Century

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

A very good morning to all and warm greetings from Singapore.

Congratulations to Premier McGuinty and the organisers for the successful event.

Why are we here? Educators today have the benefit of a growing body of research and evidence-based data to make more effective education policies. The corollary also holds true. With greater access to information and reach, all educational systems are held more accountable as comparisons between systems are often studied and published. As leaders of education in our respective countries, we can benefit from these on-going trends and learn from the experience and best practices of one another. This high-level policy meeting is a valuable platform to do so. Last year, the Singapore MOE was delighted to host the inaugural International Education Roundtable (IER) with McKinsey & Company, when Education ministers and other experts from seven top-performing school systems had rich exchanges to better meet our educational goals. I am glad to see this dialogue continue today in Toronto. It is an honour to address so many leaders in the education field and to learn from your experiences.

Waves and Spirals of Educational Reform

I cannot be presumptuous that our education system can be transferred to another context, but while each of the speakers has spoken from different contexts, they have collectively identified common themes with the greatest impact on education reform — the importance of capacity building of our teachers and school leaders, of having clear standards and targets across the whole system, and of assessment and data for informed policy making.

Educational reform is a continuous and complex process. Let me illustrate from Singapore’s educational journey in the last four decades. Singapore is a small island city-state, about one-tenth the size of Toronto and one-five hundredth of the size of Finland. I am thankful that I inherited a robust educational system — one characterised by high averages and an outstanding teaching force. But we did not start out that way nor began with strong foundations. Some may feel that the Chinese place great emphasis on education and examinations, leading to good alignment between the educational outcomes that our schools desire, and what society or parents want. This is possibly a relic of the imperial system, where the Emperor would bring the best and brightest into the court. This could also have impacted Korea and Japan. International assessments show that we do fairly well in Science, but we are not so satisfied with its level of variance, which is wider than that for Mathematics — we are analysing this. Educators would prefer high averages, and thankfully we now have strong foundations. To provide some context, I will now go into history to explain what happened.

Forging a National Education System: From Loose Decentralisation to Robust Centralisation

When Singapore achieved self-government in 1959, we inherited a loose “patchwork” of mainly vernacular schools, which the various ethnic and religious communities had set up in their native languages (Malay, Chinese, and Tamil). We were a migrant population, and they brought their school systems. They taught in the language of their forefathers. It was a disparate system. Teaching standards, instructional materials and infrastructure quality were uneven, leading to high dropout rates and poor literacy outcomes.

Because we were thrust into independence precipitously in 1965, economic survival and self-sufficiency were uppermost in our mind. We don’t have much land, or natural resources like oil and gas. We needed to educate our workforce quickly to attract multinational companies to set up plants in Singapore. To do this, a highly centralised system was necessary to scale up improvements for the masses.

Schools were built rapidly — at a rate of about one each month, cookie-cutter style, with standard features. Building schools was easier than finding principals, however, and we even produced manuals to help new principals run these schools. Teacher recruitment went into high gear — one teacher after another was recruited, often right in the examination hall where a 16-year-old had just sat for his or her last O-level (or Grade 10) examination paper. To ensure that we had good teachers, the government offered to pay for all teachers in all schools, which laid the foundation for a single system of remuneration, and therefore control over the quality of teaching staff. We hire about 2,000-3,000 teachers every year, and they all come from one teacher training college, the National Institute of Education (NIE) — the Director of NIE sits in my Ministerial meetings every week for greater coherence and alignment.

Curriculum and teaching resources were standardised across all schools. To standardise examinations across the various language streams, national examinations were introduced at key progression points in the education system — at grades 6 and 10.

We did not start with a bilingual policy. We made the study of English compulsory to help our people acquire a lingua franca, to enable Singapore to connect to the world, and get onto the path of export-oriented industrialisation. We also decided that a Mother Tongue language was necessary for our people as a form of ‘cultural ballast’. The policy of bilingualism was implemented in 1966, before the word ‘globalisation’ became commonplace. It remains a key feature in our system today — all students study English Language and their Mother Tongue Language from Grade One. 50% of our curriculum time is devoted to language learning in the first few years of formal education.

By the late 1970s, Singapore had achieved virtually universal primary education, but drop-out rates were still wasteful and unacceptable. Barely half the cohort passed the Grade 6 national examination, and English language proficiency was poor. Many left school with poor employment prospects.

To improve the education system and reduce drop-out rates, Singapore introduced ability-based grouping (or streaming) in schools in 1980 — placing students into different groups according to their academic capabilities, and teaching each group at a pace manageable for them. Over the years, we have retained this but made the boundaries less sharp, with specialised schools in different areas, for instance. As a system, we can now accommodate different abilities and strengths. Simultaneously, we aimed to upgrade the teaching profession. Teacher recruitment was stepped up, career options enhanced and professional development accelerated. As we did then and now, we aim to recruit teachers from the top one-third of each national cohort. We hire one in eight fresh graduates from the universities.

Lessons and results

These steps worked. Drop-out rates fell dramatically, and we made remarkable improvements in national examination pass rates. For instance, in 1980, 56% of a Grade 1 cohort passed our Grade 6 national examinations; by 1995, fifteen years later, it was nearly 95% - we had achieved high national averages. We focused on education reform because we needed a literate and highly skilled workforce, but international assessments later affirmed our successes. For instance, based on PIRLS 2006, Singapore was ranked first amongst countries that tested solely in English. When compared with educational systems where English was one of the test languages, Singapore came in second, after the Canadian province of Alberta. We were heartened that for TIMSS 2007, our students at the 25th percentile, the lowest quartile, scored at or above the international average.

To summarise, in Singapore’s experience, centralisation was absolutely necessary in the early phase of our development. We had a survival challenge — we had to bring together disparate elements into a coherent system, and to improve quality and raise averages across the board. But this system of a very strong centralisation of curriculum, teacher training, teacher recruitment and examinations was not sufficient for a top-performing system, as I will go on to explain.

Next Phase: Raising Educational Quality through Customisation and Nurturing Talent

By the early 1990s, one might compare the Singapore education system to a well-oiled and extremely efficient machine. This success fed on itself, accelerated the process of change, and inevitably created higher expectations. Singapore is now into its next phase, and the buzz words are holistic development, more and different “peaks of excellence”, a focus on nurturing each child, the cultivation of innovation and creativity, as well as 21st century competencies or higher literacy and numeracy skills.

These are not new ideas but the order of progressive change is important. Public education is judged not by a few peaks, but by the averages. Only after achieving good general standards after two decades of continuous effort and reform, could we shift gears to better empower individual schools and their leaders, to foster individuality and encourage creativity to blossom. In the late 1990s, therefore, we moved towards a more responsive, flexible education structure. We loosened the reins of central control to allow schools more autonomy to experiment, differentiate themselves, and to develop different areas of strength.

I think this has worked in the main. Let me share with you the building blocks that have enabled us to move from strong centralisation to decentralisation.

Systemic Re-gears — Key Leverage Points
Developing Leadership Talent

First, we put good principals at the helm, and invested in their development. Our cardinal belief is that principals play a pivotal role in achieving our desired outcomes of education. Principals set the tone and are held accountable for their schools. They assess the performance of individual teachers and influence their career progression. Principals can assess their teachers as not meeting requirements — a proper process is then put in place to help the teachers improve.

The MOE works hand in hand with principals to ensure the development of teachers across schools. We identify good teachers early, invest in their training, and provide structured career progression.

Principals and Vice-principals are trained to do this task through a 6-month long Leaders in Education Programme (LEP). Our philosophy is that principals are like CEOs, because schools are complex, so we have to train them. This course combines the rigour of academic inquiry with insights from practitioners. It allows potential principals to learn, reflect, network, and gain external perspectives through overseas study trips and private sector attachments. Good officers can become principals fairly quickly. The high flyers can achieve this in their early 30s, 10 years from joining the teaching service although on average, it takes about 15 — 18 years to become a principal.

Investing in Quality Teachers

Beyond good principals at the helm, we need quality teachers. We offer attractive terms to recruit teachers. We fully cover their tuition during teacher training, and give them a full salary even as they train to become teachers. Starting salaries are competitive and benchmarked above the average starting salaries of graduates with similar qualifications in the job market. We sample the job market to ensure our remuneration packages are attractive.

Professional development is also critical. To strengthen teacher professional development, and systematically harness practitioner expertise, we are setting up new engines for teacher professional development, such as the Academy of Singapore Teachers, because we believe teachers can and should teach other teachers. The Academy will consolidate expertise at the national level and serve as a professional home for the teaching community. Together with this, we also started the academy for physical educators as well as Arts teachers.

Our schools have also set up Professional Learning Circles, where teachers collaborate to improve their teaching. Over time, we are building infrastructure to support this. For example, in some of our schools, lesson observation classrooms are available. Through the use of two-way mirrors, teachers can observe and learn from their peers.

Transforming Learning Through ICT

We have an ICT-infused pedagogy and curriculum. MOE took a progressive approach — to build familiarity, the first wave in the 1990s equipped all schools with basic infrastructure. In the second wave, we shifted away from a “one-size-fits all” approach, and gave more autonomy to school leaders to decide how best to integrate ICT into teaching and learning.

The lessons we gleaned have informed our Third IT Masterplan. Along the lines of decentralisation, we have created platforms without being too prescriptive. We made it easier for teachers to pool their ideas and share their resources through online sharing platforms such as ‘ICT Connection’, a portal that harvests best examples of the use of ICT that takes place in schools. The Third Masterplan also aims to achieve greater integration of ICT into curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, and to strengthen student competencies for self-directed learning.

We resource schools and give them ICT grants. Some schools have decided to invest in Interactive White Boards (IWBs), which allow students to manipulate objects on the board, and engage in show-and-tell. Lesson resources developed using IWBs are also digitally stored for easy retrieval and sharing. Other schools use data loggers, for instance, to measure the pH of school ecoponds in their study of biology.

Then we have some ‘pathfinder’ schools — so we work on many fronts. Under a collaborative effort between MOE and industries called FutureSchools@SG, some schools have piloted school-wide innovative programmes that leverage ICT. Beacon Primary is one of our FutureSchools@SG. Working with industry, Beacon Primary is in the process of creating ‘BeaconWorld’, a 3D virtual learning environment where teachers and students have avatars — they have a second existence! The school also has a media production room — this slide shows students shooting a video. I visited another primary school and was interviewed by one of their students, on camera!

To achieve more flexible and mobile infrastructural provisions that promote learning anytime, anywhere, we have also piloted 1-to-1 computing in some schools.

Transparency & Accountability

As we move systemically to empower schools more, we believe that an accountability framework needs to be in place to be used judiciously to maintain and improve standards.

We use the School Excellence Model (SEM) as our quality assurance framework. Schools undergo self-assessment annually, and external validation exercises by MOE HQ every 6 years. It doesn’t focus on test scores — it forms only about 10% of the entire assessment. The appraisal focuses on the key processes by which schools deliver holistic education to their students - how effective their teaching is, and how well they develop strength of character, teamwork and leadership skills amongst their students. We have spent many years refining and improving it.

A Continuing Transformation: An Exciting and Relevant Education for the 21st Century

Balancing Knowledge and Skills

We believe, as you do, that students will need 21st Century skills — knowledge, skills and a values system. I am impressed by Finland’s as presented earlier. Our efforts in educational reform and upgrading continue, even as we prepare our young for future challenges. Students today will need new skills and competencies, such as the ability to handle information. They also need the requisite language skills and a more expansive worldview, coupled with the ability to work in diverse teams. And finally, knowledge and skills must be anchored by values and strong character development — the aptitude for life-long learning, resilience, integrity, and compassion. We can also call these the 21st century competencies.

We recognise the value of Physical Education, Art and Music as rich platforms to achieve these competencies, so we have resourced our schools to come up with their own programmes in these areas, to let students discover their strengths and talents. We want a rich learning experience in a multi-cultural setting. In the primary schools, we have launched the programme for active learning (PAL).

Many of our schools have adopted innovative, whole-school approaches to integrate these into the school experience for their students. For instance, one of our schools has an Integrated Arts Programme that exposes pupils to music, drama, dance, and the visual arts. It culminates in what they call “NOMAD”, the Night Of Music, Art and Dance, when the entire school campus is abuzz with 30 performances and art installations.

Our curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are being refined towards more student-centred pedagogies such as collaborative learning, as well as more broad-based, holistic modes of assessment.

We also believe that a key pillar of 21st century skills is to have a global outlook. We would like every student to have at least one overseas experience during his/her time in primary school, secondary school and junior college. All schools receive ‘Internationalisation Funds’ to make this possible. Our schools go to a variety of places around the region. We also have twinning schools and they do student exchanges of 1-2 weeks in duration. We recently had the Youth Olympic Games and we used the Youth Olympic Friendship Camp as an opportunity to convey some of these competencies. Each of the schools also adopted a National Olympic Committee (NOC) and some of them travelled to the country to get to know its culture better.

Investing in Education

Around 3.5% of our GDP goes to the education budget — below the OECD average, but that’s a significant 20% of our total government expenditure.

Earlier on I showed pictures of what our first schools had looked like. Our schools today are more varied in design. Since 2005, to empower schools to meet their specific infrastructural needs, we have given them the flexibility and resources to optimise their use of existing school areas. Schools have been quite creative, investing in facilities like outdoor amphitheatres and rock-climbing walls.

One school decided to introduce an unusual sport as part of its physical education programme — “Bossaball”. This relatively new sport that combines elements of volleyball, soccer and acrobatics is played on an inflatable court fitted with trampolines, against the backdrop of bossa nova music.

Let me end off with a look at our investments in the post-secondary sector. We have to begin with the end in mind. Here is a quick snapshot of our students’ terminal qualifications under our post-secondary pathways.

Of a typical cohort, 22% go to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) where they benefit from market-relevant, skills-based courses that equip them for the workforce. The ITE is the jewel in our crown. All countries can have very good universities, but very few countries do vocational institutes well. We resource our vocational institutes well, and make sure that they have very close linkages with industry by putting industry captains on their boards. Employability within 6 months of graduation is about 90%. Today, the ITE has been restructured into 3 regional campuses as part of the “One ITE System, Three Colleges” education model. This allows each campus to build up its own niche of excellence.

Our polytechnics, which take in around 42% of a cohort, have produced practice-oriented middle-level professionals, much sought-after by industry. With more students opting for a polytechnic education, we have set up the Singapore Institute of Technology to provide an additional pathway for good polytechnic upgraders to obtain industry-relevant degrees. SIT will partner overseas universities to offer degree programmes that address Singapore’s manpower needs in key growth sectors.

And finally, we are expanding opportunities in our university landscape, and aim for a 30% cohort participation rate by 2015. A new publicly-funded university, the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), will help us to achieve that. The SUTD is established in collaboration with the USA’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology and China’s Zhejiang University, and will enrol its first cohort of students in April 2012.

Our philosophy is that there should be peaks of excellence. Be it a vocational institute or a tertiary establishment, we want it to be world class.


I hope that within the last few minutes I have given you a flavour of the Singapore system. We provide top-down resources so that ground-up innovations can flourish. As Premier McGuinty and Arne Duncan have said, education reforms must be backed by political commitment and strong societal support. I thank you for the opportunity and I hope that the rich conversations will continue, and I wish you all the best in your endeavour to do what is best for our future generations. Thank you very much.

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