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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Show comments
  • gscott

    Gove is a wrecking ball …. a good wrecking ball. However he needs to go into Immigration , that would sort it out

  • Carlazi

    Took a while to sink in but what did it for me at school was the 3 weekly assessments being posted on your house board. If you got 4 or 5 (plus d/e) in a subject you were thick and everyone told you so. Thanks to this system i buckled down and eventually did ok in school and uni but only thanks to peer pressure

  • idietthereforeiam

    As a maths and computing teacher, I am heartily tired of the misconception pedaled by Clarissa Tan and echoed by many parents I come across, making a distinction between ‘creative’ subjects – by which they usually mean liberal arts subjects – and maths and science (including computer science) in school.

    Ms. Tan says that a “heavy emphasis on science and maths …. can be soul-sapping, especially for students with a more creative bent”.

    The fact is there are no subjects more creative than science and maths, and it appears to me from his actions and speeches that Mr. Gove knows this. Perhaps the next time Ms Tan sits down at her laptop with a cup of expresso to put together another article for emailing, she might take a moment to ponder on the exceptionally creative minds that made it possible for her to do so.

  • http://twitter.com/MrsAllieP Alison Priestley

    Why oh why are we always comparing ourselves to other education systems? Surely we should be making the education system the best that works for our children in our country. Michael Gove clearly has a very limited idea of what a good school is? Does he sample the lives of all in the local community? Of course not, he cannot fathom what makes an individual community function in the way it does nor why a school is successful in the community even when it performs badly in league tables? Get your heads out of those dark places, and understand what makes us human and what makes us value our individuality.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Discipline is about good leadership. People will follow and copy what they think is a good leader voluntarily, here in the UK because ” we can”. There may be many cultures about the world that haven’t honed or fine tuned their ideas of discipline to such an exacting yet liberating formula yet.. for one reason or another.

    The hardest thing of all is finding the way of good discipline that involves neither fear or favour.

    Think about the disciples of Jesus. He didn’t hit them with a rod, or bribe them either.

  • Abhay

    ”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.”

    What a ludicrous remark to make!

    Creative minds find physics and calculus soul-sapping and find gender studies liberating????

    • Fergus Pickering

      For ‘more creative bent’ read bone idle. I was of a more creative bent and I was indeed bone idle. But the teachers didn’t let me get away with it.

    • Andy

      What sort of cobblers is ‘gender studies’ ?

  • Alex

    “…many children work hard not out of a desire to succeed, but from a fear of failing.”

    And why is it a bad thing that children are afraid of failing?
    I was afraid of failing at school; I didn’t want to disappoint my parents; I didn’t want to look an idiot in front of my peers; I didn’t want to end up in a rubbish low-paid job.
    Aren’t these motives we want children to have?

    • http://twitter.com/MrsAllieP Alison Priestley

      I taught a child a child who had never failed, he was a great sportsman, great at academic subjects, hugely popular etc but one day he could not understand simple translation and rotational symmetry, unlike his much less able peers; the child was distraught – this was his one and only lesson into how to fail. From this moment his empathy grew, he is now a fine young man and doctor of neurology.

  • thanksdellingpole

    At least there is a cultural difference between us and them, pretty soon we’ll all be the same.

    http://culturisthub.org/

  • thanksdellingpole

    That’s what the private sector is like, Hogwarts.

    I thought Potter in his youngest form was his best, I don’t like it when they grow up.

  • http://twitter.com/jackmustard1997 jack mustard

    What?!? Gove’s opposite number in Singapore doesn’t use PR surveys by Premier Inn and UK Gold as the evidence base for new education policy?

  • telemachus

    “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.”
    This is a brilliant analysis but largely ignored in UK schools since the 1950’s
    I suspect Gove would agree but rather than emulating the system he wastes time on the administration and promotes Free and Academy Schools

    • Colonel Mustard

      “This is a brilliant analysis but largely ignored in UK schools since the 1950’s”

      Not quite ignored. Try stamped out by raving socialist doctrines like yours.

      • http://twitter.com/jackmustard1997 jack mustard

        Actually, UK literacy rates stayed broadly the same from the 1950s to the mid 1980s – when they dipped (ooh, remind me who was in power at that time?) – recovering again in the 1990s.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Well you would say that…

          • http://twitter.com/jackmustard1997 jack mustard

            And you would dispute it…. You suffer from a kind of political illiteracy, you see the evidence but refuse to comprehend it.

            • Colonel Mustard

              No, not refusal to comprehend. Scepticism tending towards disbelief. And I haven’t seen your evidence anyway. Couldn’t find it. Perhaps you could provide a link?

              One source I have seen (Trends in Standard of Literacy in UK 1948-1996 NFER) shows a slight rise in Year 6 from 1979 to 1988 in reading and from 1979 to 1983 in writing with a slight fall in writing from 1983-88. For Year 11 a slight rise and/or no change in both from 1979 to 1988. And it is all equivocal rather than definitive.

              But it is not just about literacy.

              Political illiteracy? Another socialist invention meaning “anyone who disagrees with our orthodoxy”.

              • telemachus

                UK literacy
                1958 78%
                1970 90%
                1980 92%
                1990 95%
                2000 98%
                2002 99%
                Source : World Bank

                • Fergus Pickering

                  But that’s utter balls, tele. Only one person in 100 is functionally illiterate? Even you can’t believe that. Do you believe it? You really need to get around more.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Stayed the same? And that’s good! Shouldn’t they have been rocketing up like all those exam marks. Do you really think it’s enough that literacy is at 1950s levels. How is it, with all the money and expertise available that ANYBODY who does not have dyslexia or some diagnose mental condition shouldn’t be able to read.

          • http://twitter.com/jackmustard1997 jack mustard

            Oh, I agree, it would be great to have seen improvement. However, other posters here have suggested that the 1950s were some kind of halcyon period when everyone left school having benefitted from a great education – I have merely pointed out that there has been no decline since those days. It is also surprising that the any failings in the system are the fault of “socialist doctrine” – the Tories have held power for the majority of the post-war years.

            • ButcombeMan

              The comparative educational decline had little to do with who was in power it stems from the very leftish educational establishment and an “All Must Have Prizes” culture.

              I suggest you read Melanie Phillips book of that title-and she was a Guardian writer first

  • http://twitter.com/grassmarket32 Martin Adamson

    The point about Singapore and Hong Kong schools is that they themselves are emulating the British Educational system of circa 1955!

    • Daniel Maris

      The good old days, when rats used to crawl over children’s beds – and four slept to one bed.

      • Colonel Mustard

        I don’t remember that at all.

        • telemachus

          In northern towns it was not uncommon particularly in immigrant Irish families for 6 or 8 to sleep toe to head in a tiny back bedrooms of one of our two up two downs
          Difficult to contemplate in the home counties, what

          • Colonel Mustard

            Get orf my comments!!!

            • thanksdellingpole

              I’m gonna use that one.

        • Cumberland

          Neither do I, for one thing there wasn’t tons of fast food rubbish spread around our streets, are a great attraction for vermin.

          • Andy

            Now now you mustn’t call telemachus ‘vermin’. However if you do have an infestation of telemachus’ I would advise putting some stuff down.

    • ButcombeMan

      And 1955 was pretty good, at the basics of education, the tools to enable students to move on.

      In my school in the early 50s, with gas lamps and slates (paper & ink on Fridays), everyone could read and write and do arithmetic. They did not need the remedial teaching at senior school-as so often many do now.

      And to answer Telemachus below.

      Gove presumably thinks (And I agree with him) that he has to break the power of the educational Guadianista establishment which has so damaged English education.

  • salieri

    “many children work hard not out of a desire to succeed, but from a fear of failing.” That’s one thing Mr. G will never be able to replicate in the British education system. But at least they don’t appear to teach Latin in Singapore.

    • thanksdellingpole

      Here it exists, but it can’t be taught.

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