Thursday, July 21, 2011

Problems and Solutions to Singapore’s Education System Part I

This is a discussion dedicated to most parents who suffer from the idiosyncrasies of our education system. I have spent some time thinking about this and have decided to blog this despite its irrelevance to investment, although economics would help us understand how we can try to tackle some of the issues.

The discussions here would be focused on primary education rather than the whole education system which I believe deserves more scrutiny and research. I have identified 3 main issues or problems that are probably well-recognized by most Singaporeans. They are

1. Elitism in our education system
2. Escalating peripheral costs: predominantly private tuition
3. Good teachers, or the lack of them

Elitism in our education system usually refers to pouring resources into the top performers in the belief that the best brains in our country should be allowed to develop their full potential and when they in turn contribute to society, the benefits would be shared by all. I would not delve into this elitism topic by itself bcos I think that would probably need an entirely new blog. Rather I am looking at how elitism affect the economics of our education system.

One side effect of this elitist system is this: it creates scarcity. In economics, scarcity is a big thing. We all know economics is about supply and demand. Scarcity limits supply, encourages demand and causes prices to skyrocket. Think branded goods, gold and precious commodities, iPad 2, iPhone 5, luxury sports cars, exclusive events etc.

In our elitist education system, scarcity is created in multiple arenas: we emphasize exam grades on just four subjects, we have branded schools like Raffles, Nanyang, we have our Gifted Education Programs, SAP schools, through-trains, ex-teachers turned tutors that are highly sought after. All these drive up scarcity premium, encourage high demand and drive up prices. From tuition fees to property prices near schools to perhaps even prices of school buses.

In fact, we can argue that the whole Singapore system seems to have this indulgence with scarcity, or creating bottlenecks in the system that drive prices one way: up. Think ERP, COE, HDB flats, Class A wards, private hospitals, high-end restaurants, exclusive clubs, high-end condominiums, high-end spa and gyms, high-end this, high-end that, Singapore Airlines PPS membership, Solitaire membership, the list continues.

Well we can understand that listed co.s might want to have more of these scarcity premium to earn better profits to satisfy shareholders. But as a Government, the objective might well be the opposite. To eliminated scarcity as much as possible so that the bulk of the society benefits.

Partly related to this point of scarcity is the big issue of our education system being reductionist ie not holistic, or not well-rounded. In fact, at the primary school level, it’s basically about language and science. I did a quick Wikipedia read-up and found out that primary education in other countries usually also involve subjects like music, drawing, elementary instructions in nature, history, geography, sports and lessons combined with practical work experiences around the school compound.

Sure, we do have some of these in Singapore, but they are never emphasized and not part of PLSE, the all important high stake exam, and hence easily neglected. Whereas in other countries, it is the overall performance that counts, not one exam. The overall performance incorporates all subjects, including sports and music and qualitative assessment of the form teachers.

Elites need to be separated from the rest of the junk. We rank our schools, our classes, our teachers, our kids and we have this super granular system whereby each PSLE student has a three digit score. Btw I still remember mine! Why are we obsessed with ranking? Bcos we want to rank these PSLE students so that we can figure out who are the elites and can go to the limited number of top schools, where significant amount of resources are poured in to nurture our best talents. Yes, we want to create scarcity!

While rankings are required at the tertiary or higher levels to facilitate university entrance, it might be counter-productive at the primary school level. It takes the fun out of learning and turns learning into stress. Again, a simple wiki-study will reveal that most primary schools in other countries employ a more holistic and less granular grading system. In Finland, the country regarded as having the best education system in world, numerical grading is not found on report cards in the early years. And, there are also no high stakes exams. Ever. Well at least in primary school level.

Learning is about the children, not about grades and rankings.

Next post, we look at the solutions.

See all posts!
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4


  1. I am not optimistic that our education system will be overhauled any time soon, largely due to the mindset that if its not (too obviously) broken, don't fix it.

    Save for a few, the elites in charge of the Singapore system will not see it as a grave problem, despite decades of feedback from many sources that the majority of Singapore are poor at tasks that do not have well defined boundaries.

    Then, there's inertia. Those that remain in the public education system are probably resistant to grave changes.

    Ironically, there's a parallel private education track which most Singaporeans are unaware of. AFAIK, plenty of richer Singaporeans do not send their children to public primary/secondary schools, but to private international schools.

  2. I totally agree with your opinion on the primary education system. I for one have a kid in Primary school, I do not agree in sending my kid to all kinds of tuition centres as i believe that kids should be allowed to play and not locked up in a center learning to do mental math or advance language. My son is average even without extra tuition lessons he can cope with the lessons in the class but it is the pressure from the classmates trying to show off what they have learned in the tuition centers that causing the stress.. call this as elitism as well. Also, because more students are advance (in a sense that they have taken up P1 lessons while they were K1 or K2 in tuition centers), teachers are less patient in teaching kids the lessons that are appropriate for their level. Most often when the student cannot catch up with the class the teacher will just tell you to put him in tuition center. We are becoming a nation of tuition centers, where a parents weekend revolves in bringing our kids to various tuition centers.


    That a look at this! Might be useful.