Center on International Education Benchmarking

System Structure

In Singapore, compulsory education includes six years of primary school, four years of secondary school, and one to three years of post-secondary school. Preschool, called kindergarten, is voluntary and offered both by the Ministry of Education and by private providers. The instructional system is centrally controlled with a well-developed curriculum and syllabus for each course aligned to an end-of-course exam. At the end of the fourth year of primary school, students take school-based tests that determine what level (band) students will study for English, mathematics, mother tongue, and science during the next two years. At the end of the sixth year of primary school, when students are about 12 years old, students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in English, mathematics, mother tongue, and science. Based on these results, students are admitted to one of four pathways in secondary school.

Standards and Curriculum

The Singapore 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 is focused on ensuring that students have a good grasp of English language, mother tongue language (instruction in mother tongue language is available for Chinese, Malay and Tamil speaking students), and mathematics. There are also several additional curriculum elements, including civics and moral education, pastoral care and career guidance, national education, physical education and project work. Science and social studies are incorporated in later phases of primary education.

Although students are sorted into bands beginning in secondary school, there is a national curriculum for students aged 12-16 that is essentially the same across the bands, with students in the more difficult tracks expected to perform at a higher level of competence. Core subjects at this phase include English; mother tongue language; mathematics; science; literature; history; geography; arts, crafts and design; and technology and home economics. Students are also required to continue their education in several non-exam subjects: civics and moral education, physical education, music and assembly. In upper secondary school, students spend a minimum of eight hours a week on their “A” level subjects (these subjects are chosen by each student) and an additional four hours a week on civics and moral education, assembly and physical education. University-bound students also complete interdisciplinary project work intended to promote collaborative problem solving, literacy and communication and creative thinking skills.

The Ministry of Education has a great deal of control over how the curriculum is implemented. As it promoted a shift from instruction based on teacher lectures and student memorization to one that emphasizes student engagement and creativity, ministry officials met regularly with school leaders and developed an extensive series of professional development opportunities for teachers as they rolled out the new system. However, in recent years, the ministry has sought to loosen their control over the curriculum, encouraging schools to consider the curriculum as a framework, and to adapt and work within the framework to meet the needs of their students. Secondary schools are also encouraged to develop additional courses to bring a distinct flavor to their schools; students choose their secondary schools, and often select those whose unique approach matches their 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. At the end of primary school (age 12), all students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Schools place students into separate exam levels based on the subjects they took in years five and six of primary school. Their exam scores help students determine which band they will join in lower secondary education, as well as which school they will attend.  Students can request that their examination scores are sent to up to six lower secondary schools, which choose their students based on their PSLE rankings. The Ministry of Education helps to place students who are not accepted into their schools of choice. The bands are categorized as special, express, normal technical or normal academic. The Ministry also allows some schools to practice Direct School Admission, admitting students based on other achievements before the PSLE results are released, to provide greater diversity in student talents and interests.

Upper secondary education, known in Singapore as post-secondary education, begins at age 16 following four years of lower secondary school. Students are admitted to post-secondary schools based on their Cambridge GCE “O” level exam results, or “N” level results if they are in the “normal” band. Students with the requisite exam results may choose between three different types of schools: junior colleges, centralized institutes and polytechnics. The first two types of schools offer pre-university education; junior colleges provide a two-year course of study leading to the Cambridge General Certificate of Advanced Level (GCE “A” level), while centralized institutes require students to attend for three years before taking the GCE “A” level exams. Polytechnics offer three-year occupational training leading to a diploma.

Students sit for national examinations at the end of primary, secondary and post-secondary school. These exams serve as gateways to lower secondary, higher secondary and tertiary education. The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) assesses suitability for secondary school and sorts students into the appropriate secondary school course of study. The GCE “O” and “N” levels determine which type of post-secondary education a student may attend, and the GCE “A” levels determine a student’s path in higher education.

The Structure of Singapore’s Education System