Here's a tale of two countries. In 1960, the GDP per capita of Singapore and Jamaica stood almost equal at $2,271 and $2,255 respectively. By 2011, Singapore's had soared to $50,714 whilst Jamaica's had barely doubled to $5,376 per head. That wasn't because of oil or diamonds. It was down to education. And, today, Singapore stands out across all international comparisons for the quality of its schools system.
So last week I travelled to the South East Asian city state to see for myself the extraordinary focus this small island of 5 million puts on the value of learning. And after meeting with students, teachers, trainee teachers, academics and the Education Minister, I have returned more than ever convinced that the key to raising standards in England is to improve the quality of teaching, day in and day out, in classrooms across the country.
The Singapore system starts with promoting teaching as a high-status profession. At school, the most able students are encouraged to think of teaching as an aspirational career path - with teaching placements offered to teenagers as work experience to get them thinking about the profession. But only those with the most impressive results are allowed to progress to teacher-training college. Just one out of eight applicants for admission is accepted, and that only after a gruelling training process.
If and when they do graduate from the National Institute of Education training college, the newly qualified teachers take part in a public ceremony of celebration. During this, they are handed a compass to signify their entry into a noble profession in which moral values are paramount. There they also recite the Teacher's Pledge: 'We will continue to learn, and pass on the love of learning to our students.' If this seems slightly cringey, what it certainly helps to cement is the profound admiration which the Singaporean state has for its teachers. On them depends the future prosperity of the Republic. Contrast this to Michael Gove's description of English teachers as 'the enemies of promise.'
Teachers are then allocated to specific schools by the Ministry of Education. On the one hand, this speaks to the relatively small number of schools in Singapore (around 300), but also the active role of the state in ensuring a good breadth of talent across the school mix. In England, there is no incentive for teachers to join struggling schools in special measures; in Singapore, hard to staff schools receive the most talented teachers.
Once in post, in the very first week, the professional development starts. Because being qualified is simply a license to teach. For a Singapore teacher, their real training starts on the job with mentoring, in-service courses, and teachers' symposium. It is a lifetime's calling. And this early support helps to account for their remarkable levels of retention in the job, and little of the waste we experience with 40% of newly qualified teachers quitting in the first 5 years.
Instead, under its 'teach-less; learn more' model, each teacher is entitled to 100 hours of professional development per year. And it is this which explains their relentless demand to become better and better at their jobs. As a result, some 42% of Singapore teachers think they need more CPD to understand their subject fields (in contrast to just 11.5% in England); over 56% want extra training in pedagogy (as against 16% here). Clearly, if you begin a culture of further learning early enough it embeds itself within the profession and leads to a virtuous culture of self-improvement.
What is more, teachers in the Singapore system have multiple career pathways. In England, it is too often the case that to get promotion teachers need to leave the classroom to take up a leadership post as a deputy head. By contrast, the Singaporeans have introduced a tripartite career structure which allows teachers - after about five years in post - to choose between a teaching, leadership, or specialist track. This allows great classroom practitioners to develop their careers within the classroom, doing what they love, by training to become Master Teachers. I am convinced was also need a career structure which places Master Teachers alongside a management track.
But there still remains a complacent assumption in the West that, whilst the teaching might be excellent in the likes of Singapore or Shanghai, their education system is only about succeeding in maths and science. Well, they certainly do do well in those vital subjects, but what also struck me very deeply during my time in Asia was the stress placed on developing attributes of character and resilience in their students. In Singapore, they regard sport, music, and drama not as extra-curricular but co-curricular activity. And whilst the Tiger Mums might be demanding more Mandarin lessons, the teachers are trying to promote social and emotional, non-cognitive competences. They know that to stay ahead in the global economy, they need to nurture creativity, team-work and innovation in their young people not just an ability to regurgitate facts.
There is also self-critical realisation that their highly academically focused model of schooling - with its streaming and remnants of the 11+ - is also producing a Forgotten 50% needing a technical and vocational route. A skills gap is opening up for technicians and technologists for which the classical 'school-university' flight path is inapplicable. So with their characteristic rigour, the Singaporeans have transformed their Further Education colleges into high-aspiration Institutes of Technical Education. Complete with industry-savvy teaching staff and a job-ready focus, they are a model for training and apprenticeships.
So, what are the policy insights for English education policy? First of all, great pride in our own schools system. Time and again, the Singaporeans expressed their admiration for the ethos, leadership, curriculum and teaching in England. After all, when they crafted their post-independence education policy in the 1960s, they drew heavily on the traditions of the former colonial power.
Secondly, an appreciation of the limits of trying to import and impose foreign educational models into England. Before the last General Election, Michael Gove went to Sweden and brought back the ill-fated free schools programme - and from the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby to the now defunct Discovery Free School in Crawley we have seen the results of that. England is different to Singapore, Finland or Shanghai and we need to work with the complicated grain of our social and cultural inheritance. What a study of foreign educational systems should do is not deliver a ready-made template to impose, but allow one to reflect more intelligently upon the strengths of weaknesses of our own provision.
My conclusions are these. We need to do much more to raise the status and standing of the teaching profession, beginning with graduation ceremonies in which we celebrate their chosen pathway and ask teachers to take a kind of Hippocratic Oath committing themselves to continually improving their skills. We need much more effective delivery of professional development within and across schools, and head teachers who prioritise its delivery. Inset days as they currently exist need to be radically reconfigured. And we need multiple career pathways to keep teachers interested and motivated in their work, as well as to avoid some of the wastage amongst the newly qualified.
If Singapore is focusing on the importance of character and resilience in their schooling, then we can certainly do the same. Under a Labour government, Ofsted would inspect schools on a broad and balanced curriculum framework which would include the provision of co-curricular activity. We would expect the delivery of enrichment classes in sport, art, drama and the like to be similarly included in the funding agreements of academies.
Finally, we will continue to focus on our technical and vocational education agenda: ensuring our FE colleges are focused on local labour markets, delivering a rigorous Technical Baccalaureate of qualifications, and teachers regularly returning to business and industry to update their skills.
Britain has enjoyed a back and forth relationship with Singapore since the days of Sir Stamford Raffles in the early 1800s. Today that conversation continues. Because what works for a small island riding the tiger of globalisation off the South China Seas will work just as well for a blustery island of the edge of the European Continent. It is education which as transformed Singapore over the last fifty years, and it will have to do the same for us in the coming half-century.
Here's a tale of two countries. In 1960, the GDP per capita of Singapore and Jamaica stood almost equal at $2,271 and $2,255 respectively. By 2011, Singapore's had soared to...