Education Systems Can Get Better

Text by Dr Lim Lai Cheng
Image by Freepik

Southeast Asia is home to 600 million people. It is a region of possibilities, but economic growth is often hampered by poverty, inequality and the middle income trap. Many of the developing countries in Southeast Asia have natural resources but primary production will never be enough to grow an economy. In order to reduce poverty and inequality, and move up the economic value chain (and out of the middle income trap), skilled labour, an educated workforce and state autonomy, (principally, the ability of the bureaucracy or government officials to act on policy without falling prey to corruption) are vital.

The Mckinsey Report, “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better” (2010, Mckinsey) posits that any school system can improve from any starting point and this can be done in as short a time frame as six years. Based on more than 200 interviews with system stakeholders and analysis of some 600 interventions carried out on 25 purposively selected systems, the report identifies the reform elements that are replicable for school systems elsewhere as they move from poor to fair, fair to good, good to great, and great to excellent performance. The three key aspects that system leaders must integrate include a) recognising the stage the education system is in b) introducing a set of interventions relevant to the stage and c) ensuring that the system adapts to the interventions to take into account the history, culture, politics and structure of the school system and nation.

Poor to fair:

According to the report, systems that are young have to first ensure that there are enough schools and education access for all. Basic needs such as meals, clothing, transportation, toilets and classrooms will need to be looked into. Teachers and principals have to be provided with training through standard materials to scaffold their learning. This can be done by providing educators and administrators with manuals, or prepared lessons with instructional objectives, lesson plans, and materials that are standardised. System leaders will have to visit to observe, meet and motivate staff and discuss performance and ensure that the curriculum is strictly adhered to. By way of motivating and rewarding efforts, proficiency targets can be set and measured against student performance at regular intervals. The targets, at this stage, would be the achievement of basic literacy and numeracy among the students.

Fair to good:

For systems that seek to strengthen their foundation, an organisational structure should be established to ensure accountability and clear decision lines. There has also to be an equitable funding model for all schools that is transparent and efficient. Where student outcomes are concerned, there has to be reliable assessments put in place so that data on performance, obtained through a centralised authority, can be used to identify areas such as subjects, gender, age or ethnic groups that require special attention and support. To further enhance teaching and learning, curriculum designs and models appropriate for the various age groups and subjects will have to be established, and textbooks and assessment standards provided to ensure adherence across the schools. Close monitoring of the progression of students through each education level, streams and tracks to ensure academic focus and pace would be helpful to keep students in school and engaged. This will ensure teacher and school accountability.

Good to great:

Systems that want to move from good to great will have to raise the bar on professionalism and constantly improve the quality of teachers. This can be done in two ways: expect stronger credentials from new teachers at the entry level, and enhance pre-service training and certification standards. Rather than solely relying on teacher trainers, incentives for peer-learning, self-learning and self-development can be provided. Teachers can also be coached to strengthen their teaching skills and their ability to plan lessons and analyse student performance to improve their teaching. To be able to retain the best within the profession, clear career pathways will need to be created so that educators will commit to professional growth and be able to expect commensurate pay increase, the longer they remain in service. A balance needs to be struck between flexibility and autonomy given to schools to pursue their specialised programmes and goals, and accountability through evidence-based self-evaluation and improvement will be important.

Great to excellent:

The journey from great to excellent encompasses the creation of environments that will unleash the creativity and innovation of its educators and stakeholders. When the system has a highly-skilled set of educators, and systems and frameworks are routinely used to ensure standards and accountability, even more autonomy can be meted out to teachers to develop themselves professionally and try new ideas to further support and customise student learning. Features of an excellent system include strong parent-community involvement and ownership of school programmes, the proliferation of communities of learning, strong mentoring programmes, the sharing of innovative practices across schools and adequate administrative support for teachers and principals so that they can focus on instructional leadership.

Within all stages, several key considerations are vital: ensuring age appropriacy and relevance of the curriculum and standards for the country’s needs; ensuring appropriate reward and remuneration for teachers and principals of schools, valid and reliable assessment of student outcomes and academic performance, data systems that can inform policy reviews, and well-scripted policy documents and education laws to ensure compliance and the communication of intent and standards expected.

The Singapore Education Story: From Poor to Excellent

Singapore gained independence in 1965. At that point in time, the school system was still in disarray. The Education Act of 1957 had required all schools set up by community groups to be registered and syllabuses for different language medium schools to be streamlined to ensure similar content. Equal treatment in education was declared for the major ethnic groups in Singapore. Attempts were also made to ensure that the basic salaries of government and aided schools were pegged to qualifications and experience and not arbitrarily. However, freed from the vagaries of colonialism where only the children of the elite received formal education, there were hardly enough schools to cater to all the children in the newly-independent nation.

For a country with no natural resources, it was imperative that efforts be channelled towards building a workforce that could support the aspirations of a new nation needing to sustain itself. The late 60s and early 70s saw the government building schools and replicating them all over the island in cookie-cutter fashion, and at breakneck speed. Teachers were hired en masse to fill the schools, and many of them given contracts right after they finished their “A” levels (the equivalent of a high school certification). They taught in the morning and went for training in the afternoon.

English was adopted as a working language, so that the people could plug into the global market, and bilingualism became a cornerstone of the education system to anchor children to their cultural heritage. The focus of the curriculum was technical studies, science and mathematics to meet the needs of an industrial economy. Nation building was key and social values were taught in school through the introduction of a national anthem, pledge, and subjects such as Civics. This was important as Singapore was still reeling from a period of communal violence, industrial strikes and racial riots. As most families were poor and primary healthcare had been hitherto neglected, the schools became centres where underweight children had to drink milk under the supervision of their teachers, be taught to brush their teeth as a habit and be vaccinated at regular intervals to ensure they were immunised against communicable and infectious diseases.

In the early 70s, while the British troops totally withdrew from Singapore, the oil crisis hit the region and the world. Singapore held fast to its plans for mass education. The priority, apart from the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills, was to build a cohesive society and a rugged nation. Uniformed groups were introduced in schools. Because the new industries that had been set up in Singapore by multi-national companies necessitated technical skills, vocational education was instituted with the set up of the Adult Education Board as well as the Industrial Training Board. This later merged to form the Vocational and Industrial Training Board.

The systematisation of the Singapore education system began in the early 80s, after the Goh Report (Goh Keng Swee, 1978) which introduced streaming at Primary 3 to prevent education wastage. A curriculum development institute was set up and specialists were enlisted to write textbooks for use by the whole nation. The standardisation of instructional materials enabled a consistent delivery of the curriculum no matter the calibre of the teachers across schools. By the mid 1980s, special streams and tracks were also put in place to cultivate special talent, such as the gifted education programme which catered to the top 1% of the school going cohort (identified through a national psychometric test at Primary Four). The strongest schools were given independent school status and more funding so that they could innovate and differentiate themselves from the mainstream schools. To ensure stronger accountability, a school appraisal system was put in place and schools were openly ranked on academic performance to raise competition and standards nationally. The reward system and career progression of teachers were also centrally managed, pegged to how they were assessed on a common set of competencies used in all schools to measure performance and potential.

As the Singapore system became stronger and performance outcomes on international assessments such as The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed Singaporean students to be top of their class, the system leaders confidently embarked on a process to envision new possibilities. The “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” initiative which was introduced in the mid 90s involved many school heads and leaders across the nation. The drive for innovation led to the setting up of autonomous schools, the launch of Singapore’s IT Masterplan and the devolution of textbook writing to commercial publishers. Schools were left to do their own self-appraisal and externally validated only once in five years. Many schools began to establish their own niche in different fields and co-curricular activities to differentiate themselves. New pathways were created for different types of learners and specialised schools were set up to develop the diverse talents of students, such as in the area of sports, the arts, and mathematics and the sciences.

It is not by chance that Singapore has created, in fifty years, a high performing system. It is a system that is based on meritocratic or merit-based principles, which allows equal access for all. Singapore has created, through its centralised education system, social cohesion, unity of purpose among schools as well as an ethos of dedication and hard work. Still, because the context has changed and Singapore in 2015 no longer looks and feels like what it was in 1965, work is in progress to address areas that are started to work counter to social progress and national cohesion. The Singapore education system, by 2015, has become highly stratified and the social divide continues to widen because the same policies that had won the system its accolades and success – based on the principle of meritocracy, no longer allow for very much social mobility.

Outside of the five stages presented by the Mckinsey report, Singapore has to find new solutions to ensure that its education can keep on getting better. This time around, it will no longer be merely to develop a highly-skilled workforce to plug into the global economy. It will be to ensure that Singapore is able to engender a more equitable society and build a stronger social compact among its people. Recent government policies have aimed to re-focus parents and students’ unhealthy obsession with grades attainment to the need for life-long learning, personal mastery and values. To enhance equity, the education ministry has also attempted to spread resources more evenly across schools, reduce elitism by paying a lot more attention to academically weaker students, strengthen vocational and skills training and expound a wider definition of success (beyond the academic). The deliberations and search are ongoing, to find the next formula or right education model for Singapore.

The Mckinsey report stopped at “excellent” to describe a high performing education system. Perhaps it will have good reasons to extend the scale to incorporate the next stage that all strong systems should aspire towards, and that stage can be termed, from excellent to remarkable.

The education systems of the eleven countries in Southeast Asia are clearly at different stages of their evolution. The Mckinsey analysis and framework for development provide a very useful guide for countries that wish to improve student outcomes and the skills level of their workforce. The starting point is an honest appraisal of where the system is and have system leaders muster the relevant resources to move it one notch further. This has been possible with the least as well as better-resourced countries in the world. What it takes is political will.

About the author

Dr Lim Lai Cheng is Academic Director of the Institute for Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University. Prior to joining the university, she had worked as teacher, head of department, deputy principal and she was principal of three schools. She has served on various national committees on education reviews in Singapore. She is advisor to the African Leadership Academy in South Africa and the LEAF Foundation in Slovakia and a Director of the Principals’ Academy Inc, Singapore and a member of the steering committee of the International Positive Education Network.


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