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Coffee House

What Gove should know about Singapore schools

17 May 2013

4:10 PM

17 May 2013

4:10 PM

Excelliarmus! Why do East Asian children feel they can relate to Harry Potter? Because he wears glasses, like so many of them do. The fascination with British wizarding students extends to British schools, and it’s safe to say that many Asian youngsters, not to mention their parents, picture the ideal institution of learning as being very much like Hogwarts — an age-old establishment with neat timetables, clear rules, homework, team sports, and a dash of imagination and magicking on top. In other words, an old-school school. 

I have been thinking quite a lot about Michael Gove (in a scholarly kind of way) ever since he declared that the British education system should emulate that of places such as Hong Kong and Singapore. My first reaction was to recoil — I completed my secondary and tertiary schooling in Singapore, and I know first-hand what rote-learning and a heavy emphasis on science and maths is like. It can be soul-sapping, especially for students with a more creative bent. Not to mention the intense social pressure to perform, meaning that many children work hard not out of a desire to succeed, but from a fear of failing.

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My second reaction, however, was a grudging acknowledgement that the Education Secretary isn’t completely off the mark. Perhaps it’s only something one can appreciate with the space of years, but I can now, somewhat to my own mortification, see the benefits of a focus on the rigour of science and maths, and even on the importance of rote-learning and putting certain things to memory. At the risk of sounding like a headmistress — discipline and structure must be inculcated, whereas creativity is often innate or inborn. Here’s the thing: once you have the structure, you can pile all the artistic sensitivity you like on top. But without any proper foundation, all creativity is for naught.

The other thing is, as Gove takes copious notes (one imagines) on how to emulate the Eastern school system, many Asian nations are trying hard to replicate the inventiveness and lateral thinking of the West. Singapore, for instance, has been investing heavily in arts and drama schools, while introducing more project- and team-based work, along with concepts such as show-and-tell, into the curriculum. Easterners have always had a very high regard for western education, especially British education, appreciating in particular its sense of heritage, of carrying on a long tradition. The dreaming spires of Oxford and Cambridge, while not perhaps as magical as those of Hogwarts, are regarded as the best things one could aspire for.

So yes, there are perhaps some aspects of Asian education that Gove can borrow, happy in the knowledge that Asian schools are doing quite a lot of borrowing back. Perhaps it can be considered a kind of East-West study exchange of sorts.

You can read my feature on British vs Singapore schools, tiger mothers and a tiger education in this week’s Spectator, here.

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