The ABC of educational achievement

What underpins Singapore’s high scores

Stephen Bartos

Economics and finance, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, Southeast Asia

15 February 2017

Singapore’s achievements in education are the envy of many, but in looking to emulate its success Stephen Bartos warns we shouldn’t overlook the critical role parents, employment and institutions play in getting such great outcomes.

There has been considerable attention, including in this forum, paid to why countries like Singapore do much better than Australia in international rankings of education achievement in standardised tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The observation that the Singaporean experience does not translate directly to Australia would not be contested by most researchers. Differences in language, culture and history (and countless other factors) make direct country comparisons highly unreliable. Nevertheless, there are important elements worth considering about how the Singaporean experience might have relevance to our own, and three key aspects are parents, employment and institutions.

One of the most important determinants of children’s success in learning is the extent of parent engagement in that learning. The importance of parents is only now starting to be recognised in Australia – although initiatives like the national parent engagement conference with a strong cast of international experts on the subject aim to improve awareness.

Parent engagement is an obvious factor in educational success, not only in Singapore but in other countries without a “Confucian” heritage that have achieved good international ranking results. Parents who make an effort to ensure their children get to school, stay in school, provide space and time for homework (critics of Singapore suggest maybe too much), praise their children’s academic achievement, engage constructively with schools and teachers, not surprisingly have children who do better in learning.

More on this: Singapore and the global education rankings battleground

Schools are not “out of sight, out of mind” for such parents. These factors seem obvious for well-educated professionals or academic parents. They are anything but for many Australians. One success of the Singaporean system is that it engages a large majority of parents from all walks of life in their children’s learning.

Second, a key factor for success is that educational achievement should lead somewhere: to employment or other opportunities. Singapore does well in mathematics and science because graduates in these disciplines can find satisfying work in technology and innovation. By contrast, in Australia, calls for more STEM teaching are likely to be in vain while – as shown in a recent Grattan Institute study – the job opportunities aren’t there.

Until last year, Singapore had one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world. When the unemployment rate for graduates topped 4 per cent last year, it was a cause for public concern. That said, prospects for graduates are worse in Australia. Moreover, a characteristic of the Singaporean labour market is that graduate unemployment is of short duration, and the spread of potential opportunities across diverse industries is wide.

A third factor that most of the academic literature overlooks is the role of institutions in Singapore. For example, the Singapore library system is highly innovative, reaches out to the whole population, and is a key component in early language development and reading. Early intervention sets children up for lifelong learning achievement. By contrast, some Australian children start school without having ever touched a book, let alone having been read to or starting to read for themselves. While that is not typical, the evidence from studies, like Ken Rowe’s literacy review, shows the importance of raising the average by assisting children who are missing out. It was a landmark review, but one that is still sadly lacking sufficient follow through by governments and universities in Australia.

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Another key institution is the political system. Singapore is effectively a one-party state under the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP). While there is a small opposition party it is not a decision-maker: the PAP is firmly in charge of the levers of state power. From its inception, the PAP aimed to operate as a meritocracy with recruitment and advancement based among other things on success in learning.

This is in part a reflection of the values of the country’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, himself a high achiever in education, initially at Raffles College, Singapore and then Cambridge University, England. Lee held power long enough to reinforce and institutionalise the approach. Lee’s strong commitment to meritocracy, measured in a party cadre’s early years by educational attainment, created path dependence whereby successive generations of political leaders have been institutionally constrained to follow the same approach. The importance placed on academic achievement at the highest political levels would appear highly likely to influence how Singaporean students study and strive for success in competitive examinations.

The initial forum article by Dr Yeow-Tong Chia noted that “While its current prowess in these global education rankings [TIMSS and PISA] correlates to past economic success, it is no guarantee of Singapore’s future economic development.” That is clearly so. There are no guarantees of future economic success, anywhere. We live in a highly competitive, uncertain world.

Consider however the alternative: sliding downwards in international rankings. It is equally true that this of its own won’t necessarily guarantee economic failure – a country might prosper by dumb luck alone – but it is not a great way to plan for the future. Other things being equal, with equal dollops of good and bad fortune, a country that fosters educational achievement will be better off than one which doesn’t. This implies that it would be wise for policymakers in Australia to not copy slavishly, but at least pay attention to, lessons from countries like Singapore.

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