Singapore’s educational system

Intense competition for places in accelerated learning streams is not a model to emulate

Letters to the Editor. Illustration: Paul Scott
The Irish Times - Letters to the Editor.

Sir, – John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, paints a glowing picture of Singapore’s education system and its high performance in the international Pisa rankings, linking it to the quality of Singapore’s teacher training and school facilities (“I visited Singapore to see why it is ranked as the top education system in the world. Here’s what I learned”, Education, Opinion, May 13th). However, it misses some important perspectives.

First, Singapore is not alone in its position. Even since China started participating in Pisa, it has outperformed Singapore. It did not participate in Pisa 2022 because testing there was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, so Singapore came out on top. But when both have participated, China has been the top performer. Other high-level performers include Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. These systems all share a common feature, namely intense competition for places in accelerated learning streams that start as early as preschool and ultimately lead to top placement at university level. What this leads to is intense education starting in preschools, with heavy homework loads and extensive use of private supplementary tuition throughout schooling.

Second, there are some negative outcomes associated with education in Singapore, including an epidemic of myopia in which around 80 per cent of children completing 12 years of schooling are myopic. Even more worrying, around 20 per cent of the cohort have severe, or high myopia, which puts them at high risk of subsequent visual impairment or blindness which cannot be corrected with glasses or contact lenses. This myopia epidemic is also seen in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, where educational facilities and teacher status and training are not in general as high as in Singapore.

Third, the negative consequences are more general, to the extent that all of locations that perform so highly in Pisa, have tried to change their education systems. Common concerns are around student anxiety and mental health, and student resilience. Fear of failure, rather than the courage to explore, is a common concern, and the negative consequences of their perceived failure for lower performing students are of great concern. Singapore have been trying to reform its education system for the last 25 years to embrace broader learning goals, but parents seem to have retained their cultural commitment to education. China has recently launched a top-down campaign to change their system, by taking off early educational pressure and effectively putting the private supplementary tutorial business out of action, but it too is facing considerable parental resistance. Both of these, countries have embraced myopia prevention at a national level.


A very important and penetrating study by Jerrim, based on analysis of the performance in Pisa of students of East Asian ancestry in Australia, shows that these students perform on a par with students from China, despite the very different education systems in which they have been educated. This suggests that the cultural attitudes to educational success, that are very strong in Chinese communities all over the world and are deeply rooted in Chinese history, are a more important factor in their success than features of the education system. What this means is that replicating Singapore’s facilities and teacher training and status will be no guarantee of improved outcomes. And if western countries were able to adopt East Asian attitudes to education, we would almost certainly see an epidemic of myopia as a result.

This is not to argue against spending more on education, giving greater value to the important work of teachers, and better teacher training, for education is the key to our future. But it is to argue that we should not look to East Asia and Singapore for models for successful education, because we arguably cannot replicate their deep cultural commitment to education. Nor, given the problems that have emerged, should we aim to. Instead, we should look to the western countries, such as Finland and Estonia, that are stronger performers in Pisa. Their performance is not as stellar as that of the East Asian locations, but they are more culturally appropriate. – Yours, etc,


Research School of Biology,

Australian National University,