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Singapore should not be Finland

As the national conversation continues over the future shape of Singapore’s education system, the example of Finland has cropped up now and again.

As the national conversation continues over the future shape of Singapore’s education system, the example of Finland has cropped up now and again.

Should we emulate the Finnish system where tuition is unheard of, students take a compulsory national examination only at age 18-19, and teachers are given tremendous autonomy? After all, Finnish students have consistently scored among the top in the world on standardised tests — so could this be a lower-stress path to success?

TODAY’s reports on Finland’s model, published in March, inspired its own “conversation” between two education experts — the National Institute of Education’s (NIE) Associate Professor Ng Pak Tee and Boston College’s Professor Andy Hargreaves. Both have worked together closely on high-performing education systems since 2011, when Prof Hargreaves visited NIE as CJ Koh Professor and Assoc Prof Ng visited Boston College as Visiting Scholar.

Andy Hargreaves: It is often tempting to compare some of the high-performing education systems in the world, drawing insights into how one system should improve because another system has a certain great feature.

Ng Pak Tee: Indeed. Recently, TODAY ran a feature regarding the Finnish system and described it as much less stressful compared to the Singapore system. The feature has triggered a spate of discussions on the matter. In particular, some asked whether Singapore could become more like Finland.

Andy: The sentiment is understandable. Finland and Singapore have caught the world’s attention because of their excellent performance in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Both countries value education. Both have a small population of about five million. Both are peaceful and economically competitive.

But the similarities end there. Finland is in Europe. Singapore is in South-east Asia. Finland’s “modern” history dates back to the Swedish kings of the 12th century. Singapore’s “modern” history is probably just a century.

Each country is unique. Two countries can do equally well on certain international tests, but their histories and cultures are totally different.

Pak Tee: Yes. Given the different contexts, each system has its own strengths and weaknesses and has to find its own way to address its problems. But, like top-performing businesses, Singapore seems a big believer in benchmarking against other successful nations.

Benchmarking does not mean we should copy others exactly. But it does mean we can always learn from them, and adapt what we learn to our own purposes.


Andy: In Finland, there is relatively little stress in the education system and private tuition is unheard of. When school ends, so do the lessons. I have visited Singapore several times and have spoken with many stakeholders in education. Apparently, in Singapore, when school ends, other lessons start — expensive tuition lessons that parents pay for privately!

Pak Tee: Paradoxically, while many parents are concerned with the long school hours and high pressure for their children, the private tuition industry is thriving because there is a demand for it. The mindset here is that exam results have a great bearing on a child’s future. So many parents hope to give their children a boost. Private tuition is big business in Singapore and other high-performing East Asian countries like South Korea and Japan.

Andy: Finland has examinations as well, but the first examination is the national matriculation examination at the end of general upper secondary education, at the age of about 19. Singapore children experience examination pressure at 12 years old! Won’t that pressure get in the way of all the innovation and creativity needed for the future Singapore economy?

Pak Tee: The Education Ministry has been quite cautious in making major changes to the examination system. The consequences can be serious if the changes are not well thought through. But what the ministry has tried to do is to make the system gentler by recognising more areas of merit instead of focusing only on academic results.

This is easier said than done. We are still a competitive society and this psyche will not change overnight.

The Government can try to simplify the School Awards system and not announce the top scoring student. It does send a signal for a gentler system, but it does not eradicate the competitiveness!

Andy: Well, I believe societies and habits can change though. Alberta in Canada is a very high PISA performer. It has also been one of the systems with the most tests in the world. Yet, it has just announced it would replace the existing Provincial Achievement Tests with new assessments by 2015.

These assessments will be administered by teachers several times a year in ways that give them feedback about where their students are struggling, so they can intervene and help these students succeed.

Alberta has spent more than 10 years building up teachers’ skills in rigorous classroom assessment, so now it can afford to do away with the stressful tests. It knows that its existing oil economy is now threatened by the United States, so it needs new skills to develop a new economy.

Singapore has now also included other forms of merit beyond conventional academic achievements, such as sports, arts and music. But Singapore still scores badly on international measures of happiness. Perhaps Singaporeans should worry about that!


Pak Tee: To worry about happiness is itself a paradox. But Singapore is starting to pay more attention to the social and emotional well-being of students. Meanwhile, there are many other paradoxes in Singapore and they are not completely a bad thing. You know, in Western culture, oil and water do not mix. But in Asian cooking, they do! In a way, these paradoxes are creative tensions that drive movements in the system.

Andy: So let us try and figure this out in relation to school management and accountability. Finland’s schools are very autonomous. Teachers have master’s degrees and are fully trusted to teach well in schools. There are few accountability measures.

Singapore seems to be a more centralised system with many accountability measures. Yet, the principals that I have met have a lot of autonomy in deciding school direction and pedagogical strategies in their classrooms.

Pak Tee: In Singapore, in its earlier days of attaining independence, the Government started with a centralised education system in order to ensure basic quality in schools. Having reaped the benefits, the Government has recently given more autonomy to schools to encourage diversity and stimulate innovations. We are in the middle of this now.

I see it as a “centralised decentralisation” paradox. There is strategic alignment with desired national outcomes along with tactical empowerment for schools to reach these outcomes as they see fit.

Andy: But in other countries, like England, that introduced decentralisation, some people felt that if a government policy was misconceived or poorly implemented, it would now be the schools that would get the blame for not doing it properly. How does Singapore avoid this? Or is it not a problem here?

Pak Tee: In Singapore, almost all schools are government schools. So, from this perspective, the schools and the ministry stand as one in the implementation of policies. The focus is not on who is to get the blame when things go wrong. The focus is to do right things and do them right together.


Andy: I understand that most Finnish parents interviewed by TODAY believe all Finnish schools were equally good. I did one of the first official studies and report of Finland, and I agree. My observation of Singapore suggests that most Singaporean parents will not believe that all Singapore schools are equally good — that is why there is great competition to get into certain high-ranking schools.

Pak Tee: It will always be difficult to get all schools to be equally good, nor is it necessarily desirable. However, the Education Minister recently communicated a vision of “every school a good school”. This means no child should get a bad education in any school.

Andy: It is hard to make every school a good school in places like the US and the United Kingdom where there are high levels of inequality in society. Singapore also has issues of inequality, far more than Finland.

But like Finland, it has a good school system. Moreover, unlike the UK and US, it has high-quality teachers and school leaders, who enjoy a favourable status in society.

So although Singapore does have inequalities that are discussed from time to time, it also has a good school system and a very strong teaching force. It is an interesting case study for the world.

Pak Tee: In this area, we are partially helped by an Asian culture where teaching is considered a very respectable profession.


Andy: In the book The Fourth Way, we advocate that, like Finland, education systems should rely on the professional responsibility of teachers, instead of bureaucracy, for education reforms to be successfully implemented.

Pak Tee: Singapore, paradoxically, relies on both bureaucracy and professionalism of the teachers to achieve educational success.

On the one hand, the ministry would like quality education to be driven by school leaders and teachers, rather than being pushed down from the top. On the other hand, there are reporting procedures and accountability structures in the system to keep the school and the national direction aligned.

Andy: I understand that, but when I spent a month here on my last visit, it seemed what Singapore professionals do really well is they constantly meet and talk about what they are doing or are planning to do. There is regular communication and events happen very quickly. One person said to me, “Yes. We eat and we run. We eat and we run!”

Pak Tee: Yes, the professionals here do work hard. Moreover, in reforming our education, our teachers and school leaders are required to think outside the box yet perform well inside the box.

Andy: It is a tough balancing act! Singapore school leaders and teachers are the only ones who try to innovate while making sure that results do not drop. Singapore should be happy with its own development so far but aware of its own pitfalls.

Education reform in Singapore is not just about planning and logic. It needs to address a societal culture, drawing on its greatest strengths like communication, responsibility, and valuing achievement — but watching out that the competitiveness which contributes to all this achievement does not become destructive of people’s ability to circulate knowledge, develop their whole character and experience happiness.

Pak Tee: Yes, the challenge is for the society to carefully and continuously calibrate itself along this journey of change.

Andy: Countries should be careful in “borrowing” policies or practices from each other. Singapore cannot be Finland. Finland cannot be Singapore. Neither of them can be Canada. And vice versa. Each will have its own successes, failures and paths of development. But they can learn from looking at and engaging with each other’s successes. TODAY has helped to deepen that kind of debate.

Pak Tee: Yes, we can and should still learn from others, not by copying what they are good at, but by reflecting on our own system to find our own way.


Andy Hargreaves is Professor and Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College, in the United States. Ng Pak Tee is Head and Associate Professor, Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group and Associate Dean (Leadership Learning) at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore. Both collaborated, together with Professor Dennis Shirley, on the chapter on Singapore’s education system in the book The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence (2012).

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