Inside the world's most elite education system

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Dateline travels to Singapore to find out why its education system tops the global leader board. We look at high-stakes testing, and ask if the culture of competition puts too much pressure on kids.

Watch 'Why Singapore is Top of the Class,' on SBS OnDemand

Smack bang in the middle of Singapore, families bustle and bump through a shopping centre on a typically steamy Saturday morning. But unlike most retail hubs, there’s really nothing to buy in many of the stores here.

While many  Australian children are taken to sporting fields each weekend, Singaporean kids are gearing up to tackle a different kind of exercise. They’re being coached to be smarter.

The shops are set up like small classrooms and all offer their own brand of after school tutoring. Space comes at a premium in Singapore so there’s not much room between children’s elbows amid the tiny tables and chairs. 

What’s being sold here is the promise of a brighter future, a better school, a better career and perhaps, a better life. These enrichment centres are feeding a billion dollar local tutoring industry and the nation’s appetite for academic success.

That hunger has served the country well. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15-year-olds around the world in reading, maths and science. It’s basically a NAPLAN Olympics which is carried out every three years but countries, rather than schools, are ranked in global league tables. The most recent results from 2015 place Singaporean students at the top of the heap.

Australia by comparison is much further down the scale, placing 25th in maths, 16th in reading and 14th in science. We were outranked by fellow OECD nation’s like Poland, Estonia and in a savage blow to our trans Tasman rivalry, we were beaten in reading by New Zealand.

So why is Singapore getting smarter while we slip further behind? Could the answer lie in the cult of tutoring?

The power of tutoring 

Janice Chua has a booming tuition business called “Concept Math”. Janice is great with numbers but she didn’t predict the success of her own company.

“After four years, my accountant told me I’d made my first million,” she beams.

These days she’s very busy and very wealthy. Her businesses have about a dozen class rooms, buzzing with tutors and kids all afternoon, evening and on weekends. Great marks plus bright kids equals happy parents. 

But given Singapore’s meticulously crafted education system. Why are around 70 percent of schoolchildren are tutored?

“One of the key principles in our Singaporean education system is to ‘lift the bottom but not cap the top’,” Janice said.

“So in line with this principle, I feel that the tuition industry plays a supportive role to the local school system.” 

From political doctrine to national psyche 

The truth is, there is no cheat sheet when it comes to Singapore’s success. 

A single party, the People’s Action Party has governed the tiny island state for 60-years, even before it gained independence. It means wholesale changes are possible with little dissent. Big picture ideas can be competed and planning is simpler when no viable opposition party threatens to flip your vision for the future at the next poll.

Liberties like free speech, free press and freedom of political expression are restricted and curtailed. Singapore’s glittering financial success and meteoric rise has not come without sacrifice.

 When Lee Kwan Yew became the first prime minister of Singapore in 1959 he said the only natural resource the country had was its people, transforming the country from a third to a first world country in a single generation.

Lee is still very much revered and his dream of building a smart nation has not been dumbed down in the four years since his death. In fact, his son Lee Hsien Loong is now the Prime Minister and continues to build on the blue-print his father laid out.

“We as a country we have to be ordinary people creating an exceptional nation because we are a small country in this part of the world and to survive you have to be exceptional,” the Prime Minister has said.

Teaching and high-stakes testing valued 

Teaching in Singapore is an attractive profession. The pay is good and the standard of personnel is high. Final year high school students need to be in the top third of their cohort to qualify for a teaching degree.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education sets out a clear career path and gives teachers opportunities inside and outside the classroom. Teachers might be tapped or apply to move into curriculum development.

A major sore point for Singapore’s education system is forcing kids to undergo high stakes testing. 

Talk to any Singaporean 12-year-old about life’s stresses and you’re bound to hear about the dreaded “PSLEs”, the Primary School Leaving Examination. It determines which high school children will go to. The top performing students enter the “express” stream, the middle go to the “normal” stream and the bottom students enter the “normal technical” stream, where there’s a heavy emphasis on learning a trade.

Once you’re in your allocated stream in high school, you’ll have to work hard to qualify for your chosen tertiary institution and that will ultimately decide what career you will pursue. A lot is at stake in the PSLE exams. It’s a life changing test that’s taken at just 12 years of age.

Xuan is sitting his PSLE exams and agrees the pressure is immense for young people. He studies for hours after school, his normal bedtime is close to 11 o’clock.

“So it's really frightening. So everyone wants to move onto a good school, to get a better job and it is worth it for the long run,” X said.

“I think it comes from our teachers, friends, family and it can get very stressful when everyone is looking at you thinking that you can score really well.”

The strain and pressure young kids feel about the PSLE exam has been acknowledged by the Ministry of Education.

Although the system is obviously yielding impressive results when it comes to international league tables, it’s being phased out. A new system called “banding” will apparently allow kids to take different subjects at different levels of difficulty.

It means there’ll be a greater mix of students of different abilities at the one school. It’s hoped the new system will ease stress on students and address the stigma around lower performing students and schools.

One of the former developer of the country’s maths curriculum,  Lu Yueh Mei, said the change will allow more kids to strive.

“As we move along, school leaders are looking at other abilities as well,” she said.

“To a large extent, I think it would alleviate stress on the parents too.”

Will it curb the enthusiasm for tutoring and coaching? Seems hard to imagine that culture being stamped out any time soon.