The administration of examinations for 15-19 year olds in England - Education Committee Contents

Annex 3: Note of the Committee's meeting with the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board, 8 February 2012

This note offers a record of the Committee's meeting with representatives from the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board during their visit to Singapore in February 2012. A full note of the visit can be found in Annex 4 of the Committee's report: Great teachers: attracting, training and retaining the best.[331]

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

Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board

Ms Tan Lay Choo, Chief Executive and other officials


The Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) was established on 1st April 2004 as a statutory board. SEAB, formerly the Examinations Division of the Ministry of Education (MoE), was formed to develop and conduct national examinations in Singapore and to provide other examination and assessment services, locally as well as overseas. SEAB collaborates with MOE on all national examinations. It also positions itself to become a regional centre for testing and assessment services, and to contribute to Singapore's development as an Education Hub.



The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is a national examination, which a pupil sits at the end of primary education to assess their suitability for secondary education and also to place them on appropriate secondary school courses, which match their learning pace, ability and inclination. Based on their results, candidates are streamed into three different courses: Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical).


The iPSLE examination is offered to Singaporeans studying abroad and whose school has adopted a curriculum similar to that offered in Singapore. Like the PSLE, students take the exam after six years of primary education. The examination format is similar to that of the PSLE. The iPSLE is also used by some schools abroad as a benchmarking tool to assess their standard of education compared with Singapore.



The GCE N-Level examinations, otherwise known as the N-Levels, are conducted annually in Singapore. They are taken after four years in the normal academic or normal technical stream (secondary education. For subjects examined in English, foreign languages and Non-Tamil Indian Languages, the examining authority is the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. For subjects such as 'mother tongue' languages, most commonly Chinese, the examining authority is the Ministry of Education, Singapore (under 'mother tongue' ethnic Chinese students must learn Mandarin Chinese, ethnic Malay students must learn Malay and ethnic Tamil Indians students will learn Tamil).


The GCE O-Level examinations, or more commonly known as O-Levels, are conducted annually in Singapore. Like the N-Levels, they are taken after four years of express or five years of normal academic secondary education and are under the same examining authority. However, the B-syllabus for mother tongue subjects will not be counted towards the total aggregate score.



The Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level examination, like the other examinations, is conducted annually. It is taken before the completion of 2 years of Junior College. Like the GCE O-Levels, the B-syllabus subjects are not counted towards the total aggregate score.

The GCE A-Level examinations require students to read a compulsory H1 General Paper subject or alternative-H2 Knowledge and Inquiry (KI) alongside with 3 Higher-2 and 1 Higher-1 subjects (minimum of 10 Academic Units (A.U)). One out of the 4 content-based subjects must be of a cross-disciplinary nature.


  • The Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) was established in 2004. Previously it had been part of the MoE. It was now a statutory body, reporting to the Ministry.
  • There were four main exams, at three points in the education system: the PSLE at the end of Grade 6, GCE N-level and O-level aged 16 and GCE A-level aged 18.
  • Singapore had no experience of multiple examinations boards, but because it was so small it did not require more than one.
  • Some 60 subjects were offered to students at O-level, including a spread of humanities and sciences. Most students took 7-8 subjects, but the most able took 9-10.
  • At A-level it was a condition of the curriculum that students take one subject of a different type to their main choices; for instance, a science student would have to take one humanity.
  • Some 50,000 students were examined each year for the PSLE. After that stage, students took different tracks so the numbers taking each exam at aged 16 and 18 varied.
  • SEAB was accountable to the MoE but had no other formal external scrutiny.
  • The Curriculum Development Committee delivered exam papers and aligned exams with the curriculum. It was chaired by the Director General of Education at the MoE, and had members from different departments in the Ministry. SEAB made recommendations on grade boundaries to a Grading Committee which drew members from different departments and agencies. Its recommendations were usually accepted by the Committee.
  • If a change in results was noticed, the SEAB would first question whether it could be explained by the profile of that year's cohort. This could be done by checking the results against candidates' past performance and schools' previous results. If the characteristics of the cohort did not provide an explanation, SEAB would normalize the results.
  • SEAB did not produce textbooks. The Curriculum Development Commission in the MoE issues the syllabus, then independent publishers could bid for tender and develop their own textbooks, which were authorised and approved by the MoE.
  • Students were required to pass exams in English and their mother tongue. In addition, their best six subject results were counted for their points score.
  • On the basis of PSLE results, some students clearly fell into the 'academic' stream and others clearly into the 'normal/technical' stream. A further group fell in between streams and their parents selected the most appropriate track for them.
  • Students on the 'normal/technical' stream studied many of the same subjects as those on the 'academic' stream, but were taught in smaller classes with different learning outcomes. The system recognized that children learnt at different paces, and the 'normal/technical' stream took a year longer to complete than its 'academic' counterpart. Asked whether there was a societal stigma in taking longer to complete the 'normal/technical' course, SEAB considered not. This was helped by the fact that there was movement between the streams; for instance, a student on the 'normal/technical' stream might go to ITE and then on to polytechnic/university.
  • SEAB ran seminars for examiners when there was a change in syllabus, to brief them on the curriculum changes and give them specimen papers, share learning objectives and the rationale behind changes. Private tuition centres did not have access to such training.
  • Private tuition was a kind of 'parental insurance policy'. Parents were desperately competitive that their children should not lose out and this drove the significant use of out-of-school tuition.
  • Current teachers and head teachers were engaged to mark exams to a common mark scheme. For the PSLE, all schools were closed for four days to allow the teachers to mark. There were no professional markers.
  • Evidence showed that those students who performed well at O-level went on to perform well at A-level. SEAB concluded from this that the exams system accurately selected and identified the most able students.
  • New subjects were proposed by the MOE, through its Syllabus Review Committee on which sat representatives from industry and higher education. SEAB would develop and offer any new subjects agreed in this way. The Board did not act as a block on innovation or the development of new subjects.
  • SEAB officials considered that the public (including the international community) had strong confidence in the exams system, and that it offered an accurate assessment not just of ability but of potential as well.

331   Education Committee, Great teachers: attracting, training and retaining the best, Ninth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1515-I Back

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Prepared 3 July 2012