If you move overseas to start a new life there are many different aspects to consider but one of the most important if you have a family is the education of your children and the quality of education available in the country you’re moving to. There is a very informative thread on the expat forum entitled “Education in Singapore” which gives some very interesting food for thought if you’re looking to move to Singapore to start a new life.
This is one of those open threads with a simple question “We might be moving to Singapore and was wondering if the education standards in Singapore is any good?”. Sometimes a thread can limit the topic of conversation because of the initial question that this particular thread basically opens up everything about the Singapore education system including the good and bad aspects. So what exactly is there available?
Singapore is a country which is at the centre of the Far Eastern economy having developed a very close relationship with the Western world, Western ways and attracting significant investment from overseas companies and an enormous number of expats to the region. The authorities seem to run a very fair and well developed economy which offers both protection for Singapore nationals and the opportunity for investment and employment for those new to the region. But how does the education system compare to the rest of the region and the rest of the developed world?
The state education system in Singapore
The education system in Singapore is managed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) which has total control of the development, administration and funding of schools throughout Singapore. Unlike many countries where private schools are totally separate from state sponsored schools, the Ministry of Education also has an advisory and supervisory role to play in this particular area. This setup allows state and private schools to have their own freedom on curriculum under the umbrella of the Singapore Ministry of Education which effectively offers a comprehensive quality checking service.
English is the first language in Singapore
Many people will be surprised to learn that English is the most common language in the Singapore education system, a move which was instigated by former Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew. While on the surface this may look fairly controversial, because English is not the official language of Singapore, the idea was that as Singapore grew as a trade centre, expat centre and tourism centre there was a need to bring together the various ethnic groups under one specific language. So in order that no one ethnic group was forced to learn the mother tongue of another, the former Prime Minister decided that English would be the official language of the education system as it would also give the Singapore economy an advantage when trading with English-speaking nations.
Compulsory Education Act 2000
The very fact that Singapore brought in a Compulsory Education Act in 2000 is testament to the country’s determination to ensure that each and every child has an education from a very early age. The act made it a criminal offence for parents to fail to enrol their children in a school from primary age and ensure that they attend on a regular basis. While there are some exemptions for religious teaching, home teaching and children with special needs, the general trend is that each and every child in Singapore is afforded the best start in life via the country’s education system.
Currently there are over 200 kindergartens registered with the Ministry of Education in Singapore offering preschool education for children aged 3 to 6, where they will encounter such activities as development of personal skills, development of social skills, games, music, physical education and languages which will include English and potentially Chinese, Malay or Tamil. The idea is to give the children a good grounding for their later education and allow them to interact with each other on a regular basis.
Kindergartens in Singapore are supported by the state but run by the private sector with religious bodies, community groups and businesses very prominent in this particular area. There are also many kindergartens run by international schools which are predominantly used by expats in the region.
The formal education system begins at six years of age with two stages, one of four years and one of two years duration, which are :-
The foundation stage covers ages 6 to 10 years and again centres upon languages, with English and another Far Eastern language included, together with subjects including art and crafts, music, health education, social studies, physical education, moral education and civics. The education system also includes sciences from primary three onwards.
The orientation stage of the Singapore education system covers ages 11 to 12 with, again, particular emphasis upon English and another language, together with maths and science. This is the first stage of the education system where individual schools have some flexibility with regards to how they group their students and what particular exams each student will take. The system is very much based on what an individual child can do and setting targets and exams accordingly, rather than a one exam fits all system which can lead to some children excelling while others struggle.
At the end of primary six all students will take the primary school leaving examination which will ultimately decide their future path in the education system.
The Singapore secondary education system sees all students split into one of four groups which are:-
Special and Express
While these two particular education classes are different, there are many similarities in that they are four-year courses which lead to a “Singapore Cambridge General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level”, otherwise known as O-level. There is a particular emphasis upon languages with “Special” students taking the higher mother tongue language while “Express” students will initially take the normal mother tongue language course. At this stage the option of taking on a further foreign language such as French, German and Japanese is introduced to the mix. There is also a Chinese special programme and Malay special programme specifically targeted at mother tongue students, expats or students returning from abroad who have maybe fallen behind and need further tuition.
Normal “Academic” and Normal “Technical”
While these two particular stages of the education system are also separate, like the two described above, there are great similarities. Yet again there is a particular emphasis on languages although the Normal “Academic” students will take this together with an academic subject such as accounting, while Normal “Technical” students will take a technical subject such as designing and technology. These particular areas of the education system also introduce subjects such as computing, theatre studies and drama into the mix with the aim of giving each student between 6 and 10 different subjects at which they can take O-level examinations.
The gifted education program
The gifted education programme was introduced in 1984 amid serious concerns across the country that the authorities were looking to pay special attention to their gifted students possibly at the expense of those who were less gifted. The authorities gave permission for a number of private schools to administer “gifted education programs” with the initial entry point at primary three, at which point the top 1% of the student population were taken into the gifted education program.
There have been a number of new examinations and new education programs brought into the gifted education program although the participating schools have now predominantly integrated both the state system and the gifted education program into one curriculum known as the integrated programme. As a consequence, the secondary school gifted education program was closed in 2008 as the education system in Singapore was streamlined.
It is common knowledge that Singapore has a very large expat community which necessitated a specific style of education for students who predominantly come from Malaysia, India, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Netherlands, Indonesia and the United Kingdom. As a consequence there are many international schools in Singapore and this is a particular area of the education system which continues to grow and expand albeit under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education. Various elements of the Singapore state school system have been taken away or reduced although there is still a necessity to play the national anthem, take the country’s pledge and abide by the country’s policy on multiple language education.
While there is no doubt that the international school sector in Singapore is well-developed, with the vast majority of fees paid by employers, there is a decision to be made for many parents as to whether they want their children to be part of the state system, which is free, or taken into an environment where they may be more comfortable with people from their former homeland. The cost of international schooling in Singapore varies from school to school and it is advisable to do your research before even contemplating a move to the region.
As we mentioned above, it is a legal obligation on parents to ensure that their children are enrolled in school at a very early age and continue to attend on a regular basis. However, the education system in Singapore also allows Home Tuition for those who gain permission from the Ministry of Education and with many home tutors available in the region, across a range of languages, those who prefer to go down this route will still have many options.
General comments about the Singapore education system
In many ways the Singapore education system seems to pick and choose the best parts of other education systems around the world and ensure that children are taught a number of languages, with English the main focal point, from a very early age. Even though there was some concern about the gifted education program, which took the top 1% of students out of the state system, this particular program has now ceased and is now part of a wider education system. In simple terms, education in Singapore is taught to the highest level and ultimately there should be no concerns whether you choose to put your child through the state system, private schooling or an international school.
When looking to move overseas the education of young children is one element which needs to be considered and researched fully at a very early stage. The fact that the vast majority of employers will at the very least contribute a large portion of education fees for those in international schools is a benefit and a weight off the mind of many people. Interestingly, as English is taught as a first language in both the state education system and the international education system there are many options open to those moving from English-speaking countries.
As there is an enormous expat community in Singapore it is highly likely that you will be able to make contact with somebody in this particular environment and take their advice where required. On the whole Singapore is a well developed country which has managed to incorporate education systems from the west and east and bring them together in a well structured and well funded service. The fact that there are also various programs to help those who may have “fallen behind” in their education is also a welcome benefit to those concerned about their children settling in to a new environment.
If you are moving to Singapore with your employer, as most people do, you need to make sure you are aware of the potential benefits available with regards to payment for education and any other assistance they may offer. Let us not forget, it is in the best interest of your employer to make sure your family are well looked after and able to easily acclimatise to the region and the culture. A happy worker is a productive worker and a happy family life will reflect very well in the office and the workplace.
Singapore has much to offer and is a country that is fairly unique and fairly central to both Eastern and Western trade in the region. The authorities seem to have grasped the need for an English-based education system from a very early stage which has benefited children in the region, both nationals and expats, and the economy as a whole.