In Singapore, children ages three through six can attend either a public or private kindergarten or a childcare center. Formerly, the Ministry of Social and Family Development oversaw childcare centers while the Ministry of Education oversaw kindergartens. But in 2013, the government created the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) to coordinate oversight of all early childhood education.
Most childcare centers and kindergartens in Singapore are privately run but licensed by ECDA. A subset of centers caps their enrollment fees in exchange for government subsidies, part of a national effort to increase access to childcare for low- and middle-income Singaporeans. Beginning in 2013, the government opened a small number of public kindergartens to model quality programming and further expand access to early education. In 2017, the Prime Minister announced plans for a fourfold increase in the number of public kindergartens by 2025. To ensure public kindergartens are accessible for all families, the Ministry of Education reserves one-third of the total slots for students whose families earn under a certain income level.
ECDA regulates programs for children ages 4-6 as well as programs for younger children. Data from program inspections are not publicly available. ECDA established the Singapore Preschool Accreditation Framework (SPARK) to accredit centers. Accreditation is voluntary, but there are incentives to participate, including access to government subsidies and to professional development for staff. As of 2017, 40 percent of centers in Singapore had attained SPARK certification. Of these, about 10 percent have also attained SPARK commendation, a mark of especially strong teaching and learning practices.
ECDA has developed the Nurturing Early Learners Kindergarten Curriculum Framework as suggested guidance for children ages 4 to 6. The government does not assess learning outcomes for students in kindergarten or childcare; the first nationwide screening of children’s literacy and numeracy skills takes place in the first month of primary school.
Primary and Secondary Education
In Singapore, the system includes six years of primary school, followed by four to six years of secondary school, and one to three years of postsecondary school. The curriculum for primary schools is common for all students in years one to four. For years five and six, students can take individual courses at the foundation or standard level. Foundational level courses are designed to provide more support for students. As they enter secondary school, students, their parents, and their teachers jointly agree on one of three bands or “streams” they will join: Express, Normal (Academic), and Normal (Technical). All streams offer the same course of study, but Express is accelerated and Normal (Technical) offers more applied work. In most cases, students’ scores on the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) are the primary determinant of the stream they will join, but parents and students can advocate for different streams if they demonstrate accelerated learning or need more help. Singapore is piloting and implementing a system under which students choose streams for specific subjects, rather than their overall course of study, a practice known as subject-based banding. For example, a student could pursue a technical stream in mathematics, but an express stream in English. Subject-based banding currently exists in all primary schools, and the goal is to have full subject-based banding in all secondary schools by 2024.
In addition to these options, Singapore has four specialized schools for students who perform poorly on the PSLE. These schools offer foundational coursework in mathematics and literacy, alongside vocational offerings leading to skill certificates and extensive social supports. There are also specialized independent schools that focus on the arts, sports, and mathematics and science. These schools receive public funding and use the MOE curriculum, but have more flexibility in their program offerings.
Students who want to apply to university stay in secondary school for an additional two years to take A-level courses, as part of the Integrated Program. Those who do not do that have multiple postsecondary options: Polytechnics, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), Junior Colleges, a Polytechnic Foundation program and a small set of Arts Institutions. Students choose their postsecondary school based on their secondary school stream as well as results from the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examinations, described in more detail below. Polytechnics offer three-year diploma programs. Graduates may pursue university education after they earn their Polytechnic diploma without taking A-level exams, if they so choose. ITE offers shorter technical or vocational education programs, through National ITE Certificate (Nitec) aligned courses and work-based learning. Students graduate from ITE with a Nitec or Higher Nitec qualification and can then continue their vocational studies at a polytechnic or at university. They can also stay at ITE and earn a technical or work study diploma, which also allows a pathways to slect university programs. Junior Colleges offer two- or three-year pre-university education, preparing students for the required examinations to enroll in universities or for entry into Polytechnics.
Standards and Curriculum
The Ministry of Education oversees the development of the national curriculum, which includes “Desired Outcomes of Education.” The desired outcomes are student excellence in life skills, knowledge skills, and subject discipline knowledge organized into eight core skills and values: character development, self-management skills, social and cooperative skills, literacy and numeracy, communication skills, information skills, thinking skills and creativity, and knowledge application skills.
The primary school curriculum includes ten subject areas: English, mother tongue language (available for Chinese-, Malay- and Tamil-speaking students), mathematics, science, art, music, physical education, social studies, and character and citizenship education. A coding class was added to the curriculum in 2019. And in 2021, the Ministry introduced an updated character and citizenship education curriculum which focuses on mental health and cyber-wellness and on the establishment of peer support structures within every school, among other topics. For primary students who qualify as gifted, Singapore offers individualized enriched curriculum opportunities.
Secondary education varies depending on school and program type. Students in the express and Normal (academic program) are required to take English, mother tongue language, mathematics, science, and humanities (geography, history, and English literature). For students in the Normal (Technical) program, compulsory subjects include English, mother tongue language, mathematics, computer applications, and social studies. There are electives available for both the Technical and Normal program as well.
The Ministry of Education has been very involved with the implementation of its primary and secondary curriculum. During the shift from rote learning to the current model emphasizing student engagement and creativity, Ministry officials were very “hands-on” in schools. They met regularly with school leaders and developed extensive professional learning opportunities for teachers around the new curriculum. However, in recent years, the Ministry has taken a step back, encouraging schools to consider the curriculum as a framework which they should adapt to their students’ needs. The Ministry also encourages secondary schools to differentiate themselves through theme courses or special programs designed to attract students with shared interests.
Assessment and Qualifications
Teachers perform continuous assessment of their students at all levels of education. On a day-to-day basis, this assessment is informal and based on student work in and out of the classroom. Previously, all students in primary school took school-based exams throughout the year and at the end of each year, but in 2019, the government dropped the exams for Primary 1 and 2 and in 2021 dropped the mid-year exams for Primary 3 and 5, as well as Secondary 3. By removing these exams, the government hopes to shift focus away from grades and competition and toward learning for its own sake.
At the end of primary school, all students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in four subjects: English, math, science, and mother tongue. Students take exams at one of two levels, based on the level of subjects they took in years five and six. In 2021, the Ministry began to update the PSLE scoring process. Going forward, students will be graded based on individual performance in subjects rather than benchmarked against each other. These scores will be translated to Achievement Level tiers, which will help students determine their stream for lower secondary education, as well as which school they will attend. Students send their examination scores to up to six lower secondary schools, ranked in order of preference. The schools then choose their students based in large part on their PSLE rankings. That said, the Ministry also allows some schools to admit students based on their talents in academic areas, sports, or co-curricular activities without factoring in PSLE results, to provide greater diversity in student talents and interests. Since 2018, schools have been able to offer up to 20 percent of their places to students through this process, called direct school admission. The Ministry of Education helps place those students who are not accepted into their schools of choice.
At the secondary level, student take subject-based exams, depending on their band. After four years of study, students take O-level exams in the express and N-level exams in the Normal (Technical) program. Students in the Normal (Academic) program can take the N-level exams after four years of study or the O-level exams after five years. Students who wish to study at university take A-level exams after an additional two years of study.
Despite Singapore’s strong emphasis on equitable funding, the most recent results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) exposed a large gap between the nation’s highest- and lowest-performing students. However, the gap has been narrowing in mathematics and science, and educators hope to address academic disparities through early diagnosis and intervention of learning issues. Schools screen students at the beginning of first grade for reading and numeracy skills; those who need extra help (approximately 12-14 percent) are taught in small learning support programs to keep them on pace with their peers. As part of this program, the Ministry funds learning specialists at each school who work with these groups of students.
Students who are still struggling when they reach lower secondary school are offered extra time and support to complete their studies, and teachers may recommend they join the Normal (Technical) stream for most subjects. If students show improvement, they can transfer into a faster-paced band. They can also take courses in different bands if they are only struggling with a particular subject.
Whenever possible, the government encourages students with special needs to enroll in mainstream schools, either initially or after having met certain benchmarks in special education. Currently, about 80 percent of all students with special needs attend mainstream schools. To help facilitate their integration, learning support specialists known as Allied Educators help students with conditions such as dyslexia or autism. As of 2018, there was at least one Allied Educator in every mainstream primary and public school, a 40 percent increase over the previous five years. The Ministry has also provided specialized training in special education to a designated group of general education teachers within each mainstream school, to create a strong support system for students with special needs; about 15 percent of teachers in mainstream schools had completed this training by 2019. In addition, since 2020 the Ministry has provided all teachers in mainstream schools with access to online professional learning focused on supporting students with special needs.
In 2019, the Ministry implemented two peer mentoring interventions to support students with special needs in mainstream schools. Circle of Friends allows students with social, emotional or behavioral difficulties to meet with their teacher or Allied Educator along with a group of six to eight of their peers. Over five to eight sessions, the students work together to find solutions for the student in difficulty. Facing Your Fears is a similar program designed to support students suffering from anxiety. In this intervention, groups of two to four students meet with facilitators and Allied Educators to learn self-management strategies over 10 weekly sessions.
For students who need more intensive or specialized assistance, Singapore has 19 government-funded special education schools run by 12 social service agencies. These schools serve populations with highly specific needs: the deaf, the blind, students with autism, or those with the most severe cognitive challenges. Special needs education is available through the postsecondary level, where students with intellectual disabilities are prepared for the workforce through special training programs. The government continues to invest in special education and plans to open seven new schools by 2027. These schools serve less than 2 percent of the total student population.
The Ministry allocates extra funds for special needs students at 150 percent or 300 percent of the base per student cost, depending on whether they attend mainstream or special schools. The Ministry increased spending for special schools by 40 percent from 2015 to 2020 and has pledged to continue this increase. The National Council of Social Services also contributes funding to special schools, specifically for additional social supports.
Digital Platforms and Resources
The Student Learning Space (SLS) provides a library of curriculum-aligned, Ministry-curated resources (e.g., lesson plans, videos, assessments) for all grade levels and subjects. The Ministry assigns teams of teachers to work full-time creating these resources, which are continually updated based on feedback from teachers and students (as is the design of the SLS itself). Singapore announced plans for the SLS in 2013, piloted it in 2017, and expanded it to all schools in 2018. Every student in grades 1-12 has an account to access the SLS. Using templates, teachers create lessons by compiling SLS resources or using a mix of SLS resources and their own materials. Students can also access SLS resources on their own, independent of assignments. Teachers can choose to share the lessons they have created with their peers within the SLS.
In 2020, after students shifted to periodic home-based learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Singapore decided to make home-based learning via SLS a permanent feature of the education system. Starting in 2021, secondary school students will have up to two days a month of online learning, and all secondary school students will be provided with a device. Singapore plans to pilot online learning strategies in primary schools to determine the best approach to building these skills for younger students. The Ministry believes that students will benefit from having self-directed learning time at home that complements in-person instruction.