Primary Education in Singapore: it is not Teach Less, Learn More

On January 27, 2009, the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) released  the preliminary recommendations of the Primary Education Review and Implementation (PERI) Committee. While the preliminary recommendations represents another attempt to change the direction of education in Singapore schools it still suffers from the MOE‘s traditional reluctance to let go or downgrade the position of the main reason why education is not education in Singapore but just a huge examination preparation exercise, namely, the high stakes examination system.

If we just look at the people that PERI consulted it will be no surprise why the changes are not fundamental changes. The changes would result in miniscule impact on the education system. the Committee it seems consulted “School Management and Advisory Committees of Primary Schools, Principals, Vice-Principals, Heads of Department (HODs), teachers, parents, students, as well as members of the public.” One can’t help feeling that what the MOE has done is to ask the people who have been responsible for perpetuating the Singapore school system’s emphasis on examinations to change themselves. As much as I would like to believe that real changes or reforms will take place as a result of these group of people’s recommendations and views, I am reluctant to believe so. These are the people who have through sheer inertia or reluctance to contemplate other possibilities, scuttled most of the MOE‘s initiatives in the past because of they can see nothing better than what they have been good at, that is, examination preparation. These are the people who have long been in their comfort zone. They are just implementers of the examination systems. But where are the experts? Where are those people in academia who specializes in education? Are we to assumed that they are included in the consultations as members of the “School Management and Advisory Committees“, “parents” and “members of the public”? Is this a reflection of the traditional disdain in MOE and schools for these academics? I know that lecturers for example at the National Institute of Education (NIE) of Singapore have often been regarded by MOE staff both at HQ and school levels as people who are out of touch with reality and as people who are stuck in their ivory towers. This is because the reality that the MOE people refer to is that examinations is one of the bedrock of Singapore’s “education” system.

It is interesting that the recommendations started with the following ominous words:

“Retain the strong fundamentals of our education system…”

No prizes here for guessing what one of those “strong fundamentals” are. In effect what those words really mean is “It is the exams, stupid!” This has been repeatedly hammered by MOE and this simply means that no matter what the changes that will take place as a result of these recommendations, the front line workers in the Singapore school system knows that at the end of the day it is the examinations that matter. School principals and teachers will humor these new initiatives as another that will come and go.

PERI wants that through this recommendations “the future of primary education should be about developing well-balanced and confident children who enjoy learning as they build strong fundamentals in both knowledge and skills during their foundational years of education.” It is strange that to change the primary education to be more well-balanced the high stakes examination system will on the whole remain untouched. The PERI Committee recommended that, among others, instead of the semestral examinations at Primary 1 and 2, the “MOE consider using “bite-sized” modes of assessment, such as topical tests, to provide regular feedback on pupils’ learning to parents.” Here I agree with an editorial by Singapore’s leading newspaper, the Straits Times. In an editorial entitled “Parents primary (school) concerns” on 30 January 2009, it pointed out:

“But how the substitute periodic tests are to be conducted will also depend on the inclination and occupational beliefs of subject teachers and principals. Old-style educators (sic) reared on drilling and school rankings could design these “mini” tests to be as grueling and constant as normal exams.

When spread over subjects and topics within subjects, continuing assessments can grow so intense they become replicas of the semester exams. The net effect is that child stress attributed to “exam hell” is hardly reduced.”

I can already imagine the MOE responding by saying that the stress is due to the parents as no matter what it does, it is the parents who will push their children and cause the additional stress. This view is based on past comments from the MOE. It does not take a genius to see that this will be the net result of “bite-sized” topical tests! So why still insist on topical tests. Where is the Senge system thinking that MOE has tried to push to its administrators and teachers?

The answer is in the mindset of the people that PERI have consulted, namely the school principals, vice-principals, HODs and teachers. The fact that the term “topical tests” is used indicates the mentality of the people that PERI have been listening to. They cannot see any other way of assessing learning. Such tests by nature also tend to focus on the end result rather than the process of learning itself. That same editorial goes on to say:

“The pedagogical (sic) system has been so exam- and grades- validated it is hard to shake habits. Teachers need to undergo self-reform of mind and reflex in order to accomplish what the Review committee has suggested in the way fo rounded learning for pupils and giving parents more useful feedback on their children’s strengths and weaknesses than test scores.”

Therefore base on this comment, we can, by logical extension, also say that because these teachers (school principals, vice-principals and HODs included) still need to make that self-reform in their minds, they should perhaps be the LAST people to be consulted about reforms in the school system in Singapore.


Don’t forget also that the “removal” of the examinations is only for the Primary 1 and 2 levels. The message to teachers and principals is still very clear. At the risk of sounding boring, it is the exams, stupid! This is because teachers will still see the examinations as the real “business end” of their work. After those two levels, the preparation for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) will continue maybe even at an increased pace since as the time given to complete the course has been shortened by two years. Knowing the mindset of many of those in Singapore schools today, the first two years of Primary school learning without the examinations will be soon  be considered as mere fluff. It will not be considered as fluff only if the topical tests become extended “bite-sized” exam hell.

One also wonders about other possible reasons for the retention of the PSLE, and retained probably not much different from its current format and approach. Is it also because MOE has through the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) been pushing the international version, the iPSLE, to our neighbouring countires as part of the effort to make Singapore an education hub and bring in the money? How can they be selling the iPSLE to out neighbours if we do away with it or even admit problems with it? Moving away from the PSLE may also eventually affect our Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) performance which has been used by MOE shamelessly to sell Singapore’s education system. Maybe they are doing systems thinking here after all!


  1. Hi,

    I was just wondering if there are any changes to the education system within the last 10 years that you’d consider as useful. I mean, your criticisms of the education system cannot possibly mean that everything that has been done thus far are really just a waste of time, right? Or am I wrong?


  2. Hi Sham

    Thanks very much for reading my posts and for the questions too. I have deliberately chosen not to praise teh system because teh praise is well-known if compared to the warts. I honestly believe that the Singapore schooling system is over-rated.

    Having said that of course there are steps in the right direction. However, if you may permit me to generalize, it is too little and perhaps done in a half-hearted manner. Take for example, project work. That is the right step in the direction towards other modes of learning. Note I said “learning” as opposed to assessment. Of course assessment and learning goes hand in hand but if the stress on project work is that it just a part of an assessment towards a high stakes examinations, then I think it has missed the woods for the trees.

    Another example is the use of portfolios for learning. Again, for me, it is a way for students to learn. However, in the Singapore school context portfolios are only used for Art or Design and Technology and even then it is used only when the students are required to submit them as part of high stakes examinations.

    The last example I will cite for now is the introduction of thinking skills. Anyone who has been to Singapore schools today will see that it is way done, the priority given to it is way down low. Rare is the teacher who will make an effort to get students to use thinking skills during the learning process despite the oft-quoted “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” slogan. If it used, it is used in a very cynical manner which is to teach students to answer the “thinking skills questions” in the high stakes examinations. I have written quite a bit on this in my blog. You may want to look up the tags “thinking” and “thinking skills”.

    Thanks again for your response to my writing. It is much appreciated.

  3. Hi,

    I agree with all you are saying, the the system is overated. The schools, from top to bottom are pressured to produced results in students. Its really sad as the kids don’t enjoy learning, its rote learning. Sorry to say that schools have NO time to be concerned with process of learning, they are rushing the syllabus. Majority of the students are struggling and emotionally they are not happy. I really dislike the system.

  4. Thank you, Kate for your views. Yes, the Singapore “education system” is over-rated. That has been one of the thrusts of my message on this blog.

  5. Dear Mr/Ms Amran,
    When reading your essay, I’m not surprised when you are saying:”Studying is too much”.I agree with you rote-learning is not good.Maybe the MOE has to review syllabus.However, I think if there is a firm hand between school and parents, the scheme will go on with less pressure. With the early students, I think studying habit is very good.So it is neccessary to compel them to study.Sometimes over-rated is needed especially in competitive education environment all over the world.
    I’m going on the thesis wich is about Singapore’s education.I really want to hear from you.If possible plz keep in touch with me through email.
    Best regards,
    Lang Le

  6. Hi Lang Le

    Thanks for your response. I prefer “learning habits”. Good learning habits are vital. My only concern is that if it is more of the same that has been done then I think it is bad. Learning must be looked at in a different light. “Studying” suggests quite something else :) That global competition that your refer too is already taking on a different light. See my post

    It shows how even China is aware the old method or studying in schools and universities need to change. If a communist state can see this, why can’t we?

    Still I look forward to a healthy discussion with you :)



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