Meng Teck Chee, Tan Ying Chin, Mei Yoke Loh, Hui Leng Ng, Chew Leng Poon,
Kim Ho Sin, Suet Yen Tang, Wee Beng Tay, Yeen Peng Yen
Ministry of Education

Overview of Education System

A small nation with few natural resources other than its people, Singapore has always placed a high value on education. The mission of Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) is to mold the future of the nation by nurturing its people. Nearly all Singaporean students attend publicly funded schools. Public education in Singapore is balanced and well-rounded, and aims to help children develop passion and capabilities for learning throughout life so that they may realize their potential, live a full and satisfying life, and use their strengths gainfully for the good of the self, family, society, and country.1

The Singaporean education system in the 1960s–1980s was largely efficiency-driven and more centrally controlled, with the goal of rapidly raising the basic literacy and numeracy rates within its population. Launched in 1997, “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” (TSLN) represented an important inflection point in the transformation of the Singaporean education system into its current form, which is characterized by flexibility, diversity, and greater school autonomy.2 This fundamental shift was actualized through changes in education governance and the education landscape over the past two decades. Due to its small sizea and by design, the Singaporean education system has a very flat structure of governance, with no intermediary levels of government between the MOE Headquarters (MOE HQ) and schools. The key design objective, both in the post-TSLN years and currently, is to create a close nexus between policy and practice through achieving a purposeful balance between the centralization and decentralization of different elements of the education and school system.

The MOE HQ is responsible for selected functions within the education system to ensure that important educational resources are equitably distributed across schools. More specifically, the MOE HQ is responsible for setting national policies that affect access to education and schools for all children (e.g., curriculum, school admission criteria, funding rates, and fees payable). For example, the adoption of a national curriculum ensures that children in all schools have access to the same core set of important knowledge and skills. Similarly, the MOE HQ is responsible for recruiting public school teachers, paying for their initial teacher training at the National Institute of Education (NIE), and deploying them to schools. This ensures that the same high standards are applied consistently in the recruitment of teachers, and that there is equitable deployment of teachers to all schools.

The MOE HQ devolves significant autonomy and responsibility to individual schools in school administration and professional matters (e.g., pedagogical approaches for students with different learning needs). Schools are given the autonomy within broad parameters and, in fact, are highly encouraged to customize the implementation of national curriculum policies and programs, set and developed by the MOE HQ, to suit the learning needs of their students. Similarly, schools decide the local job assignments of teachers centrally posted to them by the MOE HQ (e.g., deployment to grade level and co-curricular activities).

Central oversight of individual schools is carried out mainly using a holistic school evaluation and improvement framework. The School Excellence Model, centrally developed by the MOE HQ in consultation with schools and other key stakeholders, is a self-evaluation framework that all schools use to guide continual school improvement, in areas such as teaching and learning, student and staff welfare, and school leadership. School self-evaluation is supported by a process of external validation, carried out approximately once every six years, whereby schools invite a team of experienced principals and quality assessors, appointed by the MOE HQ, to provide an assessment of school strengths and areas for improvement. The validation-based approach of these external evaluations marks a departure from the previous practice of externally imposed inspections by a team of school inspectors, reflecting the post-TSLN belief that continual and sustainable school improvement is most effective when it is initiated and owned by schools themselves. This decentralized but systematic approach to school improvement allows the MOE HQ to retain a light touch in monitoring schools and to provide assistance to schools where necessary.

At the same time, the MOE HQ works very closely with schools, both directly through school visits and consultations with MOE HQ subject specialists, for example, and indirectly through a school cluster system. The cluster system comprises clusters of 12 to 14 schools located in close geographical proximity, and serves as a key platform for professional development, communication, networking, and sharing among schools. The close working relationship between schools and the MOE HQ is further enhanced through a deliberate centralized personnel posting policy that systematically rotates education officers, especially those with strong leadership potential, between practitioner roles in schools (e.g., teachers, heads of departments, and principals) and policymaking roles in the MOE HQ. This helps to create a coherent system with a tight link between policy and practice. Shifting between job roles allows educators to gain insight into the policymaking and policy implementation aspects of the system such that each is continually informed by the other. Socially, the overlapping networks that follow individual officers as they move from one role to another organically facilitate a close working relationship between school personnel and HQ personnel. Overall, this practice contributes to a strong sense of common mission among school and MOE HQ personnel, and strong alignment between policy and implementation.

New education pathways and curricular options have been introduced progressively and refined over the past two decades to allow children to discover their interests and develop their strengths in different domains. Exhibit 1 illustrates the diversity of pathways available to students today, including avenues for lateral transfers between courses of study. These pathways are designed to allow students to discover their individual talents and interests, develop and hone these so that they may acquire skills in particular domains, and inculcate a passion for learning that will drive the continual pursuit of new knowledge and skills throughout their lives.

While preschool education is not compulsory in Singapore, early childhood educational development programs for children under age 3 and preprimary education programs for children age 3 or older (including kindergartens) are widely accessible. Most parents enroll their children in these programs, with some starting from as early as 18 months of age. Over the past five years, the government has played a more active role in raising the quality of preschool education through measures, which include the introduction of national curriculum frameworks for early childhood educators,3,4 the implementation of a new quality assurance consultancy scheme for kindergartens,5 and the establishment of MOE kindergartens to provide quality, affordable preschool education directly, while catalyzing improvements in the rest of the preschool sector.6 With the establishment of the Early Childhood Development Agency in 2013, there have been further concerted efforts by the government to facilitate the enrollment of 5-year-old children who are not already enrolled in a preschool program, by reaching out to their families. These efforts have reduced the proportion of children not enrolled in a preschool program to 1 percent.

Primary school education is compulsory, and formal schooling starts in Grade 1 (Primary 1) in the year in which children turn age 7. All primary school students learn a common national curriculum. To build a strong foundation in literacy and numeracy, English (the language of instruction), mother tongue (Malay, Chinese, or Tamil, depending on the student’s ethnicity), and mathematics are emphasized in the primary school years. Science is introduced in Grade 3 (Primary 3). The curriculum also includes art, music, character and citizenship education, social studies, and physical education, as well as a wide range of co-curricular activities that allow students to explore their interests while imparting values, inculcating life skills, and building character.

Exhibit 1: Education Pathways in Singapore7

At the end of Grade 6 (Primary 6), all students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which assesses students in four subjects: English language, mother tongue, mathematics, and science. For the majority of students, results from the PSLE are used as a measure of academic merit in the centralized secondary school admission system, which is both merit- and choice-based. Some students utilize their achievement in other areas (e.g., sports, music, and leadership) to gain direct admission to specific secondary schools, especially those offering special programs in these areas.

Secondary school is not compulsory, but is completed by nearly all students in Singapore. In 2014, less than 1 percent of the Grade 1 (Primary 1) cohortb did not complete secondary education.8 At the secondary levels, students enroll in Express, Normal (Academic), or Normal (Technical) courses of study. These four- to five-year academic programs lead to the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary or Normal Level (O-Level or N-Level) qualifications. Currently, approximately 60 percent of each cohort is enrolled in the Express course, approximately 25 percent in the Normal (Academic) course, and approximately 15 percent in the Normal (Technical) course. The differentiated curricula are designed to match student abilities and interests. Students may transfer laterally between courses of study. Recognizing that students’ strengths vary across subjects, students from one course are allowed to take certain subjects from a more demanding course. For example, Normal (Technical) students are allowed to take Normal (Academic) subjects, where appropriate, and Normal (Academic) students are allowed to take O-Level subjects from the Express course of study.

While education at the primary level comprises a broad range of curricula to help students discover areas of strength and interest, there are opportunities for specialization at the secondary level. Students with special talent in the arts, sports, mathematics, or science can choose to enroll in specialized independent schools that offer customized curricula to develop these talents. There also are specialized schools that cater to students who would benefit from a more customized and practice-oriented curriculum. In addition, some schools offer the Integrated Program, which combines secondary and preuniversity education without an intermediate national examination. Students in the Integrated Program experience an enriched curriculum, which aims to broaden and deepen their thinking skills, leadership, teamwork, and communication skills.

After secondary school, the majority of students in each cohort matriculate to a course of study at a preuniversity institution, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), or a polytechnic institution. Approximately 30 percent of each cohort enrolls in a preuniversity course of study that focuses on preparing students for university education, offered by a junior college, a centralized institute, or an Integrated Program school.9 Students graduate from these courses with a Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (A-Level) or an International Baccalaureate (IB) qualification.

Approximately 20 percent of each cohort enrolls in the ITE, which offers a broad-based, multidisciplinary curriculum ranging from engineering to technical, business, and service skills.10 Working closely with industry partners, the ITE provides students with enriched learning experiences, equipping them with industry-relevant technical and professional knowledge and skills. ITE graduates who perform well and have interest in pursuing further education may progress to a polytechnic.

Approximately 45 percent of each cohort enrolls in polytechnic education.11 There are five polytechnics in Singapore, each offering three-year, practice-oriented diploma courses in diverse disciplines, such as business, chemical and biological sciences, communication, design, digital media, engineering, and manufacturing. Polytechnic graduates who perform well and have interest in pursuing further education may progress to university.

Approximately 25 to 30 percent of each cohort enrolls in government-funded, autonomous, local universities.12 The university landscape continues to diversify with the establishment of new institutions, including those with different specializations (e.g., design in technology) and different approaches to tertiary education (e.g., the Yale-NUS Liberal Arts College). In 2015, there were five government-funded, autonomous universities in Singapore: National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Institute of Technology, Singapore Management University, and Singapore University of Technology and Design. A sixth university, SIM University, is private but receives government funding to subsidize the fees for both part time and full time degree programs. The rate of student enrollment at local universities is projected to increase to 40 percent for each cohort by 2020.13

In addition to providing pre-employment training, the ITE, polytechnics, and universities also are key providers of continuing education and training (CET) for working adults. These include full time courses, and part time skill- and knowledge-building programs that allow employees to continue to develop useful and industry-relevant skills throughout their working lives. The focus on lifelong learning and skill development has received a recent boost at the national level with the launch of SkillsFuture in 2015, which marks the latest phase in Singapore’s investment in CET.14 With an increase in annual government funding in CET, the SkillsFuture movement encompasses a multitude of initiatives and programs, including (a) helping students discover and develop interests during their school years, (b) providing various opportunities and support for skill development (e.g., the SkillsFuture Study Award, and the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Program), and (c) actively engaging industry leaders in systematically grooming and deepening industry relevant skills for both prospective and current employees.

In addition to academic studies, the development of competencies that are essential for students to thrive in the 21st century (e.g., socioemotional competencies, critical and inventive thinking, communication and collaboration, and leadership) and the inculcation of a strong value system are integral aspects of education across all grade levels in Singapore. Students are provided with age-appropriate opportunities to engage in activities, both within and beyond the formal curriculum, which help to cultivate these competencies and values. Regular participation in co-curricular activities (CCA) and Values-in-Action community projects are integral school experiences that help to achieve these goals.

The education system in Singapore aims to equip every student with basic numeracy skills and scientific knowledge and skills necessary in daily life. At the same time, it allows those with special talent and interest in mathematics and science to pursue further studies in these fields to as high a level as they are able, and want, to attain.

In Singapore, the study of science is compulsory through Grade 8 and the study of mathematics through Grade 10, reflecting the country’s focus on mathematics and science education. At the upper secondary level, students with the inclination and interest have the opportunity to study mathematics and science on a deeper level by selecting from a wider range of electives. For example, in addition to general mathematics, students may take an additional mathematics course that delves deeper into the subject, covers a broader range of topics, and prepares them for advanced mathematics courses at the post-secondary level. In science, upper secondary students can choose to study physics, biology, chemistry, or a combination of these subjects.

Languages of Instruction

Singapore has a multiracial and multiethnic population with a diverse language environment. There are four official languages in Singapore: Malay, Chinese (Mandarin), Tamil, and English. Malay is the national language, while English is the language of administration and education. The proportion of the resident population ages 15 and older who are literate in one or more languages has increased steadily over the years to 97 percent in 2014.15 Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of the resident population speaking English predominantly at home increased from 23 percent to 32 percent.16,17

In school, English is the medium of instruction for all academic subjects at all grade levels (including mathematics and science), except for the mother tongue language subjects. A fundamental feature of Singapore’s post-independence education system is its bilingual policy. Students are encouraged to be proficient in both English and their own mother tongue language (Malay, Chinese, or Tamil), and to study both languages to the highest level they are able to. In 2010, 71 percent of the literate resident population in Singapore was literate in two or more languages, an increase from 56 percent in 2000.18

  • a There were 366 schools across all grade levels in the Singapore education system in 2015.
  • b Henceforth, use of the word “cohort” refers to the Grade 1 cohort.