Yes, they cane kids, but I'm in awe of Singapore
Singapore has been ironically described as "a fine country". You can be fined for not flushing the loo, for dropping gum, and for hugging unexpectedly in public places. But when it comes to its education system, "fine" seems an unequivocal description. All students are bilingual and the government offers a wide range of subsidies to less well-off families - there is even a school pocket-money fund. To crown it all, one of the country's independent schools, the Anglo-Chinese School, has topped the International Baccalaureate's (IB) global results table for the fourth year running.
Three out of four Singaporeans are Chinese, so its approach to parenting and education is too. Following the outrage at Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which documents the author's draconian Chinese parenting style, I was curious to find out whether Singapore really was producing brilliant students, or if they would be hot-housed, socially inept youngsters, unable to think for themselves.
My own parenting style has had a touch of the Tiger Mother. I've raised my daughters bilingually in English and German. This seems to have paid off, as my eldest got an A* and 100 per cent in her German GCSE in Year 9. Lately I have shared Ms Chua's concern that Western education lacks challenge. So, when I went to stay with a university friend in Singapore I took my A*-but-invariably-"am-I-bovvered?"-comp- educated daughter with me.
Minutes after arrival, we saw hoardings proclaiming Singapore's commitment to education: "The Singapore Education Service: The Moulding Of Our Nation"; "Top Tuition To Boost Your Child's Grades". My innate pushiness was instantly aroused and I jogged my daughter's elbow excitedly. She responded by digging her nose deeper into Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging.
At my friend's house, one child was off to private science tuition while the other was at a private art lesson. My friend and her Swiss husband are learning Chinese, as are both their children. Learning seems a top priority in Singapore for all ages.
The next morning I met the amiable and impeccable Mrs Fanny Tan, principal of the outstandingly successful Anglo-Chinese School (motto: "The Best Is Yet To Be"). Last year, 28 students achieved the top mark of 45 in their IB - practically half of the world's 58 top scorers. Mrs Tan cited "top teachers" as a factor and confessed she has a fair proportion of Chua- style pushy parents. The school was almost blindingly beautiful, yet its fees are far less than comparable private schools in the UK, partly because they are heavily subsidised. Not one interactive board graces its classrooms. Here, chalk `n' talk plus hard graft rule, instead of whiteboard wizardry.
In last year's IB, the school's average score was an outstanding 40.82 points out of the maximum of 45. Compare that with UK schools' average of 32.64 and a world average of 29.49. Wow.
Like many schools in Singapore, it boasts an Integrated Programme, allowing its top students to bypass O-levels and go straight to the IB. Out of 18 classes, six follow the Gifted Education Programme to ensure that "the potential of each pupil is recognised, nurtured and developed". Each gifted pupil has a mentor and emphasis is placed on "enrichment and subject acceleration".
I wish we could import the focus Singapore gives to inspiring above- average pupils, and its top schools' support for the IB. The number of UK schools offering the IB has been increasing steadily, from 34 to 224 over the past 11 years, so our narrow, flawed GCSE and A-level is being challenged. But we have a long way to go.
I felt nostalgic when Mrs Tan talked of the O-levels they still take in her school, but less wistful when she mentioned they still caned students on rare occasions.
Later, I spoke to the parent of an ex-pupil, who described the school as "fantastic". But she didn't agree with the general approach to parenting in Singapore: "All the kids have private tuition outside school and hours of parental coaching. They all walk around like zombies."
Interestingly, a poll by the local Straits Times newspaper found that 90 per cent of youngsters in Singapore described themselves as "extremely happy". Four out of 10 said they spent at least 10 hours of quality time a week with their parents, while the UK average is six to seven hours.
If these figures are to be believed, this "Disneyland with the death penalty" is doing something very right. Inspired, I returned to the UK and enrolled on an intensive Spanish course. Was my daughter equally motivated? "I liked the swimming pool in Sentosa. Can I watch Waterloo Road now?"
Caroline Sarll is a journalist and languages teacher at St John's School, Porthcawl.