One of the true success stories of the 20th century, Singapore has grown from being an obscure “little red dot” on the map of South East Asia into a modern, wealthy hub of global commerce (UNDP, 2016). Singapore’s status as a global leader is reflected in its highly successful national education system. Though much of Singapore’s success in education can be attributed to the national character of the country’s citizens and the benefits of its small size relative to other nations (Hargreaves & Shirley, Chapter 4, Paragraph 54; OECD, 2012, pg. 115), there is much to learn from their approach to education that successfully supports innovation in a highly-competitive educational culture of high-stakes testing (Hallinger, 2003, pg.167; Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 11).
Singapore’s success in education begins at the national level: the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) stated vision for education is “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” and its goal is to create a network of learning organizations and lifelong learners (Hallinger, 2003, pg. 164). In order to ensure that the country can “compete and stay ahead”, Singapore’s education system seeks to create citizens who are able to think creatively and critically, and act as responsible global and digital citizens (Hallinger, 2003, pp. 165; MOE, 2009; MOE, 2015a). The MOE is well-regarded for its strong and stable leadership, and well-funded, with support for education resources making up 20% of the country’s national budget (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 2; OECD, 2012, pg.117, 123). Members are competent, carefully-selected, generously-compensated, and well-trained in the use of data and evidence in decision-making (OECD, 2012, pg. 120). Strategic planning for national educational policy is highly-integrated with the Manpower Ministry to ensure that the nation’s education system remains dynamic and able to meet the country’s current and future workforce needs, promoting sustainability and long-term success (OECD, 2012, pp. 118-119, 124; Sheppard, 2009, pg. 101). Strategic leadership for adaptive learning that accounts for future needs and trends and involves leaders from diverse sources, such as is done in Singapore, is a hallmark of positive national and district leadership in education (Hallinger, 2003, pg. 26; Sheppard, 2009, pg. 29).
Despite the government and MOE’s significant investment and support, much power is decentralized and given over to individual schools, empowering them to determine how to align their practice with government strategy (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 37; Grogan, 2013, pp. 380-383; Sheppard, 2009, pp. 87-88). Schools are organized into ‘clusters’, led by former principals, that support innovation and collaboration between members of different schools, take advantage of the potential for district leadership to support collaboration, and serve as a mediating layer for implementing policy (OECD, 2012, pg. 116; Hallinger, 2003, pp. 165-166; Sheppard, 2009, pg. 34; Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 66). Near-constant communication between clusters, schools, and the MOE provides accountability and support, helps schools function as effective PLCs, aids implementation and policy development integration through close collaboration between leaders at the ministry, cluster, and school levels, and is exemplary of a strategic “whole-of-enterprise” approach to educational leadership (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 61; Sheppard, 2009, pg. 104; OECD, 2012, pg. 124; Hallinger, 2003, pg. 26).
This close integration between stakeholders is evident in Singapore’s approach to school leadership training as well. The National Institute of Education (NIE) at Nanyan Technological University is Singapore’s sole provider of educational leadership training, and works in close collaboration with the MOE to develop and implement policy (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 59; OECD, 2012, pg. 119). In addition to principalship training, programs for departmental management, level management, subject management, and teacher mentorship are provided, leveraging the potential of teachers as instructional leaders, coaches, and mentors within PLCs, and acknowledging the value of shared-leadership and supportive middle-management in schools (Hallinger, 2003, pp. 166, 172; Grogan, 2013, pp. 322, 337; Sheppard, 2009, pg. 67). The MOE and NIE work closely with schools to assess and track teachers for potential leadership roles and provide a clear plan and process for career development, including support for up to a year of paid, full-time training for selected candidates and funding for international study, meeting the need for foresight in recruitment of school leaders and support of capacity building within the system (Hallinger, 2003, pg. 167; Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 2; OECD, 2012, pg. 122; Grogan, 2013, pg. 336).
Principals trained by the NIE’s Leaders in Education Programme (LEP) undergo an intensive program focusing on project-based learning in school environments, and are supported by a steward principal, cluster superintendent, and NIE tutor in a field-based approach that supports retention and understanding (Hallinger, 2003, pp. 62-65, 92-93, 169). The curriculum offers modules focused on a number of best practices in school leadership (Hallinger, 2003, pg. 170). Vision building is supported by Hallinger (2003, pg. 64) and Robinson (Grogan, 2013, pg. 306) as being a practice implemented by expert principals. School and community interaction is addressed in the same module and supports parent involvement to increase student achievement (Grogan, 2013, pg. 352). Principal candidates are trained in using data and evidence for decision-making, addressing the ethical need for leaders to base decisions on valid information as an interpersonal value guiding the formation of Open Learning Conversations put forward by Robinson (Grogan, 2013, pg. 110). Modules on team building, team learning, and building human intellectual capital within schools support practices put forward by Fink and Markbolt (Grogan, 2013, pp. 317, 323) and Sergiovanni (Grogan, 2013, pg. 376) as being favorable for improving instruction and student achievement and developing group expertise.
Singapore’s education system and strategy has a long history of success. In 1995, the country ranked 1st on the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) Trends in Maths and Science Studies (TIMSS) for 13-year-olds and has continued to be among the top in subsequent TIMSS studies in 1999, 2003, and 2007 (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 1; OECD, 2012, pg. 114). Singapore placed 4th world-wide in the 2006 Progress in Literacy Study (PIRLS) and was the top performing nation in the 2015 PISA report, ranking highest among all nations in the Science, Reading, Math, and Collaborative Problem-solving categories, with 39% of students global top performers in at least one subject. (OECD, 2018). The IMD World Competitiveness yearbook ranked Singapore in first place for having an education system that meets the needs of a competitive economy (OECD, 2012, pg. 114). Singapore’s success on international standardized tests relative to other nations is undeniable, and an outcome of the country’s commitment to recruiting high-quality teachers and supporting them throughout their careers as ethical, collaborative learners, leaders, and community builders, and rewarding them on the basis of their service to their peers, students, and profession rather than student test scores (MOE, 2015b, pg. 6; Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 67). Given the nation’s competitive school culture and commitment to genuine international benchmarking and policy learning, Singapore shows no signs of losing its status as a global top-performer in education in the near future and is likely to remain an exemplar of positive practices in educational leadership (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, Chapter 4, Paragraph 70; OECD, 2012, pg. 123; Sheppard, 2009, pg. 59).
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Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 18 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.