Great teachers: attracting, training and retaining the best - Education Committee Contents

Annex 4: Note of the Committee's visit to Singapore, 5-8 February 2012

This note offers a record of the visit to Singapore undertaken by six members of the Education Committee. The visit aimed to establish greater clarity over Singaporean attitudes to, and policy regarding, teacher recruitment, training and retention, so that the UK might learn from such a high-performing education system.

Members in attendance: Graham Stuart MP (Chair), Alex Cunningham MP, Pat Glass MP, Ian Mearns MP, Lisa Nandy MP, Craig Whittaker MP


Ms Ho Peng, Director General of Education, Ministry of Education and other officials

Mr Mano, Executive Director, Academy of Singapore Teachers

The Ministry of Education (MoE) directs the formulation and implementation of education policies. It has control of the development and administration of the Government and Government-aided primary schools, secondary schools, junior colleges, and a centralised institute. It also registers private schools.

The Academy of Singapore Teachers (AST) was set up to spearhead the professional development of MOE staff. AST together with the other teacher academies aim to build communities of practice for like-minded professionals of subject disciplines, for teachers to come together and learn from one another, developing stronger camaraderie.

The stated Functions of the AST are to:

  • Champion the ethos of the profession
  • Foster a teacher-led culture of collaborative professionalism
  • Build a culture of continuous learning and improvement
  • Build a culture of care and support


Ho Peng began by welcoming the Committee to Singapore, and emphasising that the Singaporean education system "bears the imprint" of UK practice. MoE colleagues explained that, between 1979 and 1996, Singapore operated an 'efficiency driven' education system, which became an 'ability based, aspiration driven' system from 1997 until 2011. Now, Singaporean education has entered a phase which officials described as 'student-centric, value driven'. Singapore places great importance on having a 'national education system', with a range of options (including vocational education) for different students.

Singapore does not operate school inspection in the same way as the UK, but nonetheless has clear accountability for schools: superintendents mentor clusters of schools, and MoE officials visit schools every five years to validate self-evaluations of performance. People are seen as Singapore's only natural resource, and great emphasis is therefore placed on their development—including of the 500,000 or so children in the country. Spending on education has risen in recent years and now has one of the largest budgets of any Government department. Learning from international evidence, Singapore has developed a set of 'twenty-first century competencies' for schools, and is now undertaking further work on how to measure and evaluate these most effectively. Central to this vision is a strong concept of 'character and citizenship education', where ownership is school-based. (One colleague present noted that top-down imposition rarely works in such fields.)

The school curriculum in Singapore includes tuition in both English and 'mother tongue': students' cultural heritage is deemed important. The Singaporean economy and opportunities for employment have necessitated a strong focus on maths and science in the curriculum, which in turn have strengthened the economy and Singapore's international standing. However, there is a recognition that, as one official said, "not all children will be good in academic areas", and resultantly Singapore has developed its curricula in the arts, sport, and vocational subject in recent years. In this, and other regards, officials explained that the Singapore system is not complacent —despite its high ranking in PISA tables—and believes that "there is always room for improvement".

Schools' outstanding performance is recognised through a range of accolades, including the School Excellence Awards and School Distinction Awards. Teachers, too, have a number of entitlements or privileges which have helped to make the profession attractive to graduates and respected by society. These include an entitlement to 100 hours of professional development per year, and a personal budget of Sing. $400-£700 to spend on development (for example, through purchasing computer equipment or subscriptions to learned journals). Performance-related bonuses provide an incentive to improve one's teaching. After ten years, 70% of Singaporean teachers are still within the profession.

Mr Mano explained that there are currently 31,000 teachers in Singapore, and that the culture of professional excellence is very much driven by them. Efforts have been made for teaching to be seen as a fraternity and network ( "teachers need to learn a lot from each other"), and to develop career routes for all teachers, as leadership roles account for just 2% of the workforce. Teachers also need to be seen as community figures, Mr Mano argued, as this helps to support disadvantaged or troubled families.

Reception hosted by Ms Sim Ann MP, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education

Ms Sim Ann worked in the civil service for 12 years before standing for election for the ruling People's Action Party in the Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency in the General Election of 7 May 2011 (which her team won with 60.1% of the vote). On 21 May 2012 Ms Sim Ann was appointed Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Law and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education. She divides her time between the two Ministries.

Committee members informally discussed a range of themes, including those pertinent to teacher training and supply, with the Minister and other colleagues from the MoE.


Professor Lee Sing Kong, Director, National Institute of Education

Professor Tan Oon Seng, Dean, Teacher Education

Professor Paul Teng, Dean, Graduate Studies & Professional Learning

Professor Lee Wing On, Dean, Education Research

The National Institute of Education (NIE), an institute of the Nanyang Technological University, conducts professional training for teachers. It is the only teacher training institution in Singapore and currently has around 6,700 students.  It provides all levels of teacher education, from training for trainee teachers to continuing education for serving teachers and principals. The triangulation between the Ministry, NIE and schools is seen as the key to developing a successful workforce.

NIE offers programmes at diploma, bachelors, masters and PhD levels on a full-time or part-time basis, as well as various special training programmes, such as school leadership. The institute has also established itself as a leading provider for customised leadership and professional educational courses internationally, reaching out to many regions including the Middle East and North America.


Professor Lee Sing Kong began the discussion by emphasizing that teachers are the essence of the Singaporean education system, and that initial teacher training needed to be relevant both to the system and to the twenty-first century. BA courses, he explained, were "intensive", featuring both academic and pedagogical content. However, there was a strong recognition at NIE that teachers might not be academic but still have great potential in the classroom. A teacher, he said, is "first a teacher of the learner and second a teacher of the subject". Training, therefore, reflects this balance of skills and knowledge. A good teacher, colleagues said, knew how and what to teach, and was focused on the learners.

Great importance is placed, in Singapore, on equipping teachers with values, including the care of and belief in learners, reflection on one's own practice, and a strong sense of community. Teachers are seen as role models for learners, and as the "custodians of the values of society and the nation".

Teachers are also seen as "change agents" who can innovate and help schools prepare for the challenges of the future. As NIE colleagues emphasized, a student beginning primary school will not graduate for twenty years, by which point the world will have changed considerably: the emphasis is therefore on recruiting adaptable and resilient teachers with strong literacy, numeracy and core values, which will always be relevant.

Professor Paul Teng, responsible for the NIE's professional development programmes, explained that CPD is not seen as a means to raise one's salary in Singapore, but rather a core principle of teaching. This was reflected in the 100 hours annual entitlement common to all teachers, which Professor Teng explained could be taken through flexible opportunities such as evening classes. Some CPD offered certification, whilst other opportunities did not: the entire programme is designed simply to "meet teachers' needs". MA courses are one, more formal, aspect of that, and could be taken both in subjects (for example, a masters course is offered in teaching maths) or in themes of education (such as assessment or the curriculum). For leaders, there are mandatory courses similar to the NPQH, as well as close links with business leaders. These enable potential heads to see how top leaders perform, to understand the needs of employers in recruiting students, and to develop stronger understanding between different sectors. However, business is not involved in the actual design of NIE programmes.

Professor Lee Wing On explained that NIE's research programmes are closely aligned with Ministry plans, and were designed to "think big, start small, move fast". Influence on policy and practice were fundamental principles of educational research, and close international links are maintained to ensure that best practice is reflected (as well as to ensure, in Professor Lee's words, that Singapore "gives back what the world gave us").

In discussion, NIE colleagues confirmed that retention is strong amongst Singaporean teachers, although there are key 'attrition peaks', largely after completion of the 'bond' (contracted period of initial teaching post-qualification), in the late 30s (because of parenthood) and mid-40s (when many are required to look after their own parents, a key value of Singaporean life). Colleagues also confirmed that parental involvement in education is a key to Singapore students' success, but that a focus on improving the quality of teachers should nonetheless be a priority for any country wanting to learn from Singapore. Teachers, colleagues said, needed to be celebrated more in the UK, rather than "bashed"; better career progression opportunities were a key part of that, as was ensuring the starting salary was comparable with other graduate professions. The role of teachers - "to mould the future of the nation" - should be articulated as clearly as that of doctors and engineers. However, colleagues also said that many countries are weak when it comes to teachers' subject knowledge, which was very important.

These factors had been the keys to Singapore's increased success in recruiting teachers - from a position where there were 5 applicants for every 6 teaching jobs, to the current state of play with 10 applicants for every job. Political consensus around education was another key ingredient to system success, as were long time-scales around educational planning. PISA success was attributed, also, to a clear curriculum with clearly-stated desired outcomes.

National Junior College

The National Junior College (NJC) is one of Singapore's top-performing A-level institutions. Its pupils go on to fill the highest-level jobs in Singapore. Ms Virginia Cheng, Principal, explained that NJC was the first Junior College to be established by the Ministry of Education in Singapore, in 1970. There were now 18 Junior Colleges.

Students entered the College directly following the Primary 6 exam (aged 12). The College consisted of Junior High (4 years, to O-level) and Senior High (2 years, to A-level). Most students took Cambridge O-levels at the end of Junior High. In 2004 the College also started the four year Integrated Programme, a scheme which allows the brightest pupils at secondary schools in Singapore to bypass O-levels and take A-levels, International Baccalaureate (IB) or an equivalent examination directly at the age of 18 after six years of secondary education.

The NJC selected students based on tests, assessments and interviews. It took on two hundred students each year. Admission to primary schools in Singapore was on the basis of location (proximity to the school), but admission to secondary schools was based on academic merit, largely measured by the results of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) aged 12. Secondary schools could choose to select based on particular criteria, for instance a sports specialization.

Junior High students could board for one term each year, which allowed them to participate in an extra-curricular programme. The NJC was also paired with a military group, with which they conducted joint programmes.

The College was a Centre of Excellence in Science and Technology and conducted outreach to primary schools in science and maths. However, the college also recognized that academic gifts did not equate to social competency, and therefore placed great value on development the wider child. This included time set aside for "extra curriculum" and for broad curriculum areas such as 'Man and Ideas', 'Drama in Production' and 'Research' to be explored. The school places a key focus on leadership potential, and is proud of its many political and business leader alumni. As part of that ethos, there are strong links with schools abroad, including in Russia, Korea and Japan.

Ms Cheng said that no students were expelled from the College.

Committee members were given a tour of the College facilities, including the Science Sigma labs, and spoke with teachers and students on a range of themes.

Strand Tutorials School

A high proportion of students in Singapore have additional, private tuition outside the school day at some point during their school career, and so the tuition business is a significant industry.

Strand Tutorial School was founded in September 2004 by Associate Professor Patrick Ong, its Principal and Director, who retired from a teaching post at Nanyang Technological University to found the school. The centre caters for all science and mathematical subjects from Secondary 1 up to JC 2 (A-level).

Professor Ong considered that Singaporean schools were unable to meet the needs of some of their students, especially in maths and science. There was great pressure placed on schools and teachers by parents and the Government, and schools were often a highly pressured, competitive environment for students. 'Weaker' students from economically disadvantaged families tended to have more private tuition.

In his view, with the possible exception of the very top schools, the public education system in Singapore was 'a mess', and it struggled to cater for the top achievers. The education system was excellent for churning out good exam results but was less good at supporting non-academic achievement. Despite efforts by the Ministry of Education to implement policies to promote pastoral care and students' wellbeing, these policies were not being effectively implemented.

Students who attended the tuition centre for three months or so started to see results. The centre had two or three active teachers and a couple of postgraduate students, so five tutors in total. Tuition sessions were 1.5 hours each, and cost S$380 for four group sessions. Students tended to attend tuition at least once a week.

Reception with educators at the British High Commission

The Committee attended an informal evening reception at Eden Hall, Residence of the British High Commissioner, Anthony Phillipson, and held discussions with teachers, headteachers and academics, including Britons living and working in Singapore.

Tampines Primary School

Miss Veronica Tay, Principal

Tampines is located in East Singapore and was the first community school in Singapore, and the first to get a 'black box' drama studio. Students were drawn from the local estates, and the school had classes from grade P1 through to grade P6. After the school day Tampines' facilities—including its gym, indoor sports hall etc—were open to local residents, and evening classes were conducted on the premises.

Around 5% of students had Special Educational Needs, including dyslexia, physical disability, ADHD or were on the autistic spectrum. Support was integrated into the classroom, but there was additional learning support provided in particular subjects, such as maths.

Committee members conversed with staff and students, on a range of themes pertinent to teacher training and supply. Key themes raised at the MoE and NIE were apparent in discussions, including the great importance placed on teacher development (post-training). Teachers also noted the importance of robust performance management arrangements, which include strong mentoring and development plans for weaker performers.

Xinmin Secondary School

Mrs Ong Hong Peng, Principal

Xinmin is located in the Hougang area of Northeast Singapore. It currently has around 1,500 students and 100 teaching staff. During and following a tour of school facilities, Committee members were able to talk to students of various ages, in class and discussion group contexts, and to meet staff. The Committee also observed part of an outstanding English literature lesson, where the emphasis placed on the use of technology was apparent, and where members were able to see in action the 'twenty-first century classrooms' demonstrated at the NIE.

Institute of Technical Education

Mr Bruce Poh, Director and CEO

The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) is a post-secondary institution in Singapore that provides pre-employment training to secondary school leavers and continuing education and training to working adults. ITE was once popularly dubbed 'It's The End', meaning that the students going there were seen to have failed to meet the grades necessary to go on to A-levels. However, Singapore is proud of its multi-pathway system of education, in which ITE performs a key function of providing technical expertise for the economy and in which ITE students can still go on to A-levels, Polytechnics and Universities.

Most courses offered by ITE last two years, and include programmes in hospitality, engineering, life sciences, information technology, and design. Across the three colleges collectively known as ITE, there are some 14,500 students aged 16+, who are drawn from the bottom 25% of the school cohort based on academic results; there is currently a fairly high dropout rate of 1 in 6 students, although youth unemployment overall in Singapore was noted to be very low (around 2-3%).

The needs of industry are critical to curriculum design. Courses offer a keen focus on practical learning, with classrooms offering a simulation of life in business or industry (for example, ITE includes functioning bars and restaurants and design and engineering laboratories). Life skills are also taught, including writing and communication skills. Committee members were able to visit various state-of-the-art facilities (including in engineering and hospitality departments) and to meet and talk with students and staff.

ITE offers its own teacher training programmes, separate from the NIE, which last for 40 weeks.

Meeting with Government Parliamentary Committee on Education The Committee met with Parliamentarians from the Government Parliamentary Committee on Education: Mr Lim Bo Chuan MP (Chair), Ms Denise Phua MP (Deputy Chair), Mr Edwin Tong MP, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar MP, Mr Ang Wei Neng MP and Ms Irene Ng MP. Background The Government Parliamentary Committee on Education is Singapore's nearest equivalent to the Education Select Committee. The Singapore Parliament has a single House and, together with the President of Singapore, forms the Legislature. The parliament is modelled after the Westminster system, with significant alterations. These include the fact that most MPs are elected collectively in groups of between 4 to 6 MPs, known as Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), the creation of a number of 'Non-Constituency' MPs positions for the best performing runner up candidates in elections and the attendance in parliament of 'Nominated' MPs, chosen by a Special Select Committee of Parliament after an interview process. Non-Constituency and Nominated MP are unable to vote on certain motions, such as a money bill, a vote to amend to the constitution and a vote of no confidence. Singapore last held a General Election on 7 May 2011. Opposition parties collectively gained almost 40% of the vote, their largest share ever, and also won their first GRC. This meant an overall swing away from the People's Action Party (PAP) of 6.5%, although the PAP still won 81 of the 87 elected seats in the unicameral Parliament due to the first-past-the-post system (down though from the 82 of 84 seats the PAP held in the previous parliament). The 12th Parliament of Singapore opened on 10 October 2011, five months after the election. The next election need not be called until five years after the opening of parliament. There are 7 Standing Select Committees appointed for the duration of a Parliament to undertake various functions, including:-

  • Committee of Selection
  • Committee of Privileges
  • Estimates Committee
  • House Committee
  • Public Accounts Committee
  • Public Petitions Committee
  • Standing Orders Committee

Besides the Standing Select Committees, Parliament sometimes forms ad hoc Select Committees set up on a motion approved by the House to deal with Bills or other matters referred to it. Select Committees are mostly set up to discuss the details of a Bill which affects the everyday life of the public, such as the Goods and Services Tax Bill, Maintenance of Parents Bill and the Advance Medical Directive Bill. There are also ten Government Parliamentary Committees, made up of backbench MPs from the ruling party, who examine the policies, programmes and proposed legislation of a particular government ministry to provides the ministry with feedback and suggestions. The Government Parliamentary Committees are part of the ruling People's Action Party, first established by the party in 1987, and are not required under the constitution of Singapore or any constitutional convention. The current ten Government Parliamentary Committees are:

  • Community development, youth and sports
  • Defence and foreign affairs
  • Education
  • Finance, and trade and industry
  • Health
  • Home affairs and law
  • Information, communications and the arts
  • Manpower
  • National development and the environment
  • Transport

Discussion In discussion between members of the two Committees, the following points were raised:

  • All members of the Government Parliamentary Committee on Education are backbench members of the ruling party. Each ministry has a corresponding GPC.
  • With the exception of ministers and parliamentary secretaries, Singaporean MPs were part-time politicians and also held down outside jobs. The MPs came from a range of different backgrounds, including lawyers, managing SEN charities and a special school, lecturing at NIE, director at a public transport company, and journalist on the national paper.
  • The MoE was trying to increase teacher recruits from 2,000 to 3,000 per year.
  • Teaching offered good prospects for promotion and professional development. Because the country was small, all teachers could train centrally . Teaching attracted the top 30% of each university cohort.
  • Asked what their one criticism of the education system would be, the Singaporean MPs responded that they would like less stress for students (one MP called the system "tremendously stressful"); a greater focus on holistic education and humanities/arts rather than only academic subjects; more time for students to develop character and enjoy learning, rather than just acquiring technical knowledge; and a move away from high-stakes examinations towards formative assessment.
  • Changes would be hard to make, not least because parents' expectations were very high and they might be suspicious about a move away from traditional teaching and examinations based around didactic teaching and drills. One MP commented that the pressure in the system "comes from the parents".
  • Government Parliamentary Committees felt able to speak freely and criticize Ministers when necessary. It was seen as an advantage to be part of the ruling party, as this helped to get their voices heard and to effect change behind the scenes. It was felt that the system was less politicized, closer dialogue with ministers was possible, and that there was more space to debate 'rationally and based on the facts'. Often a letter to the minister was successful in changing something the committee disagreed with. By and large the GPC judged MoE policies to be correct: changes sought by the committee tended to be modifications to policies, not whole-scale revision. The committee did not meet in public session.
  • Special Educational Needs (SEN) had changed greatly over the previous seven years. The government budget had increased.
  • Given the small size of Singapore as a country and an economy, the education system was vital in ensuring that the workforce was well-trained with the necessary skills for the economy. The state tracked social mobility closely, for instance measuring what percentage of the poorest cohort of children went to university.
  • Singapore tried to learn from best international practice in developing education. The MoE travelled around the world to observe different methods and structures. However, whilst Singapore drew on such comparisons, ultimately it needed to develop its own model.
  • Singaporean examinations were high stake. It was common, for instance, for mothers to take 3-12 months off work to coach their children for the Primary School Leaving Exam. The government was trying to develop alternative pathways in education, for example encouraging the most academic to take the Integrated Programme to A-level, and a more vocational track for others.
  • There was no class system in Singapore, so education was the pathway to escape the poverty cycle and enhance social mobility. In fact (unlike the UK) it was considered 'cool' for children to be clever, and the popular kids tended to be those who got best grades.
  • There was close dialogue between industry and government about the skills needed for the economy in the future.

Whilst in Singapore, the Committee also visited the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board. Discussions there focused exclusively on topics pertaining the Committee's concurrent inquiry into the role of awarding bodies in the UK, and on wider issues of assessment, and notes of the meeting will therefore be included in the Committee's forthcoming report concluding that inquiry.

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 1 May 2012