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Singapore’s vision and structure key to its quality education system

It’s not often you get the opportunity to travel with like-minded colleagues and ‘chew the fat’ over the opportunities and challenges facing education across Australia.

Add to this the chance to visit the high-performing Singapore school sector, talk to Singaporean system leaders, and critically analyse our own schools against our colleagues’ and Singaporean schools, and the learnings magnify. Having a critical friend in executive coach Eric Jamieson as one of the leaders of the travel party – challenging our group and individual thinking – provided the ‘icing on the cake’ during our week-long Singaporean study tour in July.

The tour is one aspect of the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards, an initiative co-led by national education charity Schools Plus.  It provided us – the Awards’ 2018 Teaching Fellows – with a remarkable learning opportunity. The passion, pride and commitment of the Singaporean people to their country across all levels of society was impressive and obvious. This attitude is very evident especially in their schools and in their unified approach to education.

In discussions with our hosts over the week of visits, some themes became obvious. The consistent narrative highlights a Singaporean system shaped by the vision where education is the key to economic prosperity. As was stated numerous times on our trip: “We don’t have natural resources, agriculture or other primary industries – we rely on the resource of our people.” Education is central to this vision of resourcing the young and not so young people with the best possible learning outcomes. Every educational facility we visited reinforced this view.                                                                  

The Singaporean education system is directed by three main bodies: the Ministry of Education, the Academy of Singapore Teachers and the National Institute of Education. These three institutions insure a cohesive, consistent, robust and well-resourced national educational strategy. This tripartite national strategy is an important key to Singapore’s success.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) sets policy and determines curriculum. Resourcing, including Human Resources, is centralised through the MOE.

The Academy of Singapore Teachers (AST) is the single, national organisation solely focused on building a teacher led culture of professional excellence. The AST provides resource backing to educators so they are the best they can be. Having only one training institute ensures that there is great consistency across their system. Teachers being able to access paid leave to undertake courses is central to many of the development programs. The AST focuses on growing a teaching fraternity that is characterised by a shared ethos, strong pedagogical leadership and ownership of professional development. The concepts of collaborative professionalism, system wide mentoring and continuous learning is evident across their system.

And to round off Singapore’s leadership in the education space, its National Institute of Education (NIE) is regarded as one of the world’s top education institutes, renowned for excellence in teacher education and research.

While it’s difficult to directly compare the Singaporean and Australian educational systems due to scale and complexity, there are a number of learnings that could challenge the ideology of our systems.

  1. Australian educational systems are characterised by their complexity. We need to find a focus on ‘simplexity’.
  2. Education cannot continue to be a political beach ball. A vision needs to be not only agreed to but enduring and enacted over a reasonable time-frame, and not based on political cycles.
  3. Teacher recruitment and ongoing learning needs to reflect the concept of education as the initial foundation stone of economic, social and cultural development.  Benchmark qualities for aspiring teachers – both academic and social/emotional – plus resourcing needs to reflect these. 
  4. Curriculum and pedagogical development is the core of a great system. This means teachers have to own this development by being involved at all levels.  

There are many other takings from our Singapore tour, but what is clear is that for Australia’s education systems to prosper, we need to agree on what high quality education is. Resourcing is not the issue – vision and structure are.

  • Greg McMahon (Principal of Doveton College, Victoria) and Paul Kenna (Principal of Belle Vue Park Primary School, Victoria)

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