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How Singapore’s education system reminds me of beehives

17 September 2019

The 2019 Teaching Fellows visit the Academy of Singapore Teachers.

The 2019 Teaching Fellows visit the Academy of Singapore Teachers.

Excellence, discipline and rigor were the words that came to mind when I thought about the Singaporean Education system prior to visiting. It is a system that has consistently maintained high performance across mathematics, science and technology in many global assessments. However, what I discovered from my recent visit – as part of the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards Fellowship – was an education system with deep connections to culture that are part of Singapore’s continual journey of educational improvement. When bees make hexagons in their hives, the six-sided shapes fit together perfectly. This is what one may say about the country’s education system – it all fits together.

Throughout my visit, I saw the hexagon shape appear again and again – in school logo designs, learning grids and frameworks, school infrastructure, learning capability and educational institutions.

Context and continual improvement are everything.

The system has continued to evolve, focussed on ongoing refinement at all levels from the Ministry of Education, research-based developmental teacher training at the National Institute of Education to the highly engaging co-curricular activities that run every day for all students. The message of inclusion and equity is clear, consistent and continually reiterated with passion, personal investment and true belief. Education is seen as front and foremost in the development of their nation. The development of human resources is paramount in the success of their future, and the education system adapts to support this. Design and design thinking operated succinctly alongside rigorous robotics, biochemistry and entrepreneurial critical thinking skills.

There is a focussed message of excellence.

It was clear, from the very first speaker, that Singapore has a highly innovative system in place, and the structure of the system itself has a strong influence on the success of the entire education sector and indeed the country – from the structure of leadership, teacher training, pedagogical innovation, building design, to student outcomes. The education system, guided by the Ministry of Education, is very strategic, considered and designed for overall success at all levels. However, what was exceedingly clear was the broader view of continual improvement, at all levels of the system.

Every aspect, from the Ministry of Education to the students in classrooms, reiterated a clearly defined set of aspirational goals and hopes. Building character was as imperative to each educator’s mission as was the development of cognitive and physical skills.

“The teacher is not just a teacher of a subject but more importantly, a teacher of the learner and preserver and custodian of societal values.” (Tan et al. 2012)

As an international educational success story, I have always wanted to visit Singapore.

I was curious about the paradox of culture and technology, and how this existed within the high-performance standards of the highly successful Singaporean system. How is, in the everyday reality, their very disciplined approach and hardworking ethos evidenced in their education system? I was interested in three things: the way technology and digital systems were integrated to assist learning, the pedagogies in classrooms and school leadership. I was not disappointed.

I experienced firsthand the energy, devotion and care the teachers and school leaders displayed in the development of young people, whether they were teaching in a vocation-focussed school like Crest Secondary School, or a primary school like Nan Chiau Primary School who prepare their students for entry into a variety of high school pathways. Whether it be the ‘Express Route’ with a focus on the Academic stream, Vocational and Educational Training Courses (VET) like that of the Ngee Ann Polytechnic or a specialist school like the School of Science and Technology, each pathway focusses on a particular young person’s aptitudes and passions. Entry to the various schools is through the notion of streaming and is measured across all subjects based on an end of year 6 test that dictates the high school pathway. It is called the ‘Many Pathways Model’.

Developing talent is an opportunity for all.

I found particularly interesting the Singaporean approach to Gifted and Talented students as seen at the School of Science and Technology through the Talent Development Program. Called SST Inc, the program enlivens entrepreneurial opportunities for students to critical think, collaborate and create projects that serve a global theme or issue. Ideation, communication and creativity being the basis of this process. Entry is through a self-nominated system, and the program is totally conducted by students at all levels with a student management board, headquarters, ideation tunnel and boardroom.

There is strength in consistency of idea and vision.

This visit allowed me to collaborate with like-minded educators who have the moral imperative to build our own educational system of excellence in Australia. Over the week we debated, highlighted and celebrated educational understanding which enlivened us to all communicate what will best serve our young people, our best natural resource. We learnt that we all need to celebrate, clearly communicate and focus on the incredible capacity that sits within our own system, and what makes our unique context so brilliant.

It seems the strength of the system parallels with the strength of the hexagonal shape and the natural stability of the beehive. It was a most enriching experience for all of us privileged to visit. I thank all our hosts and particularly Schools Plus and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. To the group of very dedicated Australian educators, the Teaching Fellows, I am enriched by your passion and brilliance.


Denise Lofts is the Principal at Ulladulla High School (NSW) and one of the 12 recipients of the 2019 Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards, run in partnership by Schools Plus and the Commonwealth Bank. Each of the 12 selected teachers and school leaders received a $45,000 Teaching Fellowship, which included $10,000 to support their professional development, $30,000 for a major school project to improve outcomes for their students, and an overseas visit to a high-performing education system. Visit the Teaching Awards website for more information.


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