Education in Singapore: Pre-school Playgroup to Junior College

Temasek Polytechnic, third polytechnic established in Singapore (Photo from Google)
Temasek Polytechnic, third polytechnic established in Singapore (Photo from Google)

I and my better half were on the comfortable seats of Myanmar Airways International aircraft 8M 231 flying from Yangon to Singapore on Monday 12 January 2015. The weather was fine on a day of soft cool winter.
I have noticed that MAI is changing fast and also rising rapidly in her overall services offered to the passengers. Flight attendants or cabin crew were sweet and smiling and also active and efficient. They are members of an aircrew employed by airlines primarily to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers aboard commercial flights. It was a pleasant flight.
The main purpose of our visit to Singapore for about one month is to have fun with our grandchildren from Campbelltown of New South Wales in Australia, as our son and family are visiting Singapore during the kids’ school holidays. We are staying at the condominium of our daughter near world famous Singapore Botanical Gardens. She is working in that country.
Since my arrival in Singapore, I have written three English articles entitled (1) [Significant features of “Singapore Expo” and “John Little Mega Expo Sale” in Singapore: January 2015]; (2) [National University of Singapore: A University stands and shines top in Asia] and (3) [ICT in brief and pragmatic application of E-Governance in Singapore] in the Global New Light of Myanmar in January 2015.
The Bangkok Post on 1 February 2015 reported that Myanmar opened talks over a controversial education law Sunday as thousands of students headed to the commercial capital Yangon to demand reforms. Representatives from the government, parliament, the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) and student groups began discussing 11 points of the national education law. The discussion is expected to be a long and extended process before reaching to an agreement.
After reading the news on the dilemma and predicament of the educational law occurring back in my beloved country, I felt a strong urge to write an article on the topic “Education in Singapore”.
It was Sunday 1 February.
I communicated some of my friends, who have school going offspring and residing in Singapore, over the telephone and acquired some information on education system of Singapore that they have had in their mind. Moreover, I did some research work through the Google search machine.
The most interesting fact was that the Ministry of Education of Singapore was allocated with Singapore dollar 11.6 billion as her national education budget for the fiscal year 2013. One US dollar is equals to 1.35 Singapore dollars at the prevailing rate.
Education in Singapore is managed by the Ministry of Education (MOE), which controls the development and administration of state schools receiving government funding. It also has an advisory and supervisory role in respect of private schools. For both private and state schools, there are variations in the extent of autonomy in their curriculum, scope of government aid and funding, tuition burden on the students, and admission policy.
It was also interesting to note that education spending usually makes up about 20 percent of the annual national budget, which subsidizes state education and government-assisted private education for Singaporean citizens and funds the “Edusave Program”.
[Note: The Edusave Scheme was launched in 1993 with the aim of maximizing opportunities for Singaporean students in MOE-funded schools (e.g. government and government-aided schools, and government-funded independent and special education schools) by providing resources for school enrichment activities in support of their education].
In 2000 the “Compulsory Education Act” codified [arrangement of laws or rules into a systematic code] compulsory education for children of primary school age with exception to those with disabilities. The Act made it a criminal offence for parents to fail to enroll their children in school and ensure their regular attendance. Exemptions are allowed for homeschooling or full-time religious institutions. However, the parents must apply for exemption from the Ministry of Education and meet a minimum benchmark.
The main language of instruction in Singapore is English. It was officially designated the first language within the local education system in 1987. English is the first language learned by half the children by the time they reach preschool age.
English becomes the primary medium of instruction by the time the children reach primary school. Although Malay, Mandarin and Tamil are also official languages, English is the language of instruction/ teaching for nearly all subjects except the official “Mother Tongue” languages and the literatures of those languages. These literatures are generally not taught in English, although there is provision for the use of English at the initial stages.
Certain schools, such as secondary schools under the “Special Assistance Plan” (SAP), encourage a richer use of the mother tongue and may occasionally teach subjects in Mandarin Chinese. A few schools have been experimenting with curricula that integrate language subjects with mathematics and the sciences, using both English and a second language.
Singapore’s education system has been described as “world-leading” and in 2010 was among those picked out for commendation by the former British Tory education secretary Michael Gove.
History of Singapore Education
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded the Singapore Institution (now known as Raffles Institution) in 1823. It was the starting point of education in Singapore under the British rule. Later, there were three main types of schools appeared in Singapore: (a) Malay schools, (b) Chinese and Tamil schools and (c) English schools. Malay schools were provided free for all students by the British, while English schools, which used English as the main medium of instruction, were set up by missionaries and charged school fees. Chinese and Tamil schools largely taught their respective mother tongues. Students from Chinese schools in particular were extremely adjusted and attuned to developments in China, especially in the rise of Chinese nationalism.
The “survival-driven education” system During World War II, many students in Singapore dropped out of school, causing a huge backlog of students after the war. In 1947, the “Ten Years Program for Education Policy” in the Colony of Singapore was formulated. This called for a universal education system that would prepare for self-governance.
During the 1950s and 1960s, when Singapore started to develop its own economy, the country adapted a “survival-driven education” system to provide a skilled workforce for Singapore’s industrialization program as well to as to lower unemployment.
Apart from being an economic necessity, education also helped to integrate the new nation together. The bilingualism policy in schools was officially introduced in 1960, making English the official language for both national integration and utilitarian purposes. Universal education for children of all races and different background started to take shape, and more children started to attend schools.
However, the quality of schools set up during that particular time varied considerably. The first Junior College was opened in 1969.
In the 1980s, Singapore’s economy started to prosper. Therefore, the focus of Singapore’s education system shifted from “quantity to quality”. More differentiation for pupils with different academic abilities was implemented. The changes included the revamping vocational education under the new Institute of Technology and splitting of the Normal stream in secondary schools into “Normal (Academic)” and “Normal (Technical)” streams. The “Gifted Education Program” was also set up to cater to more academically inclined students.
“Thinking Schools, Learning Nations” vision In 1997, the Singapore education system started to change into an “ability-driven system” after the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong outlined his “Thinking Schools, Learning Nations” vision. Under this policy, more emphasis was given to national education, creative thinking, collaborative learning as well as ICT literacy. Schools became more diverse and were given “greater autonomy” in deciding their own curriculum and developing their own niche areas, in other words a comfortable or suitable position in life or employment. Differences between the various academic streams became blurred. The Ministry of Education also officially acknowledged that “excellence” will not be measured solely in terms of academics; a mountain range of excellence “with many peaks”.
School grades in Singapore
The school year is divided into two semesters. The first begins in the beginning of January and ends in May; the second begins in July and ends in November.
Level, grade and typical age are prescribed as follows.
Pre-school playgroup and Kindergarten (aged 3 to 6); Primary 1 to
Primary 6 (aged 6 to 12); Secondary 1 to Secondary 5 (aged 12 to 17).
Kindergartens in Singapore
Kindergartens in Singapore provide up to three years of pre-school for children ages three to six. The three years are commonly called Nursery, Kindergarten 1 (K1) and Kindergarten 2 (K2), respectively.
Kindergartens provide an environment for children to learn how to interact with others, and to prepare them for formal education at Primary school. Activities include learning language – written and oral – and numbers, development of personal and social skills, games, music, and outdoor play. Children learn two languages, English and their “official Mother Tongue” (Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil). Many private or church-based kindergartens might not offer Malay or Tamil, so non-Chinese pupils might also learn some Standard Mandarin in these kindergartens.
The kindergartens are run by the private sector, including community foundations, religious bodies, and civic or business groups. There are more than 200 kindergartens registered with the Ministry of Education. Kindergartens are also run by child care centers as well as international schools.
The People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore since 1957, runs 247 kindergartens through its charitable arm, the PAP Community Foundation.
Primary education in Singapore
Primary education, normally starting at age seven, is a four-year foundation stage (Primary 1 to 4) and a two-year orientation stage (Primary 5 to 6). Primary education is compulsory under the “Compulsory Education Act” since 2003. Exemptions are made for pupils who are homeschooling, attending a full-time religious institution or those with special needs who are unable to attend mainstream schools. However, parents have to meet the requirements set out by the Ministry of Education before these exemptions are granted.
Primary education is free for all Singapore citizens in schools under the purview of the Ministry of Education, though there is a fee of up to SGD 13 monthly per student to help cover miscellaneous costs.
The foundation stage is the first stage of formal schooling. The four years, from primary 1 to 4, provide a foundation in English, mother tongue (which includes Standard Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or a Non-Tamil Indian Language (NTIL)), Mathematics and Science. Other subjects include “Civics and Moral Education”, arts and crafts, music, health education, social studies, and physical education, which are taught throughout Primary 1 to 6. Science is taught from Primary 3 onwards.
After six years of Primary education, students will have to sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Students will then choose the secondary school of their choice based on their results at this examination. They will then be assigned to a secondary school based on merit and their choice. Students are also admitted into a secondary school under a separate “Direct School Admission” scheme, whereby secondary schools are able to choose a certain number of students based on their special talents before these students take the PSLE. Students admitted under this scheme cannot select their schools based on their PSLE results.
History of Singapore Education
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded the Singapore Institution (now known as Raffles Institution) in 1823. It was the starting point of education in Singapore under the British rule. Later, there were three main types of schools appeared in Singapore: (a) Malay schools, (b) Chinese and Tamil schools and (c) English schools. Malay schools were provided free for all students by the British, while English schools, which used English as the main medium of instruction, were set up by missionaries and charged school fees. Chinese and Tamil schools largely taught their respective mother tongues. Students from Chinese schools in particular were extremely adjusted and attuned to developments in China, especially in the rise of Chinese nationalism.
The “survival-driven education” system
During World War II, many students in Singapore dropped out of school, causing a huge backlog of students after the war. In 1947, the “Ten Years Program for Education Policy” in the Colony of Singapore was formulated. This called for a universal education system that would prepare for self-governance.
During the 1950s and 1960s, when Singapore started to develop its own economy, the country adapted a “survival-driven education” system to provide a skilled workforce for Singapore’s industrialization program as well to as to lower unemployment.
Apart from being an economic necessity, education also helped to integrate the new nation together. The bilingualism policy in schools was officially introduced in 1960, making English the official language for both national integration and utilitarian purposes. Universal education for children of all races and different background started to take shape,
and more children started to attend schools.
However, the quality of schools set up during that particular time varied considerably. The first Junior College was opened in 1969.
In the 1980s, Singapore’s economy started to prosper. Therefore, the focus of Singapore’s education system shifted from “quantity to quality”. More differentiation for pupils with different academic abilities was implemented. The changes included the revamping vocational education under the new Institute of Technology and splitting of the Normal stream in secondary schools into “Normal (Academic)” and “Normal (Technical)” streams. The “Gifted Education Program” was also set up to cater to more academically inclined students.
“Thinking Schools, Learning Nations” vision
In 1997, the Singapore education system started to change into an “ability-driven system” after the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong outlined his “Thinking Schools, Learning Nations” vision. Under this policy, more emphasis was given to national education, creative thinking, collaborative learning as well as ICT literacy. Schools became more diverse and were given “greater autonomy” in deciding their own curriculum and developing their own niche areas, in other words a comfortable or suitable position in life or employment. Differences between the various academic streams became blurred. The Ministry of Education also officially acknowledged that “excellence” will not be measured solely in terms of academics; a mountain range of excellence “with many peaks”.
School grades in Singapore
The school year is divided into two semesters. The first begins in the beginning of January and ends in May; the second begins in July and ends in November.
Level, grade and typical age are prescribed as follows.
Pre-school playgroup and Kindergarten (aged 3 to 6); Primary 1 to
Primary 6 (aged 6 to 12); Secondary 1 to Secondary 5 (aged 12 to 17).
Kindergartens in Singapore
Kindergartens in Singapore provide up to three years of pre-school for children ages three to six. The three years are commonly called Nursery, Kindergarten 1 (K1) and Kindergarten 2 (K2), respectively.
Kindergartens provide an environment for children to learn how to interact with others, and to prepare them for formal education at Primary school. Activities include learning language – written and oral – and numbers, development of personal and social skills, games, music, and outdoor play. Children learn two languages, English and their “official Mother Tongue” (Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil). Many private or church-based kindergartens might not offer Malay or Tamil, so non-Chinese pupils might also learn some Standard Mandarin in these kindergartens.
The kindergartens are run by the private sector, including community foundations, religious bodies, and civic or business groups. There are more than 200 kindergartens registered with the Ministry of Education. Kindergartens are also run by child care centers as well as international schools.
The People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore since 1957, runs 247 kindergartens through its charitable arm, the PAP Community Foundation.
Primary education in Singapore
Primary education, normally starting at age seven, is a four-year foundation stage (Primary 1 to 4) and a two-year orientation stage (Primary 5 to 6). Primary education is compulsory under the “Compulsory Education Act” since 2003. Exemptions are made for pupils who are homeschooling, attending a full-time religious institution or those with special needs who are unable to attend mainstream schools. However, parents have to meet the requirements set out by the Ministry of Education before these exemptions are granted.
Primary education is free for all Singapore citizens in schools under the purview of the Ministry of Education, though there is a fee of up to SGD 13 monthly per student to help cover miscellaneous costs.
The foundation stage is the first stage of formal schooling. The four years, from primary 1 to 4, provide a foundation in English, mother tongue (which includes Standard Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or a Non-Tamil Indian Language (NTIL)), Mathematics and Science. Other subjects include “Civics and Moral Education”, arts and crafts, music, health education, social studies, and physical education, which are taught throughout Primary 1 to 6. Science is taught from Primary 3 onwards.
After six years of Primary education, students will have to sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Students will then choose the secondary school of their choice based on their results at this examination. They will then be assigned to a secondary school based on merit and their choice. Students are also admitted into a secondary school under a separate “Direct School Admission” scheme, whereby secondary schools are able to choose a certain number of students based on their special talents before these students take the PSLE. Students admitted under this scheme cannot select their schools based on their PSLE results.
Gifted Education Program in Singapore
The “Gifted Education Program” (GEP) was set up by the Ministry of Education in 1984 to cater to the intellectually gifted students. This program aims to develop gifted children to their top potential and it places a special emphasis on higher-order thinking and creative thought.
There are currently 9 “primary schools” offering the Gifted Education Program. (1) Anglo-Chinese School; (2) Catholic High School; (3) Henry Park Primary School; (4) Nan Hua Primary School; (5) Nanyang Primary School; (6) Rosyth School; (7) Tao Nan School; (8) St. Hilda’s Primary School; and (9) Raffles Girls’ Primary School.
The “Secondary School Gifted Education Program (GEP)” was discontinued at the end of 2008 as more students take the Integrated Program (IP). At that juncture, this has been replaced by a “School-Based Gifted Education” program.
Secondary Education in Singapore
Based on results of the PSLE, students are placed in different secondary education tracks or streams. They are “Special”, “Express”, “Normal (Academic)”, or “Normal (Technical)”. Singaporeans are forbidden to attend international schools on the island without MOE permission.
“Special” and “Express” are four-year courses leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE “O” Level examination. The difference between these two courses is that in the “Special” stream, students take ‘Higher Mother Tongue’ (available for Standard Mandarin, Malay and Tamil only) instead of ‘Mother Tongue’.
A pass in the Higher Mother Tongue ‘O’ Level Examination constitutes the fulfillment of the Mother Tongue requirement in Singapore, whereas “Normal Mother Tongue” Students will have to go through one more year of study in their Mother Tongue after their ‘O’ Levels to take the ‘A’ Level H1 Mother Tongue Examinations and fulfill the MOE’s requirement.
A foreign language, either French, German, Japanese or Spanish can be taken in addition to the mother tongue or can replace it. This is especially popular with students who are struggling with their mother tongues, expatriates, or students returning from abroad.
Non-Chinese students may also study Standard Mandarin and non-Malay students Malay as a third language. This program is known as CSP (Chinese Special Program) and MSP (Malay Special Program). Mother Tongue teachers conduct these lessons in school after usual hours.
The Ministry of Education Language Centre (MOELC) provides free language education for most additional languages that other schools may not cover, and provides the bulk of such education, admitting several thousand students each year.
“Normal” is a four-year course leading up to a Normal-level (N-level) exam, with the possibility of a fifth year followed by an O-level. Normal is split into “Normal (Academic)” and “Normal (Technical)”.
Normal (Technical), students take subjects of a more technical nature, such as Design and Technology, while in Normal (Academic) students are prepared to take the O-level exam and normally take subjects such as Principles of Accounting.
Pre-university in Singapore
The pre-university centers of Singapore are designed for upper-stream students (roughly about 20%–25% of the cohort) who wish to pursue a university degree after two to three years of pre-university education, rather than stopping after polytechnic post-secondary education.
There are 18 Junior Colleges (JCs) and a Centralized Institute (CI), the Millennia Institute (MI, established 2004), with the National Junior College (NJC, established 1969) being the oldest and Innova Junior College (IJC, established 2005) the newest.
Junior college in Singapore
Junior colleges in Singapore were initially designed to offer an accelerated alternative to the traditional three-year program, but in recent years the two-year program has become the norm for students pursuing university education.
JCs accept students based on their GCE “O” Level results; an L1R5 score of 20 points or less must be attained for a student to gain admission. JCs provide a 2-year course leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (“A” level) examination. The CI accepts students based on their GCE “O” Level results; an L1R4 score of 20 points or less must be attained for a student to gain admission. The MI provides a 3-year course leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (“A” level) examination.
All students are required to participate in at least one CCA (Co-Curricular Activities) as CCA performance is considered for university admission.
Centralized Institute in Singapore
The Centralized Institutes accept students based on their GCE “O” level results and their L1R4 score (which must be 20 points or below). A Centralized Institute provides a three-year course leading up to a GCE “A” level examination. There were originally four Centralized Institutes: (1) Outram Institute, (2) Townsville Institute, (3) Jurong Institute and (4) Seletar Institute. Townsville Institute and Seletar Institute stopped accepting new students after the 1995 school year and closed down after the last batch of students graduated in 1997.
There currently remains only one Centralized Institute in Singapore, the Millennia Institute, which was formed following the merger of Jurong and Outram Institutes. Additionally, only Centralized Institutes offer the Commerce Stream offering subjects such as Principles of Accounting and Management of Business. The standard of teaching and curriculum is identical to that of the Junior Colleges.
Diploma and vocational education
The first polytechnic in Singapore is “Singapore Polytechnic”. It was established in 1954. Ngee Ann Polytechnic, has roots that go back to 1963. Two other polytechnics, Temasek Polytechnic and Nanyang Polytechnic were set up in the 1990s. The most recent, Republic Polytechnic was set up in 2003.
Polytechnics in Singapore provide 3-year diploma courses. They accept students based on their GCE “O” level, GCE “A” level or Institute of Technical Education (ITE) results. Unlike polytechnics in some other countries, they do not offer degree courses.
Polytechnics offer a wide range of courses in various fields, including engineering, business studies, accountancy, tourism and hospitality management, mass communications, digital media and biotechnology. There are also specialized courses such as marine engineering, nautical studies, nursing, and optometry. They provide a more industry-oriented education as an alternative to junior colleges for post-secondary studies. About 40% of each Secondary 4 cohort would enroll in Polytechnics.
Graduates of polytechnics with good grades can continue to pursue further tertiary education at the universities, and many overseas universities, notably those in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, give exemptions for modules completed in Polytechnic.
Polytechnics have also been actively working with many foreign universities to provide their graduates a chance to study niche University Courses locally. For example, Ngee Ann Polytechnic has engaged with Chapman University in the US to provide a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Producing for graduates of the School’s Film and Media Studies department. Nanyang Polytechnic, likewise, has tied up with the University of Stirling in Scotland to provide a course in Retail Marketing.
Institute of Technical Education in Singapore
The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) accepts students based on their GCE “O” level or GCE “N” level results and they provide 2-year courses leading to a locally recognized “National ITE Certificate.” There are four ITE Colleges in Singapore. A few ITE graduates continue their education at polytechnics and universities. ITE students are sometimes seen as being less capable and possibly less successful than JC, MI and Poly students. Recent speeches by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam have pointed out that there can be different definitions and types of success, in a bid to work towards a more inclusive society.
ITE provides four main levels of certification:
•    Master National ITE Certificate (Master Nitec)
•    Higher National ITE Certificate (Higher Nitec)
•    National ITE Certificate (Nitec)
•    Technical Engineer Diploma (TED) (from 2007)
There are also other skills certification through part-time apprenticeship courses conducted jointly by ITE and industrial companies.
Teacher and Principal Quality
Singapore recruits its teachers from the top third of high school graduates. Each year, Singapore calculates the number of teachers it will need, and opens only that many spots in the training programs.
On average, only one out of eight applicants for admission to their teacher education programs is accepted, and that only after a grueling application process.  Those who are accepted have typically not only taken Singapore’s A-level exams (the most challenging of all the exams available to Singapore students) but will have scored at least in the middle of the score range, a very high level of accomplishment.
The many other steps in the application process include tough panel interviews that focus on the personal qualities that make for a good teacher, as well as intensive reviews of their academic record and their contributions to their school and community. Teaching is a highly-respected profession in Singapore, not simply because it is part of the Confucian culture to value teachers, but because everyone knows how hard it is to become a teacher and everyone also knows that Singapore’s teachers have year in and year out produced students who are among the world’s highest achievers.
While teachers’ base salaries are not particularly high compared to many other top-performing countries, they are high enough to make compensation an unimportant consideration for students weighing teaching against other professions as they make their career choices.
Singapore also has a system of generous bonuses that boost teachers’ salaries by tens of thousands over the course of their careers. The bonuses are based on Singapore’s rather sophisticated teacher appraisal system in which teachers are evaluated annually in 16 areas, including in the contributions they make to the school and community.
This teaching competency model forms the bedrock of Singapore’s “Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS)”. Recognizing that the quality of its teaching force is vital to its success, the Ministry of Education developed this system to promote increasingly high levels of performance, even from teachers who are already excellent.
Ministry officials responsible for hiring and school leaders responsible for leading teachers use the competency model in conjunction with the achievement of performance goals at each stage of employment to the followings.
(1)    Hire and train aspiring teachers;
(2)    Set annual competency achievement targets;
(3)    Evaluate competency levels throughout the year;
(4)    Match each teacher to a career path; and
(5)    Determine annual bonuses.
Conclusion
The writer of this article has the pleasure and honor to present “Education in Singapore: Pre-school Playgroup to Junior College” for the esteemed and valued readers of the Global New Light of Myanmar and also for the interested persons in the field of education in Myanmar.
(Concluded)

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