Education in Singapore
Education in Singapore is managed by the Ministry of Education (MOE), which controls the development and administration of state schools receiving government funding, but also has an advisory and supervisory role in respect of private schools. For both private and state schools, there are variations in the extent of autonomy in their curriculum, scope of government aid and funding, tuition burden on the students, and admission policy.
Education spending usually makes up about 20 per cent of the annual national budget, which subsidises state education and government-assisted private education for Singaporean citizens and funds the Edusave programme, the costs for which are significantly higher for non-citizens. In 2000 the Compulsory Education Act codified compulsory education for children of primary school age (excepting those with disabilities), and made it a criminal offence for parents to fail to enroll their children in school and ensure their regular attendance. Exemptions are allowed for homeschooling or full-time religious institutions, but parents must apply for exemption from the Ministry of Education and meet a minimum benchmark.
The main language of instruction in Singapore is English, which was officially designated the first language within the local education system in 1987. English is the first language learned by half the children by the time they reach preschool age and becomes the primary medium of instruction by the time they reach primary school. Although Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil are also official languages, English is the language of instruction for nearly all subjects except the official Mother Tongue languages and the literatures of those languages; these are generally not taught in English, although there is provision for the use of English at the initial stages. Certain schools, such as secondary schools under the Special Assistance Plan (SAP), encourage a richer use of the mother tongue and may occasionally teach subjects in Mandarin Chinese. A few schools have been experimenting with curricula that integrates language subjects with mathematics and the sciences, using both English and a second language.
Singapore’s education system has been described as “world-leading” and in 2010 was among those picked out for commendation by the British education minister Michael Gove.
The Education Systems
A pre-school playgroup, or in everyday usage just a playgroup, is an organised group providing care and socialisation for children under five. The term is widely used in the United Kingdom. Playgroups are less formal than the pre-school education of nursery schools. They do not provide full-time care, operating for only a few hours a day during school term time, often in the mornings only. They are staffed by nursery nurses or volunteers, not by nursery teachers, and are run by private individuals or charities, rather than by the state or companies.
In the United Kingdom, since around the 1980s, the traditional territory of the playgroup has been encroached on by the expansion of more formal nursery education, and playgroups often now cater only for two and three year olds before they move onto a nursery school. Over the same period there has been an increase in the state supervision of playgroups.
Kindergartens in Singapore provide up to three years of pre-school for children ages three to six. The three years are commonly called Nursery, Kindergarten 1 (K1) and Kindergarten 2 (K2), respectively.
Kindergartens provide an environment for children to learn how to interact with others, and to prepare them for formal education at Primary school. Activities include learning language – written and oral – and numbers, development of personal and social skills, games, music, and outdoor play. Children learn two languages, English and their official Mother Tongue (Chinese, Malay, or Tamil). Many private or church-based kindergartens might not offer Malay or Tamil, so non-Chinese pupils might also learn some Chinese in these kindergartens.
The kindergartens are run by the private sector, including community foundations, religious bodies, and civic or business groups. There are more than 200 kindergartens registered with theMinistry of Education. Kindergartens are also run by child care centres as well as international schools.
The People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore since 1957, runs 247 kindergartens through its charitable arm, the PAP Community Foundation.
Primary education, normally starting at age seven, is a four-year foundation stage (Primary 1 to 4) and a two-year orientation stage (Primary 5 to 6). Primary education is compulsory under the Compulsory Education Act since 2003. Exemptions are made for pupils who are homeschooling, attending a full-time religious institution or those with special needs who are unable to attend mainstream schools. However, parents have to meet the requirements set out by the Ministry of Education before these exemptions are granted. Primary education is free for all Singapore citizens in schools under the purview of the Ministry of Education, though there is a fee of up to SGD 13 monthly per student to help cover miscellaneous costs.
The foundation stage is the first stage of formal schooling. The four years, from primary 1 to 4, provide a foundation in English, mother tongue (which includes Chinese, Malay, Tamil or a Non-Tamil Indian Language (NTIL)) and Mathematics. Other subjects include Civics and Moral Education, arts and crafts, music, health education, social studies, and physical education, which are taught throughout Primary 1 to 6. Science is taught from Primary 3 onwards.
All pupils advance to the orientation stage after Primary 4, where they are streamed according the pupil’s ability. The streaming system has been adjusted: previously, pupils were divided at Primary 5 to the EM1, EM2 and EM3 (English and Mother Tongue at 1st, 2nd and 3rd language respectively) streams, but since 2008 they are streamed according to subject under a scheme known as “Subject-based banding”. Students take subjects at different levels based on their scores in the respective subjects at the end of Primary 4. The Mother Tongue subjects are offered at the higher, standard or foundation levels; Science and Maths can be taken at the standard or foundation levels.
After six years of Primary education, students will have to sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Students will then choose the secondary school of their choice based on their results at this examination; they will then be assigned to a secondary school based on merit and their choice. Students are also admitted into a secondary school under a separate “Direct School Admission” scheme, whereby secondary schools are able to choose a certain number of students based on their special talents before these students take the PSLE. Students admitted under this scheme cannot select their schools based on their PSLE results.
Based on results of the PSLE, students are placed in different secondary education tracks or streams: “Special”, “Express”, “Normal (Academic)”, or “Normal (Technical)”. Singaporeans are forbidden to attend international schools on the island without Ministry of Education permission.
“Special” and “Express” are four-year courses leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE “O” Level examination. The difference between these two courses is that in the “Special” stream, students take ‘Higher Mother Tongue’ (available for Chinese, Malay and Tamil only) instead of ‘Mother Tongue’. A pass in the Higher Mother Tongue ‘O’ Level Examination constitutes the fulfilment of the Mother Tongue requirement in Singapore, whereas Normal Mother Tongue Students will have to go through one more year of study in their Mother Tongue after their ‘O’ Levels to take the ‘A’ Level H1 Mother Tongue Examinations and fulfil the MOE’s requirement. A foreign language, eitherFrench, German, or Japanese, can be taken in addition to the mother tongue or can replace it. This is especially popular with students who are struggling with their mother tongues, expatriates, or students returning from abroad. Non-Chinese students may also study Chinese and non-Malay students Malay as a third language. This programme is known as CSP (Chinese Special Programme) and MSP (Malay Special Programme). Mother Tongue teachers conduct these lessons in school after usual hours. Students of Higher Mother Tongue languages are allowed to have up to two points taken off their O-level scoring, unless the student’s Higher Mother Tongue is used as their L1 in computation of L1R5. a scoring system discussed below where a lower value is considered better, if they meet set benchmarks. The Ministry of Education Language Centre (MOELC) provides free language education for most additional languages that other schools may not cover, and provides the bulk of such education, admitting several thousand students each year.
Normal is a four-year course leading up to a Normal-level (N-level) exam, with the possibility of a fifth year followed by an O-level. Normal is split into Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical). In Normal (Technical), students take subjects of a more technical nature, such as Design and Technology, while in Normal (Academic) students are prepared to take the O-level exam and normally take subjects such as Principles of Accounting. In 2004, the Ministry of Education announced that selected students in the Normal course would have an opportunity to sit for the O-level exam directly without first taking the N-level exam.
There are ongoing debates about the effectiveness of streaming, with some arguing that it should be abolished due to its detrimental psychological effects.
With the exception of schools offering the Integrated Programme, which leads to either an International Baccalaureate Diploma or to an A-level exam, most students are streamed into a wide range of course combinations at the end of their second year, bringing the total number of subjects they have to sit at O-level to between six to ten, with English, Mother Tongue or Higher Mother Tongue Language, Mathematics, one Science and one Humanities Elective being compulsory. Several new subjects such as Computing and Theatre Studies and Drama are being introduced in tandem with the Ministry of Education’s revised curriculum.
Admission to post-secondary institutions
Upon completion of the 4- or 5-year secondary school education, students (excluding IP students) will participate in the annual Singaporean GCE ‘O’ Level, the results of which determine which pre-universities or post-secondary institutions they may apply for. Pre-university centres include junior colleges for a two-year course leading up to GCE ‘A’ Level, or the Millennia Institute for a three-year course leading up to GCE ‘A’ Level. Junior colleges and the Millennia Institute accept students on merit, with a greater emphasis on academics than vocational technical education. Students who wish to pursue vocational education go on to post-secondary institutions such as the polytechnics and theInstitute of Technical Education (ITE), where they receive a diploma upon successful completion of their courses.
Diploma and vocational education
The first polytechnic in Singapore, Singapore Polytechnic, was established in 1954. Ngee Ann Polytechnic, has roots that go back to 1963. Two other polytechnics,Temasek Polytechnic and Nanyang Polytechnic were set up in the 1990s. The most recent, Republic Polytechnic was set up in 2003.
Polytechnics in Singapore provide 3-year diploma courses. They accept students based on their GCE “O” level, GCE “A” level or Institute of Technical Education (ITE) results. Unlike polytechnics in some other countries, they do not offer degree courses.
Polytechnics offer a wide range of courses in various fields, including engineering, business studies, accountancy, tourism and hospitality management, mass communications, digital media and biotechnology. There are also specialised courses such as marine engineering, nautical studies, nursing, and optometry. They provide a more industry-oriented education as an alternative to junior colleges for post-secondary studies. About 40% of each Secondary 4 cohort would enroll in Polytechnics.
Graduates of polytechnics with good grades can continue to pursue further tertiary education at the universities, and many overseas universities, notably those in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, give exemptions for modules completed in Polytechnic.
Polytechnics have also been actively working with many foreign universities to provide their graduates a chance to study niche University Courses locally. For example, Ngee Ann Polytechnic has engaged with Chapman University in the U.S. to provide a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Producing for graduates of the School’s Film and Media Studies department. Nanyang Polytechnic, likewise, has tied up with the University of Stirling in Scotland to provide a course in Retail Marketing.
- Institute of Technical Education
The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) accepts students based on their GCE “O” level or GCE “N” level results and they provide 2-year courses leading to a locally recognised “National ITE Certificate.” There are 10 ITE Colleges in Singapore. A few ITE graduates continue their education at polytechnics and universities. ITE students are sometimes seen as being less capable and possibly less successful than JC, MI and Poly students. Recent speeches by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam have pointed out that there can be different definitions and types of success, in a bid to work towards a more inclusive society.
The pre-university centres of Singapore are designed for upper-stream students (roughly about 20%-25% of the cohort) who wish to pursue a university degree after two to three years of pre-university education, rather than stopping after polytechnic post-secondary education.
There are 18 Junior Colleges (JCs) and a Centralised Institute (CI), the Millennia Institute (MI, established 2004), with the National Junior College (NJC, established 1969) being the oldest and Innova Junior College (IJC, established 2005) the newest.
- Junior college
Junior colleges in Singapore were initially designed to offer an accelerated alternative to the traditional three-year programme, but in recent years the two-year programme has become the norm for students pursuing university education.
JCs accept students based on their GCE “O” Level results; an L1R5 score of 20 points or less must be attained for a student to gain admission. JCs provide a 2-year course leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (“A” level) examination. The CI accepts students based on their GCE “O” Level results; an L1R4 score of 20 points or less must be attained for a student to gain admission. The MI provides a 3-year course leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (“A” level) examination.
All students are required to participate in at least one CCA (Co-Curricular Activities) as CCA performance is considered for university admission.
Singapore has six national universities, namely the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University, Singapore University of Technology & Design, Singapore Institute of Technology and SIM University.
The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University each have more than 30,000 students and provide a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes including doctoral degrees. Both are also established research universities with thousands of research staff and graduate students. As of 2012, both universities are ranked among the Top 50 in the world.
A third university, Singapore Management University (SMU), opened in 2000, is home to more than 7,000 students and comprises six Schools offering undergraduate, graduate, and PhD programmes in Business Management, Accountancy, Economics, Information Systems Management, Law and the Social Sciences. The University has an Office of Research, a number of institutes and centres of excellence, and provides public and customised programmes for working professionals through its Office of Executive and Professional Education.
The fourth university, privately run SIM University (UniSIM), opened in 2005. The university currently admits only part-time students and offers part-time degree programmes to working adults. In 2012, the government granted UniSIM a national university status and plans are ongoing to expand the university with offering of new full-time degree programmes.
Two other public institutions are also sponsored by the government: the Singapore University of Technology and Design and the Singapore Institute of Technology. Many private universities exist, including foreign universities which have established campuses in Singapore such as the Chicago Business School and Technische Universität München.
The James Cook University Singapore, University of Adelaide, Southern Cross University University of New Brunswick, Queen Margaret University, Temple University, The City University of New York, Baruch College, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Aventis School of Management, Curtin University of Technology & University of Wales Institute, Cardiff have established offshore campuses in Singapore to provide local and foreign (in particular, Asian) students the opportunity to obtain a Western university education at a fraction of the cost it would take to study in Canada, the UK, the U.S.A. or Australia. University of New Brunswick College, Singapore, Queen Margaret University, Asia Campus, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Asia began operations in Singapore between 2007 and 2008, with the Curtin University of Technology Singapore Campus & University of Wales Institute, Cardiff: Asia Campus due to join them in December 2008.
The government has planned the fourth public university, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), to meet the rising demand for university education. It started its operations in April 2012. Its permanent campus at Changi will be ready by early 2015.
A fifth public institution Singapore Institute of Technology was announced in 2009. The institution starts in 2010 and is intended to provide an upgrading pathway for polytechnic graduates.