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Why is Singapore’s school system so successful, and is it a model for the West?

For more than a decade, Singapore, along with South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Finland, has been at or near the top of international leagues tables that measure children’s ability in…

Stick to the textbook. Ray Chua/AP/Press Association Images

For more than a decade, Singapore, along with South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Finland, has been at or near the top of international leagues tables that measure children’s ability in reading, maths and science. This has led to a considerable sense of achievement in Finland and East Asia and endless hand-wringing and head-scratching in the West.

What then do Singaporean teachers do in classrooms that is so special, bearing in mind that there are substantial differences in classroom practices between – as well as within – the top-performing countries? What are the particular strengths of Singapore’s instructional regime that helps it perform so well? What are its limits and constraints?

Is it the right model for countries seeking to prepare students properly for the complex demands of 21st century knowledge economies and institutional environments more generally? Is Singapore’s teaching system transferable to other countries? Or is its success so dependent on very specific institutional and cultural factors unique to Singapore that it is folly to imagine that it might be reproduced elsewhere?

Singapore’s instructional regime

In general, classroom instruction in Singapore is highly-scripted and uniform across all levels and subjects. Teaching is coherent, fit-for-purpose and pragmatic, drawing on a range of pedagogical traditions, both Eastern and Western.

As such, teaching in Singapore primarily focuses on coverage of the curriculum, the transmission of factual and procedural knowledge, and preparing students for end-of-semester and national high stakes examinations.

And because they do, teachers rely heavily on textbooks, worksheets, worked examples and lots of drill and practice. They also strongly emphasise mastery of specific procedures and the ability to represent problems clearly, especially in mathematics. Classroom talk is teacher-dominated and generally avoids extended discussion.

Intriguingly, Singaporean teachers only make limited use of “high leverage” or unusually effective teaching practices that contemporary educational research (at least in the West) regards as critical to the development of conceptual understanding and “learning how to learn”.

For example, teachers only make limited use of checking a student’s prior knowledge or communicating learning goals and achievement standards. In addition, while teachers monitor student learning and provide feedback and learning support to students, they largely do so in ways that focus on whether or not students know the right answer, rather than on their level of understanding.

So Singapore’s teaching regime is one primarily focused on the transmission of conventional curriculum knowledge and examination performance. And clearly it is highly-effective, helping to generate outstanding results in international assessments Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The logic of teaching in Singapore

Singapore’s education system is the product of a distinctive, even unique, set of historical, institutional and cultural influences. These factors go a long way to help explain why the educational system is especially effective in the current assessment environment, but it also limits how transferable it is to other countries.

Over time, Singapore has developed a powerful set of institutional arrangements that shape its instructional regime. Singapore has developed an education system which is centralised (despite significant decentralisation of authority in recent years), integrated, coherent and well-funded. It is also relatively flexible and expert-led.

In addition, Singapore’s institutional arrangements is characterised by a prescribed national curriculum. National high stakes examinations at the end of primary and secondary schooling stream students according to their exam performance and, crucially, prompt teachers to emphasise coverage of the curriculum and teaching to the test. The alignment of curriculum, assessment and instruction is exceptionally strong.

High stakes for both students and teachers. Frans & all, CC BY-NC

Beyond this, the institutional environment incorporates top-down forms of teacher accountability based on student performance (although this is changing), that reinforces curriculum coverage and teaching to the test. Major government commitments to educational research (£109m between 2003-2017) and knowledge management are designed to support evidence-based policy making. Finally, Singapore is strongly committed to capacity building at all levels of the system, especially the selection, training and professional development of principals and teachers.

Singapore’s instructional regime and institutional arrangements are also supported by a range of cultural orientations that underwrites, sanctions and reproduces the instructional regime. At the most general level, these include a broad commitment to a nation-building narrative of meritocratic achievement and social stratification, ethnic pluralism, collective values and social cohesion, a strong, activist state and economic growth.

In addition, parents, students, teachers and policy makers share a highly positive but rigorously instrumentalist view of the value of education at the individual level. Students are generally compliant and classrooms orderly.

Importantly, teachers also broadly share an authoritative vernacular or “folk pedagogy” that shapes understandings across the system regarding the nature of teaching and learning. These include that “teaching is talking and learning is listening”, authority is “hierarchical and bureaucratic”, assessment is “summative”, knowledge is “factual and procedural,” and classroom talk is teacher-dominated and “performative”.

Clearly, Singapore’s unique configuration of historical experience, instruction, institutional arrangements and cultural beliefs has produced an exceptionally effective and successful system. But its uniqueness also renders its portability limited. But there is much that other jurisdictions can learn about the limits and possibilities of their own systems from an extended interrogation of the Singapore model.

At the same time it is also important to recognise that the Singapore model is not without its limits. It generates a range of substantial opportunity costs, and it constrains (without preventing) the capacity of the system for substantial and sustainable reform. Other systems, contemplating borrowing from Singapore, would do well to keep these in mind.

Reforming the Singapore model

The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s challenged policy makers to take a long hard look at the educational system that they developed, and ever since they have been acutely aware that the pedagogical model that had propelled Singapore to the top of international leagues table is not appropriately designed to prepare young people for the complex demands of globalisation and 21st knowledge economies.

By 2004-5, Singapore’s government had more or less identified the kind of pedagogical framework it wanted to work towards, and called it Teach Less, Learn More. This framework urged teachers to focus on the “quality” of learning and the incorporation of technology into classrooms and not just the “quantity” of learning and exam preparation.

While substantial progress has been made, the government has found rolling-out and implementing these reforms something of a challenge. In particular, instructional practices proved well entrenched and difficult to change in a substantial and sustainable way.

This was in part because the institutional rules that govern classroom pedagogy were not altered in ways that would support the proposed changes to classroom teaching. As a consequence, well-established institutional rules have continued to drive teachers to teach in ways that prioritise coverage of the curriculum, knowledge transmission and teaching to the test over “the quality” of learning, or to adopt high-leverage instructional practices.

Indeed, teachers do so for good reason, since statistical modelling of the relationship between instructional practices and student learning indicates that traditional and direct instructional techniques are much better at predicting student achievement than high leverage instructional practices, given the nature of the tasks students are assessed on.

Not the least of the lessons of these findings is that teachers in Singapore are unlikely to cease teaching to the test until and unless a range of conditions are met. These include that the nature of the assessment tasks will need to change in ways that encourages teachers to teacher differently. Above all, new kinds of assessment tasks that focus on the quality of student understanding are likely to encourage teachers to design instructional tasks. These can provide rich opportunities to learn and encourage high-quality knowledge work.

The national high stakes assessment system should also incorporate a moderated, school-based component that allows teachers to design tasks that encourage deeper learning rather than just “exam learning”.

The national curriculum should allow substantial levels of teacher mediation at the school and classroom level. This needs to have clearly specified priorities and principles, backed up by substantial commitments to authentic, in-situ, forms of professional development that provide rich opportunities for modelling, mentoring and coaching.

Finally, the teacher evaluation system needs to rely far more substantially on accountability systems that acknowledge the importance of peer judgement, and a broader range of teacher capacities and valuable student outcomes than the current assessment regime currently does.

Meanwhile, teachers will continue to bear the existential burden of managing an ongoing tension between what, professionally speaking, many of them consider good teaching, and what, institutionally speaking, they recognise is responsible teaching.

One of the central challenges confronting the Ministry of Education in Singapore is to reconcile good and responsible teaching. But the ministry is clearly determined to bed-down a pedagogy capable of meeting the demands of 21st century institutional environments, particularly developing student capacity to engage in complex knowledge work within and across subject domains.

The technical, cultural, institutional and political challenges of doing so are daunting. However, given the quality of leadership across all levels of the system, and Singapore’s willingess to grant considerable pedagogical authority to teachers while providing clear guidance as to priorities, I have no doubt it will succeed. But it will do so on its own terms and in ways that achieve a sustainable balance of knowledge transmission and knowledge-building pedagogies that doesn’t seriously compromise the overall performativity of the system.

It is already clear that the government is willing to tweak once sacred cows, including the national high stakes exams and streaming systems. However, it has yet to tackle the perverse effects of streaming on classroom composition and student achievement that continues to overwhelm instructional effects in statistical modelling of student achievement.

Towards a knowledge building pedagogy

Singapore’s experience and its current efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning do have important, if ironic, implications for systems that hope to emulate its success.

This is especially true of those jurisdictions – I have in mind England and Australia especially – where conservative governments have embarked on ideologically driven crusades to demand more direct instruction of (Western) canonical knowledge, demanding more testing and high stakes assessments of students, and imposing more intensive top-down performance regimes on teachers.

In my view, this is profoundly and deeply mistaken. It is also more than a little ironic given the reform direction Singapore has mapped out for itself over the past decade. The essential challenge facing Western jurisdictions is not so much to mimic East Asian instructional regimes, but to develop a more balanced pedagogy that focuses not just on knowledge transmission and exam performance, but on teaching that requires students to engage in subject-specific knowledge building.

Knowledge building pedagogies recognise the value of established knowledge, but also insist that students need to be able to do knowledge work as well as learning about established knowledge. Above all, this means students should acquire the ability to recognise, generate, represent, communicate, deliberate, interrogate, validate and apply knowledge claims in light of established norms in key subject domains.

In the long run, this will do far more for individual and national well-being, including supporting development of a vibrant and successful knowledge economy, than a regressive quest for top billing in international assessments or indulging in witless “culture wars” against modernity and emergent, not to mention long-established, liberal democratic values.

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35 Comments sorted by

  1. Jean Walker

    Retired Teacher

    Thank you for this article which confirms my understanding of Singapore's education system and culture and also my belief that politicians and others who constantly cite it as what we should be aping, don't understand much about education generally. Same goes for those who are always quoting Finland.

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    1. Desmond Griffin

      independent schol

      In reply to Jean Walker

      This is an excellent article. My understanding from the PISA 2009 Report 'Lessons for the US' is that other features of the system are strong support from goverment, active involvement boy education ministry in studying what is best around the world and sport for universal preschool. The change to more engaging learning is a feature of some other successful Asian systems acc to PISA. See more at Education Reforrm: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity (Springer 2014) chapter on International Comparisons.

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    2. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Jean Walker

      This article bizarrely categorizes Singapore as non-western. And yet, the language of instruction throughout the entire Singapore education is English. You can't get much more "western" than that.

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  2. John Doyle
    John Doyle is a Friend of The Conversation.

    architect

    In so far as attending school can do it we really need the young to grow up as well rounded citizens, who can cope with life in the real world. If parents use their children as wish fulfilling substitutes for their own missed experiences in learning and thriving financially, the next society will be serious dysfunctional.
    We don't hear much about having children as well rounded individuals with adequate down time to play and enjoy childhood from asian studies.

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  3. B Redfearn

    Retired businessman, soldier and academic

    Excellent artcle.

    Singapore et al are all getting education of children more right by far than other nations,as the stats clearly show. They are seemingly not resting on their laurels either but striving to improve yet further.

    All very impressive in a fast-moving competitive world.

    Parents have an (the?) obvious major role in children's education, so it is clear that the best system must aim to get everything right.

    Just as long as the traditional western educationalist establishment with its failed political agenda, keeps its fingers out of the pot, all should be well!

    I am certainly glad glad that at least some of my descendants are enjoying this kind of successful Asiatic education.

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  4. THOMAS JONES

    Businessman

    I think you're saying Singapore works by being "old school" and like many parents I would like the same for my kids. I don't really get the distinction between what they are doing in Singapore and what Michael Gove is trying to do in the UK. You've had a dig at this by calling it an "ideologically driven crusade" which you say is "deeply and profoundly mistaken", but you don't say why. As criticisms go is pretty insubstantial yet it's all you offer. As a matter of fact, the results achieved by English schools have started to improve these past few years and I think Mr Gove would recognise a lot in Singapore of what he is trying to do.
    The argument in my opinion is whether or not you have facts underlying your ability to argue and opinion, or whether you think that don't need the facts first. I don't think anybody is saying that facts are the end of education.

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  5. David R Amies

    Retired

    A most interesting article.

    Perhaps the apparent success of educational methods in Singapore and Finland are due to the amount of hard work required of pupils by the system in those countries.

    Mention is made of educational research and that provokes a question. Are different approaches tried out in real classrooms and statistical comparisons made? For example, there has been a long standing debate about the use of 'whole language' versus 'phonetics' when teaching children to read. To an outsider…

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    1. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to David R Amies

      An irrelevant medical example, David. Teaching knowledge subjects like Mathematics requires building on skills acquired in order; shape recognition, times tables, equipment manipulation for example, the provide the foundation for 'higher' skills such as Algebra ( IMHO one of the worst taught subjects for the wrong reasons) or Calculus.

      Without the foundation skills drilled into students, very few progress past elementary maths skills and often crash in Year 9.

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    2. David R Amies

      Retired

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Jack,

      Thank you for your time and trouble but I think you have missed the point of my naive query! Who could possibly doubt that learning complex subjects requires the appropriate foundation.

      My point is about the quality of education research. I repeat, it appears to this outsider, that one teaching method is often preferred over another for doctrinal reasons and not as a result of critical research that compares and contrasts different approaches and seeks to determine whether one has been shown to be better as a result of trials.

      I agree that my medical example may not be entirely relevant but it does point up that the medical profession does take the trouble to carry out peer reviewed research and that therapeutic interventions may not be employed for ideological reasons. I want reassurance that the same rigour applies to school teaching - surely much more important than curing individuals. Our future is in the hands of teachers!

      David Amies

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    3. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to David R Amies

      David, the best example of your requirements that I have seen is the Methods of Instruction Team of the Australian Army. Sadly, my experience of Teacher's Colleges lacked their rigour and high standards.

      "Our future is in the hands of teachers!" If you want good teachers you need good salaries and work conditions that are presently missing. Pay peanuts, get monkeys.

      BTW, Check out Rory Robertson's posts on medical research, he appears to disagree that "the medical profession does take the trouble to carry out peer reviewed research and that therapeutic interventions may not be employed for ideological reasons."

      Perhaps you mean NOW "the medical profession has been forced to carry out ..."because the history of medical treatments contains too many ideas without foundation and the protection of self interest. Just look at the Australian example of polio and Sister Kenny for example.

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    4. David R Amies

      Retired

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Hallo,

      No argument from me about the pay scales that teachers labour under. My own daughter, who was a fine and innovative teacher gave up because of the impossible demands placed upon her. Driving a city bus pays more and is far less stressful and that is a disgrace.

      I do not intend to cast the medical profession as being whiter than the driven snow and there have been and are still rogues among its ranks. However, when there is disagreement about the better management to adopt in different…

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    5. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to David R Amies

      Hi David, Only a few education people rigorously compare teaching/learning methods to determine the one that is the most appropriate for their particular group of students. In my experience,most reproduce the methods they were taught under, for diverse results. Obviously, the resolution of this becomes to blame the students for their inability to learn. But then, remember the historical context; the boffins in head Office were 2YT as primary teachers and so frequently lack the vision or ability to see beyond the end of their noses having escaped from the despised classroom.

      Reading is a prime example. Teachers argue about methods while Prof Wheelwright at Macquarie University ignored method and measured Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) believing that the ability to read fluently was more important than whatever method was used to give a student that skill. Naturally his work was ignored by the Department.

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    6. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to David R Amies

      A good review of the efficacy of various interventions in schooling is
      Hattie, John (2009) Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge, London and New York.

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    7. Jean Walker

      Retired Teacher

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      David - I agree with Jack's assessment. As someone who has taught in high schools for 40 years and has also been involved in meetings with union officers and DoE bureaucrats for many years, the answer is a complicated one.

      In many instances career Ministers have advisers who spend their time looking at new pedagogies and often advise a naive Minister to impose something which from the literature appears to be succeeding elsewhere in order to promote his/her career and win voters. In Tasmania this…

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    8. David R Amies

      Retired

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Jack,

      Thank you once more. I believe that you have given me the answer to my original question. My suspicion that teaching methods were often imposed upon teachers by the education authorities, even in the face of research suggesting that method may not be the best, appears to have been borne out.

      I well understand that cultural, social and financial interests all play a part and that the care of the young is a highly fraught area with parents, among others, all having a view.

      Perhaps the principal reason for the educational success of some countries has more to do with a culture that demands hard work than this or that method of teaching.

      An interesting discussion.

      David Amies

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  6. Peter Schaeffer

    Citizen

    The article is just a standard exercise in “Blank Slate” fantasizing.

    Singapore’s schools thrive because the students are Singaporean and not because of the particular teaching methods in use. A few notes.

    1. Most of the students are Chinese. The rest of from a range of Asian nationalities. Chinese / Asian students excel worldwide.

    2. Singapore has no underclass and underclass behavior, attitudes, drug use, etc. are simply not tolerated. Serious criminal are executed, not excused.

    3. Singapore’s children come from (god forbid) two-parent families. Illegitimacy rates are close to zero.

    Focusing on pedagogy is just a distraction from the real issues. Of course, distractions are important if you have a political agenda that favors flooding the United Kingdom with immigrants who flounder in school along with their children.

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    1. Peter Schaeffer

      Citizen

      In reply to Peter Schaeffer

      Sorry, I left out one more material factor.

      Singapore has close to no welfare state. It's a right-wing cliche that the welfare state degrades society. It's also "true".

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    2. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Peter Schaeffer

      I think this misreads the article. The author states clearly that Singapore's education distinctively reflects its societies, and is limited:

      'Clearly, Singapore’s unique configuration of historical experience, instruction, institutional arrangements and cultural beliefs has produced an exceptionally effective and successful system. But its uniqueness also renders its portability limited. But there is much that other jurisdictions can learn about the limits and possibilities of their own systems from an extended interrogation of the Singapore model.

      'At the same time it is also important to recognise that the Singapore model is not without its limits.'

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    3. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Peter Schaeffer

      This is indeed a rightwing nostrum, and like other rightwing slogans is clearly false. Tax is 43% of gdp in Finland (Australia 26%) yet Finland is clearly a successful state.

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    4. Dennis Kwek

      Researcher

      In reply to Peter Schaeffer

      With respect, the broad stereotyping of Singapore student population is inaccurate and not really useful. Some facts from the Singapore Statistics website:

      1. Ethnic composition of the resident population (note, not students): 74.1% Chinese, 13.4% Malay, 9.2% Indian, 3.3% Others (2010 Census).
      2. Of Singaporeans who are 15 years and over, 67.6% have educational qualifications which are secondary level and above. Breaking this down: 66.2% Chinese, 63% Malay, 77,5% Indian have secondary qualifications…

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    5. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Finland is nowhere near as successful a nation as Australia is.

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  7. Comment removed by moderator.

  8. Sutharsan John Isles

    Educator

    For he who said it: On a public platform, comments are unsolicited. That's how it works.

    Now, let me present this in a way it won't be taken down (hopefully). But thank you for taking down the earlier post so that I can continue to have access to information about the funding organisation and its research. I should have thought about that before posting. Whistle-blowers are generally not welcomed in government organisations, are they?

    Some background:
    15 year-olds in Singapore are generally…

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    1. Sutharsan John Isles

      Educator

      In reply to Sutharsan John Isles

      I have assumed of course that the students were indeed taken in equal numbers from each school. It could very well be that only a handful were picked from each of the lower strata of schools while many more were picked from the elite schools.

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    2. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Sutharsan John Isles

      Thank you for your elucidating comments Sutharsan.

      In Australia the private school sector has in the past made similar biased claims to support their alleged academic excellence. For example, "9/10 of the top schools in the NSW HSC results were private schools"when the public James Ruse Agricultural High School alone sat a candidature greater than the total combined candidacy from those 9 private schools ... and had the BEST results by every measure.

      [I think we may have avoided the TC Censor].

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    3. Cory Zanoni

      Community Manager at The Conversation

      In reply to Sutharsan John Isles

      Thanks for the post Sutharsan. Comprehensive and interesting.

      I'll pass your comment onto our Education editor. Hopefully we can get an article on the broader picture you've displayed.

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    4. In reply to Cory Zanoni

      Comment removed by moderator.

    5. Dennis Kwek

      Researcher

      In reply to Sutharsan John Isles

      Respectfully, Sutharsan, the powerful thing about PISA is that it actually is fairly transparent in terms of their sampling procedures, sampling frames and target populations for each country. You've drawn your conclusions from Singapore's MOE's website but do consider looking at Annex A2 of Volume 1 of the PISA 2012 Results which describes the target population, sampling and school definitions.

      Some points from the Annex:
      - 5546 students out of a total 51870 number of eligible students participated…

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    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Dennis Kwek

      In other words, Singapore's superior, more demanding, curriculum is reflected in its PISA ranking, just as Australia's inferior, less-demanding, curriculum is reflected in its PISA ranking.

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  9. James Fairhead

    Lecturer, University College Cork, Ireland

    Thanks David

    Your excellent article will strike a chord with some of us in the university sector who have noted with regret the way that many academic policy-makers are busy imitating what they take to be 'business best practice' without realising the extent to which business is actually seeking to downplay much of this, and instead trying to replicate something of the trustful collegiality and thoughtful educational ideals that (on a good day) academic institutions used to both practise and treasure…

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    1. James Fairhead

      Lecturer, University College Cork, Ireland

      In reply to James Fairhead

      Apologies for the missing pronoun in my post. Also very interesting to read the older comments - eg the way that new policy initiatives are demanded for political or careerist reasons without always too much concern for real reality...

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  10. Ben Tan

    Tutor

    In 1970s Finland launched an education system for achieving equality and excellence in education based on constructing a publicly funded comprehensive school system without selecting, tracking, or streaming students during their basic education until the age of 16.

    About the same time, Singapore launched a comprehensive education grading system to track and stream students as early as age 9. In this grading system, students with lower academic performance are either held back or transferred to…

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