Summing up the design features of the secondary education system in Singapore is a little more complex than providing an answer to: “they still do O levels, don’t they?” and taking a view about whether the country’s strong performance in international surveys can be put down to their continuation with a qualification long since dropped in the UK.
Singapore presents a different context to that of the UK in so many ways – there’s the size of population, the size of the country, the number of schools, national values, university pathways and so on. There is also an interesting secondary system which presents a number of routes for young people, providing each with the opportunity to realise their potential and play an active role as a citizen.
The outcomes of Singapore’s National Review of Secondary Education last year coincided with a change of direction in the wider education system which moved from an “ability-driven” focus to a position that is “student-centric and values-driven”.
This change recognised that the curriculum of a school is very much wider than an aggregate of prescribed subject content – it involves the education of adolescents at a crucial time of their social and emotional development.
A student’s programme at secondary school in Singapore is shaped by the outcomes of the Primary School Leaving Examination, taken in the sixth year of primary school by students typically aged 12-plus, identifying which of a number of secondary curriculum routes will be most suitable.
It is worth being clear what this is not. It is not a two-tier education, it is not about grammar schools and secondary moderns, it is not about “writing off” young people as second rate. It is about ensuring that young people receive an educational experience appropriate to their needs.
For the most able student, the student predicted to achieve straight As throughout their school career and achieve stellar performance in O level at 16, an integrated programme (IP) is available. This programme fuses secondary and post-16 stages and there is no requirement for each student to take the O level examination.
This IP exemption applies to around three to five per cent of the cohort who will not take any examinations at 16. It is not a policy designed to fast-track a group of students so that they “finish early”, it is more in recognition of the fact that an examination that adds nothing to your educational experience is unnecessary.
Its removal provides sufficient space in the curriculum for the talents of this group to be developed through wider study, study exchanges and innovative project work overseen by university departments. Only a small number of schools are approved as IP schools.
In all other cases, students are streamed within schools rather than being segregated into grammars and secondary moderns. Emphasis is placed on providing a curriculum for a wide ability range in community and extra-curricular activities. Some students will follow a curriculum leading directly to O level over a four-year secondary programme. Others will progress through a complementary “N level” qualification (N for normal) after four years and then onto O level after one more year of study.
Around three-quarters of students who follow the N level route move on to pass O level and around three-quarters of the cohort as a whole achieve O level after either four or five years of study.
O level and N level have an overlapping curriculum which makes progression easier. O level is an extended curriculum of the N level in most subjects. The result is a differentiated curriculum, which does not segregate students by school or into groups of “winners” and “losers” in the manner sometimes referred to by UK commentators.
There’s a further route available for students on the N level track – Normal Technical level (NT). This is for students who will progress to polytechnics, Institutes of Technical Education and employment. There is not as much switching between NT and O level students. NT is intended as a qualification where learning is applied to practical and real-life contexts.
Significant focus is given to the precise learning requirements of this cohort so that the curriculum is fully appropriate. NT takes account of students’ greater need for language and maths support. It also recognises that, in an employment context, it is the Level 2 and 3 jobs (technician/junior management level) that are most likely to be transformed by technical developments.
For example, the use of IT in NT classes plays a greater part than for O level classes in recognition of this. Similarly, interactive textbooks and computer-based assessment are being introduced at an earlier stage in the NT classes to provide students with greater familiarity.
Whatever curriculum track they follow, all students will be required to achieve English and maths and all will follow science courses – available as separate physics, chemistry and biology syllabuses at O level and N level.
I do not think that anyone responsible for education policy in Singapore would ever claim that there was nothing left to change in their secondary education. However, one clear advantage that the system has over the UK is that it tells it like it is. N level is clearly understood, allows for progression to O level and provides an effective scaffold for educational achievement.
It is a system well understood and trusted by teachers. This is possibly because of Singapore’s practice of rotation between school and Ministry of Education posts, which means that those involved in advising and implementing educational policy come from a teaching background, with first-hand and recent experience of life at the chalkface.
Indeed, since their contract is with the government, their next move may well be from the Ministry back to the classroom, responsible for implementing the policy they helped to form! An interesting thought…
Ann Puntis is chief executive of University of Cambridge International Examinations. Singapore and University of Cambridge International Examinations work in partnership on the delivery of O levels in Singapore.