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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (XV) - The Secret of Singapore's Educational Success -

In my last article I introduced the educational system in Singapore. This is a totally academic ability-oriented system where selection and tracking begin at the primary school level. This is probably one of the reasons that Singapore came out first in mathematics and science in the International Comparative Study Educational Achievement. Furthermore, it has none of the serious school violence or bullying that occurs in Japan or in Korea. Children have a positive and sincere attitude, are well-mannered and devoted to their studies. What is it that cultivates and maintains such docility and devotion? If this can be called "success," then what is the secret of this "success"?

Singapore is a young nation. It is a country that became independent in 1965, and rapidly achieved high economic growth. One could probably attribute its "success" to its youth and energy. However, is that all there is to it? South Korea began its period of economic growth about the same time, but around 1990, some twenty years later, school violence and bullying came to be regarded as problems. In Japan, too, in the late 1970s, some twenty years after high economic growth began, school violence and bullying became frequent. Other problems called attention to students who were being left behind and it was said that students were called lethargic, apathetic, and irresponsible. Is it simply because economic development somewhat precedes the emergence of problems in education, and will Singapore also shortly come to experience the same problems that countries like Japan and South Korea have? While it is not certain that this will happen, for the moment at least, there is certainly a difference. One can point to at least three things that form the basis of this difference.

One, the Singapore education system is characterized by ability-based selection and tracked according to scholastic achievement, but its standards are drawn only from required subjects, mainly mathematics and language and it is based on performance. Selection neither takes into account all subjects as is the case in Japan, nor does it not evaluate or make selections on a multiplicity of aspects. In junior colleges, the main route to entering university, there is a half-year probationary period, and during this period some students change course (transfer).

Two, the population of Singapore is some three million, and it is a small country with no national resources which must import even its drinking water. As a result, government policies reflect an awareness that the country's destiny depends on education. For example, upper secondary and post-secondary education is divided into programs for junior college (25%) polytechnics (40%) vocational and technical schools (25%), and apprenticeships depending on the curriculum, career perspective, and academic ability of the students. However, a large number of resources and much attention are devoted to enriching vocational schools and apprenticeships. Facilities and education at junior colleges and polytechnics are well-developed, too, but at the same time there is an awareness that it is extremely important to devote resources to vocational schools and apprenticeships, and their facilities and educational programs reflect this.

Three, the system is ability-oriented, but in the actual schools themselves each child is valued individually, and individuality, responsibility, and discipline are emphasized and managed with flexibility. For example, during the period of subjects related to self-expression, some students are allowed to take special lessons in violin and piano. Budgets for computers are not necessarily used to increase the number of classrooms where all students can work on the computer at once, but instead, at the discretion of the headmaster, all classrooms are provided with a certain number of computers and both teachers and students can use them on an everyday basis. In some schools, volunteers give extra help with reading during afternoon recess. There are schools where, about ten minutes before the start of morning assembly meeting, almost all the students are sitting on the ground, with their books out of their bags, reading. Students are instructed to do this because reading is given such importance, but this is a striking difference from Japanese schools where students line up for school assembly.

There are many more differences. There is compulsory military service in Singapore, and from the age of 18 young men are required to serve in the military for two and a half years. There is no concept of lifelong employment; the labor market is mobile and based on ability. Government policy is distinguished by the idea that there is no survival except as a nation that is built on education, technology, and finance, and a belief in egalitarianism. Without a doubt this environment is the essential background of the "success" of education in Singapore. No one knows how long this "success" will continue. However, right now, this "success" is backed by a particular kind of effort and concern. Policies consistently reflect an attempt to value each child and maximize his or her potential, and this belief and stance set the tone for each school. It is a national experiment and a form of educational practice that is extremely thought provoking.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" July, 1998 issue published by Benesse Corporation]
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