Why are schools in Singapore successful

Success story : Why Singapore's students do so well on PISA

Singapore - from “Third World” country to PISA winner

Singapore has developed rapidly over the past 50 years: in 1965, when today's city-state declared its independence, the majority of its 5.5 million inhabitants were still illiterate. Today, half a century later, the so-called “Third World” country of yore is one of the most highly developed countries in the world. Singapore is one of the richest cities in the world, has a firm place in the top five most visited cities, is next to Hong Kong the most important financial center in Asia and also achieves superlatives in the field of education. PISA certifies Singapore top marks in all subjects and two years 'lead' over the OECD countries.

This is how Singapore's success story begins

The foundations for Singapore's rapid progress were laid back in 1965. At that time, the founding fathers were faced with a challenging situation: Singapore was mainly home to people with a low level of education from China, Malaysia and India. The multiethnic population had to grow together in a young, common nation-state. Since there were hardly any raw materials, the founding fathers hoped in education. The then Prime Minister made the logical and necessary decision to invest in peopleto lead Singapore into a promising future. He created the basis for a fifth of government spending to be invested in teacher training and the school system - only government spending on the military is even higher. Teachers are held in high regard in Singapore, appropriate opportunities for advancement and earn well.

Appreciating the teaching profession - what makes Singapore different

In Singapore, only the best graduates have a chance to become a teacher. Their professionalism is promoted - they enjoy a highly qualified training. In addition, every young teacher receives a computer. Singapore's teachers are also challenged: They have to complete 100 hours of advanced training per year and give an account of it - not through the formal confirmation of attendance, but about the added value that the advanced training has brought.

Diverse career opportunities for Singapore's teachers

There are three possible directions of advancement for a teacher:

  1. about professionalization as a pedagogue,
  2. via qualification as a manager (leadership)
  3. or through the technical expertise.

The path leads from advancement within the school - for example as a didactic manager, department head or specialist manager - to the top of the system as a so-called master teacher in the various career paths. These master teachers can have a strong influence on the system control in cooperation with the ministry and teacher training.

Scholarships support prospective teachers

Since the founding of the state, the Singapore government has paid special attention to all actors in the education system - and this is still true today. National scholarships give talented access to the most prestigious universities worldwide, which have brought the knowledge of success back into the country. In this way Singapore was able to develop into a world class itself. The principle of “learning from elsewhere” plays a major role in Singapore - also in the qualification of the school management: Prospective school heads not only have to study a foreign education system during their training, but also have to visit it. The Ministry of Education bears the costs of the excursion abroad.

The school management receives a higher salary

The The income of the school administration is about 50 percent higher than that of the teachers. The school principals stay at a school for a maximum of six to seven years. The Ministry of Education then assigns them to another school according to their skills.
The teachers also have the opportunity to improve their salaries and change their careers: Opportunities for advancement and thus a higher salary result from the intensive exchange and mutual feedback of the teachers within a so-called cluster.

Cooperation on all levels

12 to 14 schools are grouped together in a cluster, which is headed by a superintendent - a representative of the Ministry of Education. The cluster management takes on the role of school supervisor, is highly qualified and has studied at renowned universities abroad. Your task is to advance the plans of the Ministry of Education at the individual school locations. This should contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of the overall system. The superintendent is in constant contact with the school management and once a year with the teachers. This results in a high degree of correspondence in the values ​​between the macro, meso and micro levels in the school system.

Pronounced feedback culture within the staff

The cooperation between the school management and the teaching staff as well as between the teachers plays a major role. At each school there are different “professional learning communities” - teams that are set up according to lateral (class, year teams) or vertical requirements (teacher leadership, middle management). Each week one afternoon is reserved for (compulsory) joint work on development-related topics, in which everyone (must) participate. In addition, individual schools have installed so-called “teaching labs”: teachers sit in on the lessons of their colleagues, talk about them together and evaluate the results together.

Paradoxes in Singapore's education system: rigorous exams versus holistic education

Singapore's scholars see many paradoxes in their own school system. Although the pupils complete a rigorous test after six years of primary school, which decides on how to continue to school, holistic education is required throughout, not testing. The responsible ministry has been trying for a number of years to push back performance tests in schools and to promote “well-being” for this purpose. However, parents are still investing in extracurricular tutorials to give their children additional lessons. To take the pressure off parents of having to send their children to the “best schools”, the Ministry of Education launched the “Every School A Good School” initiative in 2012.

Effort, diligence and discipline: the Asian virtues lead to success

The PISA results show that the majority of young people successfully complete school, which is not least due to the Asian virtues (effort, diligence, discipline). However, excellence in school cannot be achieved through memorization. In this way, the students receive constantly varying tasks to approach a learning goal. The variations in the tasks often relate to everyday life and activate the children and young people to contribute their own life experiences.

Often "back design" is used - that is, the adolescents have to retrace the solution path to identify the "problem behind the problem". Once the essence of the task has been understood, the pupils develop a task of the same format in order to encourage classmates (for example in smaller classes) to solve it. Understanding in a comprehensive understanding of the problem in the sense of “metacognition” (“What makes the problem a problem?”) Already plays a central role in teacher training. This promotes an attitude towards learning in a professional manner.

Individual attention in large classes

The average class size in Singapore is 36 children, but classes with 40 students are also common. Nevertheless, the teachers deal with each child individually in class in order to provide the best possible support. On the one hand, this enables a high degree of integration of everyone in the country's success story, on the other hand - as a "return of investment" so to speak - stimulates gratitude for the achievements received by the school system ("How and what can I give back to society later?").

Why flight simulators, wind tunnels and Lego walls are part of Singapore's schools

Characteristic of the school buildings in Singapore are their generosity and the extensive equipment, which can also include a wind tunnel or a flight simulator, for example. This often reflects the progress of the high-tech country. Schools receive $ 10,000 a year for innovative projects to be used as a "boost" for clever solutions. Two examples: A primary school bought a huge Lego wall to stimulate creative design inside and outside of the classroom. Another school set up a “makerspace”, a kind of creative workshop. The aim is to encourage the students to experiment and solve problems.


So what is the success story of the Singapore school system? How does Singapore succeed in ensuring that the unique spirit characterizes the entire school system - from teacher training to everyday school life? It's the combination of all of the factors mentioned - with all of the inherent paradoxes:

  • different performance incentives,
  • Measures to support the respective superiors,
  • Interaction of the different actors,
  • “Being integrated” into a coherent - a coherent - whole
  • and the commitment of everyone involved.

Literature: Tan, O.-S., Low E.-L., & Hung, D. (Eds.). (2017). Lee Kuan Yew’s Educational Legacy: The Challenges of Success. Singapore: Springer.