Education in Singapore is booming and the world is taking notice. In the Third International Maths and Science Study, Singaporean 13-year-olds scored highest in both subjects out of 41 countries. In the equivalent 1988 science study they came 14th - now they have topped Japan and South Korea, both traditional high achievers, and leave England trailing (10th in science and 25th in maths).
Some doubt the validity of comparisons based on international standardised testing, but this is not the only evidence of high average standards in Singapore. My research with Hilary Steedman for last year's Government Skills Audit revealed that Singapore had caught up with Britain in the proportion of adults qualified to the equivalent of our level 3 or higher (two A-levels or "equivalent" vocational qualifications ) and overtaken us in the output of level 3 qualifications among its young people.
This is a remarkable feat for a country where 35 years ago most people had only primary schooling.
The Singapore government is not yet satisfied - it wants to stimulate more critical thinking and creativity - but international observers are clearly well impressed already. Last year, the World Competitiveness Yearbook, one of whose criteria is levels of education and training, placed Singapore second to the United States in overall competitiveness, and numerous articles in international journals have been extolling the achievement of Singapore in education and economic performance. So what are we going to learn from all this?
Policy-makers in the UK will no doubt be casting around frantically for the magic ingredient in Singapore which produces such results. As is their wont, they will often select the evidence out of context to support their own priorities. Supporters of whole-class teaching will probably put the whole thing down to the use of this method in Singaporean schools, as in the debates over education in Taiwan.
Advocates of selection will doubtless point out that Singapore uses streaming - ignoring the fact that this is largely within comprehensive schools and is a response to multilingualism.
Others, wishing to dismiss the comparison as irrelevant to the UK, will ascribe Singaporean achievement to something called "Asian values", as if these were uniform and unchanging phenomena, and ignoring the fact that educational development has varied markedly in Asia. However, if they do, they will have learned nothing about how education works in Singapore and even less about what the lessons might be for the UK.
International studies show that there is no single factor associated with educational success at the national level. None of the traditional indicators, whether class size, educational expenditure, selection and grouping policies, teaching styles or time spent in learning particular subjects, correlates systematically with outcomes over a range of countries. Rather, the outcomes of the educational process in different countries are the result of a host of factors, some relating to the internal features of education systems, and others to the social contexts.
Countries which do relatively well in school education, such as France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Sweden, have certain things in common. As nations they emphasise educational achievement. They tend to have a "learning culture" in which parents and teachers have high expectations of their children's educational achievements, where the education systems are designed to provide opportunities and motivation for all learners, and where the labour market, and society in general, rewards those who do well in education.
They have learned how to institutionalise high expectations for all through norm-reinforcing procedures and practices such as national curricula and guidelines on teaching and assessment methods, professionally-produced learning materials, interactive whole-class teaching and so on.
Singapore has both the school and societal ingredients of success. Schools are well managed and put a strong emphasis on achievement for all. Government educational planning is concerted, coherent and closely tied in with manpower planning and long-term economic and social development strategies. Targets are set - for 25 per cent to achieve university degrees and 40 per cent polytechnic diplomas (HND level) by 2000 - and these are well financed and usually met.
The four polytechnics, for instance, are state-of-the-art, with fully-integrated, robotic manufacturing facilities, and computerised lecture theatres with students answering tests on their desktop PCs and lecturers receiving computer-analysed class results on their consoles.
There are still some English legacies around, like the A-levels taken only by the university-bound top 25 per cent of students. However, these have been modified to ensure breadth. Subject combinations are recommended and most students in the junior colleges take - and pass - four or five subjects, including general papers.
The key success factors, however, are probably societal. Singapore is a small country with few natural resources and a tiny home-market and has little to rely on except its strategic location and its skills. Nation-building in Singapore has been a matter of survival, pursued with relentless and cool-headed determination by an able and cohesive government and civil service, and education has been at the heart of this project.
This has not only meant developing the skills needed by a fast-expand ing economy; it has also meant forming a cohesive, motivated citizenry out of an extremely multi-ethnic and multilingual population. In both these objectives, Singapore has been markedly successful. It is still one of the fastest-growing economies and is ranked fourth in the world in gross domestic product per capita.
Policy-makers in the UK cannot hope to take policies from Singapore and make them work here. However, two things can be learned. One is that, in certain environments at least, concerted and long-term planning can pay dividends. The other is that education is about more than improving economic competitiveness. Forming skills and forming citizens can go hand in hand.
Dr Andy Green is a reader in education at the Institute of Education, London. His latest book, Education, Globalization and the Nation State, was recently published by Macmillan