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'Our children are starting to forget what trees look like'

Literacy, numeracy, science and learning by rote has, traditionally, been the lot of pupils in Singapore. But after years of an intensely pressured school regime and results-focused teaching, the government is beginning to allow creativity into the classroom - even fun! - as Clarissa Tan reports in our occasional series on world-class education

Literacy, numeracy, science and learning by rote has, traditionally, been the lot of pupils in Singapore. But after years of an intensely pressured school regime and results-focused teaching, the government is beginning to allow creativity into the classroom - even fun! - as Clarissa Tan reports in our occasional series on world-class education

Like many of its street names, colonial buildings and Raffles Hotel, quite a few things in modern Singapore received their stamp of approval from the British. If you take a cursory look at its education system, with its six years of primary school followed by secondary school, culminating in Cambridge O-levels and A-levels, it shouldn't be a surprise if it all looks a tad familiar. It came from you.

Still, while the shell of a UK system remains, Singapore's education has evolved radically, into something unique to this bustling city-state. As a tiny island in the middle of South East Asia, with a population composed of Chinese, Malays and Indians as well as a large expatriate population, the nation has developed a curriculum designed to keep it competitive as well as flexible.

"As a small nation, the survival instinct is well ingrained in us. We are constantly looking at what we do, and seeing how we can do it better," says Ho Peng, director-general of education at Singapore's Ministry of Education (MOE). "We have focused on the fundamentals - literacy, numeracy, and a strong emphasis on science and technology."

"Placement" - shuttling students into different streams or lanes of learning, according to their grades, vocation or abilities - happens as early as 12. At the end of primary school, students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) after which the vast majority of them head to government secondaries. There, students are further divided into either a four-year "express" course, which leads to the O-levels exams, or a five-year "normal" route.

After that, it's usually two to three years of junior college (the equivalent of first and second year sixth in England), although some go to polytechnics or the Institute of Technical Education. At 18 or 19, junior college students sit their A-levels. All O-level, A-level and N-level (Normal level) papers are sent to be graded in the UK.

There are three universities - National University of Singapore (ranked 4th in Asia and 30th in the world by the Times Higher Education Rankings 2009), Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University.

Higher education in the UK or the US are popular options for families who can afford it, with Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy League schools held in high esteem.

Competitive pressure is something both students and parents groan about. There is an enormous emphasis on good results. Parents often hire after-hours tutors to do everything from repeating a lesson already learnt in school to teaching music, drama and dance. Wealthy parents can, and often do, provide every conceivable "extra", from horse riding to lessons in musical instruments such as the dulcimer. Because admissions to government schools are based on geographical proximity, it is not unknown for parents to move house to an area nearer a reputable institution of learning. (Merely providing address details is not enough: according to urban myth, MOE officials call up to check that you are living where you say you are.)

In Singapore, there is a word to denote a state of mind, kiasu, which comes from the Chinese Hokkien dialect. It means "scared to lose", and the phrase is used good-humouredly to refer to everything from queue-jumping to piling food on your plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. In education, the lament is that students are motivated not so much by a desire to learn as fear of failure.

The government is trying to address the issue head-on by significantly broadening the criteria by which a student's performance is judged - by including more physical and creative pursuits such as the arts and sport - and moving away from rote learning. There is also a greater emphasis on learning for learning's sake, as well as group and project work.

A mother whose two sons are in the lower primary department of the government's top-ranked Anglo-Chinese School, said the results of these changes can already be felt.

"My sons are experiencing the changing landscape of the new education system," she says. "The MOE is making the system more fun. My kids get a lot more activities and outdoor learning, such as going to the zoo, the Discovery Centre for science, heritage trails, and so on. The school organises activities such as Chinese Fun Day, to improve their Mandarin, and Maths Adventure Day. We also had Movie Day, where they simulated a cineplex to get the kids to experience what it's like to choose a movie, buy a ticket and look for their chosen seat number."

She adds that, amid the changes, the standard of academic competence remains very high. "The maths syllabus is more advanced than that of an international school equivalent," she says. She also cites a programme called Stellar (Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading), which aims to cultivate a love for reading and library skills.

Still, after-school time remains filled with "loads of tuition", the mother says. "Teaching so-called life skills is still lacking, and the kids get spoon-fed their information a lot, instead of learning things for themselves. There's little chance to be independent."

Another mother, whose sons attend the Temasek Primary School, feels that the advantages of a Singapore education are "a strong foundation in maths and science and a good work ethic". The downsides, she says, are a very heavy workload and "an elitist mentality throughout the schooling system to select top performers".

Another notable characteristic is bilingualism. English is the main language of learning, but great importance is placed on a child's second language. Typically, this is the language of their ethnicity - an ethnic Chinese student takes Mandarin, and an Indian child usually learns Tamil, and so on.

"With the rise of China and India, being bilingual has taken on even greater significance," says the MOE's Ms Ho. "Our regional neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, offer abundant opportunities, and knowing their language will be advantageous."

The educational infrastructure, as for almost all public institutions on the island, is excellent. School buildings are slated for renovation, or complete rebuilding, once they have reached what is considered a ripe old age - usually no more than 25 years!

Raffles Institution, a highly sought-after government junior college, has an 850-seat lecture theatre, a performing arts centre, a three-storey library and a 7-Eleven convenience store next to its canteen. Lifts serve all floors of its main buildings. Lianhua Primary School has an aviary. Nanyang Technological University will be the Olympic Village for the first Youth Olympic Games later this year.

Singapore teachers undergo a "rigorous selection process", according to the MOE. The ministry hires from the top one-third of each cohort, and secondary teachers must have a degree in their teaching subjects. "We invest heavily in teacher training, providing them with opportunities to upgrade during the course of their career," says Ms Ho. "Our teachers are encouraged to go on 100 hours of training per year."

School leaders are promoted from within the teaching service, and principals must have proved themselves in posts up to the level of vice-principal. They also undergo six months of training at the National Institute of Education before they take up their appointment.

"We will set up a teacher academy - a home for teachers, to build professional pride and ethos, and have teachers take on a greater role in their own professional growth and development," says Ms Ho.

A degree-holder is usually appointed on the general education officer 1 scale, receiving a monthly starting salary of S$2,550 (#163;1,200) with a pass degree, S$2,600 (#163;1,223) with a pass with merit, and S$2,750-S$2,900 (#163;1,293 to #163;1,364) with an honours degree. Teachers are entitled to an annual bonus, usually one month's salary, as well as a performance bonus.

With all this emphasis on excellence and the widening of competencies to include artistic, sporting and cultural pursuits, how would a child from a poorer household fare?

"We do our utmost to give students from less privileged backgrounds as equal a start in life as possible, including breakfast in school," says Ms. Ho. She adds that general education is almost fully subsidised. "We invest not just in the top schools and universities, but in all schools, the Institute of Technical Education and polytechnics.

"The top 5 per cent of students in the PSLE in any one year do not come only from a few schools. In fact, they came from more than 95 per cent of our primary schools from all socio-economic groups."

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by poorer students is the digital divide. Singapore students spend among the largest numbers of hours a day on the internet (and, perhaps correspondingly, have among the highest rates of myopia).

Another obstacle for them is the lack of travel opportunities. "Needy students receive help to buy computers, attend enrichment programmes and go on overseas exchange programmes," says Ms Ho.

"Beyond this, we have bursaries and financial assistance schemes, from kindergarten all the way to university. They come in many different forms, such as scholarships, awards, bursaries and grants."

But as in almost every country, poorer students may have to do without the dulcimer lessons.

Clarissa Tan is an author and freelance journalist based in Singapore.

Choirs, counselling and good cheer: the modern face of primary schooling

It's nine in the morning on a typically sunny day in Singapore, and about 30 children at East View Primary School are having wushu lessons. Arms akimbo, faces intent, they learn the basics of Chinese martial arts from two very peppy teachers.

On a wall to their right, students have mounted the cardboard facades of various houses representing the architecture of the major ethnic groups in Singapore - there's a front depicting an Indian temple, a Malay home, a Chinese shophouse and so on. Nearby, there's another wall of colourful artwork portraying people engaged in various sports, displaying the young artists' excitement over the Youth Olympics, to be held in Singapore in August.

There is a history corner, where signboards illustrate the dark years of the Japanese occupation, panels that school principal Veronica Tay says were acquired after they were discarded by another institution.

The students - some 1,000 boys and girls, in 27 classes spread over six primary-school years - are remarkably well behaved, greeting their principal and you with a polite, "Good morning, Ms Tay and visitor" in sing-song voices.

During their half-hour break at 9.30am, the students gather in the canteen, where bowls of noodles or chicken porridge cost between 60 Singapore cents and S$1 (28p to 47p).

"No fried food at all," says Ms Tay. "The government is on a healthy-eating campaign and our school decided, no fried food."

During break, the music teacher holds a mini-concert on a raised podium, and a small student choir sings. The upright piano in the canteen, says Ms Tay, was a gift from a donor.

It is only midway through your conversation that you learn that this is a school comprised mainly of lower-income students. You glean this as Ms Tay explains why, even though Singapore schools are now shifting to one-session days from double-session days (which involved teaching two batches of students, one from early morning to noon, the other from noon until evening), her school still starts at 7.30am.

"That's the hour when many of the parents leave for work themselves," she says. "They have, say, cleaning jobs, so they finish work at about 1pm, which is when we end our school day. The parents prefer these hours."

The school building is basic but bright and sparklingly clean. The classrooms are well-equipped, there are computer labs (the school has won prizes in robotics), a decent library, an AstroTurf field shared with a neighbouring school and a vegetable patch with fruit trees "as our children are starting to forget what trees look like", says Ms Tay.

I sit in on a special lesson held for seven children who are lagging behind in their classes: they are taken away from their classroom for one to two hours every day and given more individualised attention by a teacher (using a computerised whiteboard).

The government gives free breakfasts to the poorer students, says Ms Tay. There are also counseling sessions for those children with problems at home.

"Primary school is important because it's the best chance we get to level the playing field for children," she says.

"After primary school, we try to keep them in the education system - secondary school, university, and so on - for as long as possible."

"Look," she says matter-of-factly. "It's cheaper to help children through school, than to find them later in prison."

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