A new WA-based study done in 2014 will show schools how Singapore, recognised as having the world’s most successful schooling systems, gets results. 

The study, conducted by deputy principal Natalie Oddy of Bannister Creek Primary School in WA and former Singapore principal-cum-teacher from Atwell Primary School, Jane Koh, could have the answers to why Singapore placed third among 65 developed countries in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), with 51,000 students participating. Australia slipped from 11th in mathematics 2003 to 19th in 2012 and placed 13th in reading from 4th place in 2003. 

The PISA Report showed that rowdy classrooms and bullying are more common in Australia than overseas and one in five Australian students is not happy at school. It led Dr Thomson, director of educational monitoring and research, Australian Council of Educational Research, to suggest that Singapore is an example of an effective educational system.  

The WA-study took a week of observations and focused interviews with teachers and educators, in three leading schools: Henry Park Primary School, one of Singapore’s nine schools recognised for the excellence of its gifted programs, Methodist Girls School, founded by Australian missionary, Sophia Blackmore, and North Vista Primary, a Reggio Emilia inspired school, that officially opened in 2010.

The study, primarily focused on the teaching of mathematics, gifted and talented children and ICT, also showed how each school’s Values-in-Action programs may have an answer to why Singapore schools are a class act on the world stage. 

Unlike Australian schools, primary schools in Singapore are organised like secondary schools in subject areas, each with a head of department.  At Henry Park Primary School, Oddy says there were specialist teachers for each learning area and it made a difference in the quality of teaching and learning.  

“It wasn’t rote learning at all.  Most of the lessons were structured, collaborative and the engagement of the children was of a very high order. I put this down to the Growth Mindset Model I saw in every school where students worked in groups, using research, technology or feedback to monitor and assess their progress,” Oddy says.  

However, it was the strong emphasis on Values-in-Education in every school, as a major part of the students’ study, that impressed Oddy as being markedly different to the WA model.  At Henry Park Primary School the Character Education Department is staffed to instil ViE. Primary students design posters to promote values of service, get certificates for animal care such as “Hero and Protector of Animals”, carry out research on the elderly, create hampers or mount decorations in hospitals for the aged.  

At Methodist Girls School, founded in 1887, Oddy was fascinated by the Secondary Schools Centre for Ethics, that guided students to develop social and ethical values through curriculum development, partnerships with the community, sharing professional resources, with intense training provided for teachers.  The students engage in moral reasoning through conservation, develop a philosophy of thinking and publish peer-reviewed articles on ethical issues. 

“They emphasise that children and teachers need to have a ‘service learning ethic’ and give back to society while developing a love of Singapore.  Every child is required to use its learning through real-life application and this is where we have a lot to learn from Singapore, as they expect teachers to have a corporate school responsibility, that includes staff doing chores for the elderly,” she said. 

At Henry Park Primary School the Pupil Development Department worked with children and teachers to develop a holistic approach to health, pastoral care and leadership training. Children participated in anti-tobacco campaigns, Eye-Care Week, Kindness Week and this was integrated with career guidance where students, as early as the first-year of primary school, were introduced to what doctors did through the “Teddy Bear Hospital” project.  

Oddy has spent a lifetime learning about gifted and talented programs and confessed to being excited by what she saw at Henry Park Primary School. Gifted students are given an enriched program in primary school from Years 4-6 within self-contained classes for English, mathematics, science, Chinese and social studies, while joining the mainstream for other subjects instead of being in a separate school as is sometimes the case in WA.  

“What impressed me is that the government has invested in children and the development is not restricted to academic dimensions, but creativity, too.  What I liked about their system is that they don’t just judge students by their peak of excellence but how far they have travelled from where they started,” Oddy says.  

Oddy was impressed by innovative projects through the Future Problem-Solving Special Program under teacher-mentor guides that used experiential learning creating prototypes of proposed products as part of the gifted education program. However, the school’s Talent Development Department and Innovations Program provided a platform for any child to showcase his or her talents. Programs such as the Young Innovations Fair and Creative Reading Competition provided opportunities for students to show problem-solving, creativity and inventiveness.  

North Vista Primary School uses a combination of Reggio Emilia philosophy and International Baccalaureate to provide an “active learning” model with Australia and ASEAN countries looking to it as a school of the future. Oddy observed that the environment became the “third teacher” as students used iPads or iPhones to develop an interface between the physical environment and virtual world.

The school won acclaim when primary students could practice their forehand and backhand tennis strokes using Nintendo Wii video games in a themed space. Students used a motion-controlled remote in each hand to move their bodies making their on-screen personas react. The international award-winning program compensates for children that don’t have space at home to practice sporting skills. 

North Vista’s Parents as Partners program is run by its Pastoral Care and Pupil Development Department. It organises parent conferences, opportunities for parents to share special skills and parent workshops.  

“It is the integration of a service model for children, the way children and teachers relate and the intangibles that seem to account for why Singapore does well. I also saw that when children see education as being top priority for their parents it becomes a top priority with them,” Oddy says.  

It may be the answer.