The city-state regularly tops global league tables for Maths and now the UK wants to adopt a similar approach

Sie Yu Chuah smiles when asked how his parents would react to a low test score. “My parents are not that strict but they have high expectations of me,” he says. “I have to do well. Excel at my studies. That’s what they expect from me.” The cheerful, slightly built 13-year-old is a pupil at Admiralty, a government secondary school in the northern suburbs of Singapore that opened in 2002.

A city-state of just 5.5 million people, Singapore is routinely ranked at or near the top in global comparisons of mathematical ability and boasts one of the most admired education systems in the world. In a league table based on test scores from 76 countries published by the OECD in May last year, Singapore came first, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The rankings, based on testing 15-year-olds’ abilities in maths and science, reinforced a sense that western children were slipping behind their Asian peers. The UK was in 20th place and the US 28th in the table.

At meetings of the world’s education ministers, when it is Singapore’s turn to speak, “everyone listens very closely”, says Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD’s education assessment programme. Governments around the world have sought to incorporate elements of the “Singapore model” into their own approach to teaching maths and science. The latest is the UK, which earlier this month announced that half of England’s primary schools would adopt the style of maths teaching that is used in Singapore, with up to £41m in funding over four years to train teachers and provide new textbooks. But what is it about Singapore’s system that enables its children to outperform their international peers? And how easy will it be for other countries to import its success?

A densely populated speck of land in Southeast Asia, Singapore is bordered by Malaysia to the north and the leviathan archipelago of Indonesia to the south. The former British trading post gained self-rule in 1959 and was briefly part of a Malaysian federation before becoming fully independent in 1965. A sense of being dwarfed by vast neighbours runs deep in the national psyche, inspiring both fear and pride. In a speech to trade union activists on May Day last year, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong told citizens: “To survive, you have to be exceptional.” The alternative, he warned, was being “pushed around, shoved about, trampled upon; that’s the end of Singapore and the end of us”.

Every morning, Admiralty pupils gather for assembly beneath banners that make the same point in less rhetorical fashion. “No one owes Singapore a living,” declares one of the hoardings. “We must ourselves defend Singapore,” another reads.

For admirers of the city-state’s educational model, the good news is that its world-beating school system was created in a relatively short period of time. Under British rule, education had been the preserve of the affluent. Most of the population — Chinese, Malay and Tamil migrants and their descendants — were illiterate. Singapore’s post-independence government, led by its first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, expanded the school system to cover the entire population. Attracting foreign investors and building a successful manufacturing sector was regarded as a crucial step in the state’s postcolonial development. Lee, an authoritarian and perfectionist who led the country for some 30 years, believed that schools served a dual purpose: to forge a unified English-speaking nation from a multilingual population, and to supply factories with workers. For Singapore to survive and prosper, he said in 1966, “what is required is a rugged, resolute, highly trained, highly disciplined community”.

Mathematics in Singapore is not about knowing everything. It’s about thinking like a mathematician

Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD’s education assessment programme
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