Singapore has articulated comprehensive and clear system-wide goals for education. These goals, which are revisited regularly, emerge after widespread discussion with partners in the system and with the public. The goals are then used to structure policy initiatives and create benchmarks to measure progress. For example, a National Conversation was held in 2013 to gather input on a vision for the education system in 2030 before the latest strategic plan was developed.
In Singapore, authority is centered in the Ministry of Education, which is responsible for education for kindergarten (ages four to five) through higher education. The Ministry allocates funding for all schools, sets course syllabi and national examinations, oversees teacher credentialing, manages the teacher and principal evaluation and promotion system, and hires and assigns principals and teachers to schools.
The Ministry is accountable to the government for the outcomes of the system, and it controls all aspects of policy within the system. Therefore, roles and responsibilities are clearly articulated, and there is a single authority ultimately responsible. At the district and school level, where there is discretion granted to teachers and administrators, it is always within a framework set by the Ministry (e.g., course syllabi and a national evaluation system). The independent or semi-autonomous agencies that partner with the system— like the NIE (teacher training), the Examinations and Assessment Board (national assessments), and the ITE (developing course syllabi for vocational education)—have clearly defined areas of responsibility and work closely with the Ministry.
Regular reviews of each part of the system are conducted (e.g., course syllabi are reviewed every six years) as well as periodic overall assessments of the system. An example is the recent ASPIRE Commission which recommended a range of major reforms in vocational education and training.
The Ministry of Education directly funds all schools equitably based on the number of pupils. All schools receive a set grant (called an Opportunity Fund) to use for their low-income students and students from ethnic minority groups. Although this supplemental funding is distributed by the Ministry, schools have the authority to choose how to spend it. The Ministry also provides funding directly to students from low-income families in the form of subsidies, called Financial Assistance Schemes, for educational materials and activities and funds for school meals.
Accountability and Incentive Systems
The Ministry of Education sets annual goals for schools, and teachers and principals.
Teacher performance is appraised annually in an Enhanced Performance Management System. Teachers are evaluated based on 16 different competencies, including their work in the classroom and their interaction with the greater school community. Rewards take several forms, including honors and salary bonuses. The Ministry also selects teachers for awards and recognition at the national level.
Students are also encouraged to work hard through the EduSave incentive system, which rewards students for strong performance in both academic and non-academic work. The government has a $4 billion fund dedicated to these grants, and typically students in the top 10% of their class can expect small grants of about $400-$650. Larger grants are available through other EduSave awards.
Support for Low-Performing Schools
More than 80% of the Singapore population lives in government-built, self-owned housing in communities that represent a deliberate mix of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. These communities are in turn reflected in the schools. Because of the highly heterogeneous nature of Singapore’s public schools, there is relatively little variance in school performance. However, inside schools, there is a fair amount of student variance.
Although some parents have expressed concern that neighborhood schools are inadequate compared to elite or private schools and particularly that students in the “normal” course are denied resources in these schools, the Ministry contends that in most schools, principals select the most experienced teachers to teach the “normal” courses and that these students are given access to the same resources – overseas learning trips and co-curricular activities – as students in the express and special courses. Geographic school clusters, which were introduced in the 1990s to better manage school resources, are another way that the Ministry seeks to manage school disparity. Cluster superintendents – successful former principals – are responsible for sharing resources between the schools in their clusters, and ensuring that all staff have access to the best practices and materials of the top performing schools within the cluster.
The Programme for Rebuilding and Improving Existing Schools is also seeking to address school disparity by upgrading or rebuilding all schools built before 1997. The rebuilding will outfit schools with computer labs, fitness centers, media resource libraries and expanded classrooms.