Education spending usually makes up about 20 percent of the annual national budget, which subsidises state education and government-assisted private education for Singaporean citizens and funds the Edusave programme, the costs for which are significantly higher for non-citizens. In 2000 the Compulsory Education Act codified compulsory education for children of primary school age (excepting those with disabilities), and made it a criminal offence for parents to fail to enroll their children in school and ensure their regular attendance. Exemptions are allowed for homeschooling or full-time religious institutions, but parents must apply for exemption from the Ministry of Education and meet a minimum benchmark.
The main language of instruction in Singapore is English, which was officially designated the first language within the local education system in 1987. English is the first language learned by half the children by the time they reach preschool age and becomes the primary medium of instruction by the time they reach primary school. Although Malay, Mandarin and Tamil are also official languages, English is the language of instruction for nearly all subjects except the official Mother Tongue languages and the literatures of those languages; these are generally not taught in English, although there is provision for the use of English at the initial stages. Certain schools, such as secondary schools under the Special Assistance Plan (SAP), encourage a richer use of the mother tongue and may occasionally teach subjects in Mandarin Chinese. A few schools have been experimenting with curricula that integrates language subjects with mathematics and the sciences, using both English and a second language.
Singapore's education system has been described as "world-leading" and in 2010 was among those picked out for commendation by the Conservative former UK Education Secretary Michael Gove. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded the Singapore Institution (now known as Raffles Institution) in 1823, thereby starting education in Singapore under the British rule. Later, there were three main types of schools appeared in Singapore: Malay schools, Chinese and Tamil (together) schools and English schools. Malay schools were provided free for all students by the British, while English schools, which used English as the main medium of instruction, were set up by missionaries and charged school fees. Chinese and Tamil schools largely taught their respective mother tongues. Students from Chinese schools in particular were extremely attuned to developments in China, especially in the rise of Chinese nationalism.
During World War Two, many students in Singapore dropped out of school, causing a huge backlog of students after the war. In 1947, the Ten Years Programme for Education Policy in the Colony of Singapore was formulated. This called for a universal education system that would prepare for self-governance. During the 1950s and 1960s, when Singapore started to develop its own economy, Singapore adapted a "survival-driven education" system to provide a skilled workforce for Singapore's industrialisation programme as well to as to lower unemployment. Apart from being an economic necessity, education also helped to integrate the new nation together. The bilingualism policy in schools was officially introduced in 1960, making English the official language for both national integration and utilitarian purposes. Universal education for children of all races and background started to take shape, and more children started to attend schools. However, the quality of schools set up during this time varied considerably. The first Junior College was opened in 1969.
In the 1980s, Singapore's economy started to prosper, and the focus of Singapore's education system shifted from quantity to quality. More differentiation for pupils with different academic abilities were implemented, such as revamping vocational education under the new Institute of Technology and splitting of the Normal stream in secondary schools into Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams. The Gifted Education Programme was also set up to cater to more academically inclined students. In 1997, the Singapore education system started to change into an ability-driven one after then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong outlined his "Thinking Schools, Learning Nations" vision. Under this policy, more emphasis was given to national education, creative thinking, collaborative learning as well as ICT literacy. Schools became more diverse and were given greater autonomy in deciding their own curriculum and developing their own niche areas. Differences between the various academic streams became blurred. The Ministry of Education also officially acknowledged that "excellence" will not be measured solely in terms of academics; a mountain range of excellence – with many peaks".
The school year is divided into two semesters. The first begins in the beginning of January and ends in May; the second begins in July and ends in November. Kindergartens in Singapore provide up to three years of pre-school for children ages three to six. The three years are commonly called Nursery, Kindergarten 1 (K1) and Kindergarten 2 (K2), respectively. Kindergartens provide an environment for children to learn how to interact with others, and to prepare them for formal education at Primary school. Activities include learning language – written and oral – and numbers, development of personal and social skills, games, music, and outdoor play. Children learn two languages, English and their official Mother Tongue (Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil). Many private or church-based kindergartens might not offer Malay or Tamil, so non-Chinese pupils might also learn some Standard Mandarin in these kindergartens. The kindergartens are run by the private sector, including community foundations, religious bodies, and civic or business groups. There are more than 200 kindergartens registered with the Ministry of Education. Kindergartens are also run by child care centres as well as international schools.
The People's Action Party, which has governed Singapore since 1957, runs over 370 kindergartens through its charitable arm, the PAP Community Foundation. Primary education, normally starting at age seven, is a four-year foundation stage (Primary 1 to 4) and a two-year orientation stage (Primary 5 to 6). Primary education is compulsory under the Compulsory Education Act since 2003. Exemptions are made for pupils who are homeschooling, attending a full-time religious institution or those with special needs who are unable to attend mainstream schools. However, parents have to meet the requirements set out by the Ministry of Education before these exemptions are granted. Primary education is free for all Singapore citizens in schools under the purview of the Ministry of Education, though there is a fee of up to SGD 13 monthly per student to help cover miscellaneous costs.
The foundation stage is the first stage of formal schooling. The four years, from primary 1 to 4, provide a foundation in English, mother tongue (which includes Standard Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or a Non-Tamil Indian Language (NTIL)), Mathematics and Science. Other subjects include Civics and Moral Education, arts and crafts, music, health education, social studies, and physical education, which are taught throughout Primary 1 to 6. Science is taught from Primary 3 onwards. All pupils advance to the orientation stage after Primary 4, where they are streamed according to the pupil's ability. The streaming system has been adjusted: previously, pupils were divided at Primary 5 to the EM1, EM2 and EM3 (English and Mother Tongue at 1st, 2nd and 3rd language respectively) streams, but since 2008 they are streamed according to subject under a scheme known as "Subject-based banding". Students take subjects at different levels based on their scores in the respective subjects at the end of Primary 4. The Mother Tongue subjects are offered at the higher, standard or foundation levels; Science and Maths can be taken at the standard or foundation levels.
After six years of Primary education, students will have to sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Students will then choose the secondary school of their choice based on their results at this examination; they will then be assigned to a secondary school based on merit and their choice. Students are also admitted into a secondary school under a separate "Direct School Admission" scheme, whereby secondary schools are able to choose a certain number of students based on their special talents before these students take the PSLE. Students admitted under this scheme cannot select their schools based on their PSLE results.
The Gifted Education Programme (GEP) was set up by the Ministry of Education in 1984 to cater to the intellectually gifted students. This programme aims to develop gifted children to their top potential and it places a special emphasis on higher-order thinking and creative thought. There are currently 9 primary schools offering the Gifted Education Programme: Anglo-Chinese School, Catholic High School, Henry Park Primary School, Nan Hua Primary School, Nanyang Primary School, Rosyth School, Tao Nan School, St. Hilda's Primary School and Raffles Girls' Primary School. The Secondary School Gifted Education Programme was discontinued at the end of 2008 as more students take the Integrated Programme (IP); this has been replaced by a "School-Based Gifted Education" programme. Pupils enter the programme through a series of tests at Primary 3, which will identify the top 1 per cent of the student population. In the programme, pupils are offered special enrichment programmes to cater for their needs. However, GEP students are still required to take the national Primary School Leaving Examination like other mainstream students.
Based on results of the PSLE, students are placed in different secondary education tracks or streams: "Express", "Normal (Academic)", or "Normal (Technical)". Singaporeans are forbidden to attend international schools on the island without Ministry of Education permission. "Special" and "Express" are four-year courses leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE "O" Level examination. The difference between these two courses is that in the "Special" stream, students take 'Higher Mother Tongue' (available for Standard Mandarin, Malay and Tamil only) instead of 'Mother Tongue'. A pass in the Higher Mother Tongue 'O' Level Examination constitutes the fulfilment of the Mother Tongue requirement in Singapore, whereas Normal Mother Tongue Students will have to go through one more year of study in their Mother Tongue after their 'O' Levels to take the 'A' Level H1 Mother Tongue Examinations and fulfil the MOE's requirement. A foreign language, either French, German, Japanese or Spanish can be taken in addition to the mother tongue or can replace it. This is especially popular with students who are struggling with their mother tongues, expatriates, or students returning from abroad. Non-Chinese students may also study Standard Mandarin and non-Malay students Malay as a third language. This programme is known as CSP (Chinese Special Programme) and MSP (Malay Special Programme).
Mother Tongue teachers conduct these lessons in school after usual hours. Students of Higher Mother Tongue languages are allowed to have up to two points taken off their O-level scoring, unless the student's Higher Mother Tongue is used as their L1 in computation of L1R5. a scoring system discussed below where a lower value is considered better, if they meet set benchmarks. The Ministry of Education Language Centre (MOELC) provides free language education for most additional languages that other schools may not cover, and provides the bulk of such education, admitting several thousand students each year. Normal is a four-year course leading up to the Normal-level (N-level) exam, with the possibility of a fifth year leading up to the GCE O-level exam. Normal is split into Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical). Normal (Academic) course are geared towards preparing students for the O-level exam in the fifth year, subject to good performance in the N-level exam in the fourth year, and students take academic subjects such as Principles of Accounting. In Normal (Technical), students take subjects of a more technical nature, such as Design and Technology, and they generally proceed to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) after the N-level exam in the fourth year. In 2004, the Ministry of Education announced that selected students in the Normal course would have an opportunity to sit for the O-level exam directly without first taking the N-level exam.
With the exception of schools offering the Integrated Programme, which leads to either an International Baccalaureate Diploma or to an A-level exam, most students are streamed into a wide range of course combinations at the end of their second year, bringing the total number of subjects they have to sit at O-level to between six and ten, with English, Mother Tongue or Higher Mother Tongue Language, Mathematics, one Science and one Humanities Elective being compulsory. Several new subjects such as Computing and Theatre Studies and Drama are being introduced in tandem with the Ministry of Education's revised curriculum. Participating in a Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) is mandatory at the primary and secondary levels, meaning that all pupils must participate in at least one activity. CCAs offered at the secondary level are usually categorised as Uniformed Groups, Performing Arts, Clubs & Societies and Sports & Games Competitions. There are many CCAs offered at the secondary school level, however, different schools may choose to offer different CCAs. Students may choose to participate in more than 1 CCA.
Participation in CCAs is graded together with other non-academic achievements throughout a student's secondary school education in a scoring system known as LEAPS 2.0. (LEAPS 1.0 was abolished and the cohort of 2016 taking the 'O' level examination would be last to use this system). Points accumulated in the areas of leadership, enrichment, achievement, participation and service will determine a student's CCA grade. Students may get up to a maximum of two bonus points for entry into a junior college depending on their CCA grades. LEAPS 2.0 is about leadership, achievement, participation and service. The method of calculating the 2 bonus points are very different, with LEAPS 2.0 making it harder to achieve the 2 bonus points. The Integrated Programme, also known as the "Through-Train Programme" (直通车), is a scheme which allows the most able secondary students in Singapore to bypass "O" levels and take "A" levels, International Baccalaureate or an equivalent examination directly at the age of 18 after six years of secondary education.
The programme allows for more time to be allocated to enrichment activities. By bypassing the GCE "O" level examinations, students are given more time and flexibility to immerse themselves in a more broadly-based education. In addition, students enjoy more freedom in the combination of subjects between Year 1 – 4 as compared to their non-IP counterparts. Generally, only the top performers (usually from Special, and sometimes Express, stream) are eligible to be part of the IP programme. This will ensure that the main body of the students pursue their secondary education at their own pace by first completing a 4-year "O" level course before going on to a 2-year "A" level education. As a result, schools with an IP allow their students to skip the "O" levels at Secondary 4 and go straight into junior colleges (JCs) in Year 5/JC1. The Integrated Programme with the revised Singapore-Cambridge GCE "A" levels or the IB Diploma as a terminal qualification has become an increasingly popular alternative to the standard secondary education pathway. This is because it is perceived as having moved away from the usually heavy emphasis on the sciences, a phenomenon resulting from the post-independence need for quick and basic technical and industrial education; to subjects in the arts and humanities. Such programmes are more project-based and students are expected to be independent learners.
The first batch of IP students sat for the revised GCE "A" Level or International Baccalaureate Diploma examinations in 2007. Upon completion of the 4- or 5-year secondary school education, students (excluding IP students) will participate in the annual Singaporean GCE 'O' Level, the results of which determine which pre-universities or post-secondary institutions they may apply for. Pre-university centres include junior colleges for a two-year course leading up to GCE 'A' Level, or the Millennia Institute for a three-year course leading up to GCE 'A' Level. Junior colleges and the Millennia Institute accept students on merit, with a greater emphasis on academics than vocational technical education. Students who wish to pursue specialised education go on to pre-universities institutions such as the Polytechnics or Arts Institution where they receive a diploma upon successful completion of their courses. Admission to a two-year pre-university course at junior colleges after graduating from secondary school is determined by the L1R5 (English + 5 relevant subjects) scoring system. This scoring system is based on the 'O' Level subject grades, which range from A1 (best) to F9 (worst). The candidate adds the numerical grades for six different subjects: English (or another language taken at the 'first language' level), a Humanities subject, a Science/Mathematics subject, a Humanities/Science/Mathematics subject, and two other subjects of any kind. The best L1R5 unmodified score is therefore 6, for a student with A1 grades in six subjects which meet the criteria.
Students scoring 20 points and below may be admitted for either a Science or Arts Course. In addition, a student must also achieve at least a C6 grade, which is 50% or higher, in the GCE 'O' Level English Language and Mathematics papers to qualify for junior college admission. Pre-university centres that are particularly associated with academic excellence, however, usually expect students to attain points in the single digits, to be admitted. This is because the system is merit-driven, with places given to those with lower scores first. For admission to a three-year pre-university course at the Millennia Institute, the L1R4 (English + 4 relevant subjects) scoring system is used, and students are expected to score below 20 points to be admitted. Students may opt for any of the science, arts or commerce streams when pursuing a three-year pre-university course. The pre-university centres of Singapore such as Junior Colleges and Centralized institute are designed for students who wish to pursue a local university degree after two to three years of pre-university education. Alternatively, Polytechnics and Arts Institution (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts) in Singapore prepare students for both workforce and university studies.
There are 19 Junior Colleges (JCs) and a Centralised Institute (CI), the Millennia Institute (MI, established 2004), with the National Junior College (NJC, established 1969) being the oldest and Eunoia Junior College (EJC, established 2017) the newest. Besides junior colleges, most graduates of polytechnics and arts institution continue to pursue further tertiary education at overseas and local universities. Those with good grades are given exemptions for university modules completed in Polytechnic, notably universities in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Polytechnics and Arts Institution (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts) have also been actively working with many foreign universities to provide their graduates a chance to study niche University Courses locally. For example, Ngee Ann Polytechnic has engaged with Chapman University in the US to provide a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Producing for graduates of the School's Film and Media Studies department. Nanyang Polytechnic, likewise, has tied up with the University of Stirling in Scotland to provide a course in Retail Marketing.
Junior colleges in Singapore were initially designed to offer an accelerated alternative to the traditional three-year programme, but the two-year programme has since become the norm for students pursuing university education. JCs accept students based on their GCE "O" Level results; an L1R5 score of 20 points or less must be attained for a student to gain admission. JCs provide a 2-year course leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level ("A" level) examination. The CI accepts students based on their GCE "O" Level results; an L1R4 score of 20 points or less must be attained for a student to gain admission. The MI provides a 3-year course leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level ("A" level) examination. All students are required to participate in at least one CCA (Co-Curricular Activities) as CCA performance is considered for university admission.
The Centralised Institutes accept students based on their GCE "O" level results and their L1R4 score (which must be 20 points or below). A Centralised Institute provides a three-year course leading up to a GCE "A" level examination. There were originally four Centralized Institutes: Outram Institute, Townsville Institute, Jurong Institute and Seletar Institute. Townsville Institute and Seletar Institute stopped accepting new students after the 1995 school year and closed down after the last batch of students graduated in 1997. There currently remains only one Centralised Institute in Singapore, the Millennia Institute, which was formed following the merger of Jurong and Outram Institutes. Additionally, only Centralised Institutes offer the Commerce Stream offering subjects such as Principles of Accounting and Management of Business. The standard of teaching and curriculum is identical to that of the Junior Colleges.
The first polytechnic in Singapore, Singapore Polytechnic, was established in 1954. Ngee Ann Polytechnic, has roots that go back to 1963. Two other polytechnics, Temasek Polytechnic and Nanyang Polytechnic were established in the 1990s. The most recent, Republic Polytechnic was established in 2003. Polytechnics and arts institutions (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts) in Singapore provide 3-year diploma courses. They accept students based on their GCE "O" level, GCE "A" level or Institute of Technical Education (ITE) results. Polytechnics offer a wide range of courses in various fields, including engineering, business studies, accountancy, tourism and hospitality management, mass communications, digital media and biotechnology. There are also specialised courses such as marine engineering, nautical studies, nursing, and optometry. They provide a more industry-oriented education as an alternative to junior colleges for post-secondary studies. About 40% of each Secondary 4 cohort would enroll in Polytechnics. Notable alumni from Polytechnics in Singapore include former NUS President Dr Shih Choon Fong and CEO of Creative Technology Sim Wong Hoo. The two arts institutions, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts, have a similar approach as Polytechnics but focus only on the comprehensive Arts and Design education.
Initially, vocational education in Singapore carried a negative stigma and was looked down upon as a dead-end option for underachieving students. In the 1960s, it was considered less than socially desirable educational option as vocational education was perceived that these schools were for low achieving students. Societal prejudice against less academically inclined students and vocational educational was regarded low quality and typically out of step with the changing needs of employers. The perception of technical and vocational education in Singapore are slowly changing as parents are starting to realize that there are alternative choices for decent employment outcomes as the greater Singaporean society values vocational and technical skills highly and sees them as crucial to the country’s economic development. Vocational education has been an important part of Singapore’s unique economic planning since 1992, where it began to transform and change the perception of vocational education and decided to transform and preposition it so that it was not seen as a place of last resort for underachieving pupils. Vocational schools such as the Institute of Technical Education were intended to revolutionize vocational education and portray the institution as a world-class example of the importance of vocational skills being translated to a 21st-century knowledge-based economy. Since 1995, enrollment in vocational schools has doubled, now making up 65% of the cohort who go on to post-secondary education (ages 16–18), with 25% accepted into the ITE and another 40% attending polytechnic universities.
The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) is a vocational school that accepts students based on their GCE "O" level or GCE "N" level results and they provide two-year courses leading to a locally recognized "National ITE Certificate". There are three ITE colleges in Singapore. Only a few ITE graduates will be able to continue their education at polytechnics and arts institution which then, if possible goes on to a university. ITE colleges offer apprenticeships for the skilled trades and diplomas in vocational education for skilled technicians and workers in support roles in professions such as engineering, accountancy, business administration, nursing, medicine, architecture, and law. The ITE is highly recognized vocational institution in producing highly skilled graduates that are in demand by employers. Salaries for ITE graduates, who receive a National ITE Certificate (NITEC) or a diploma have also become quite high. ITE provides apprenticeships, professional certificates, licenses and diplomas in business administration, accountancy, woodworking, metalworking, carpentry, drafting, shipbuilding and repairing, transportation and engineering science. As of 2014, 87% of ITE graduates are hired in their fields within six months of graduation, leading more students to see vocational education as a strong alternative besides the traditional route of going to university.
ITE provides four main levels of certification: Master National ITE Certificate (Master Nitec); Higher National ITE Certificate (Higher Nitec); National ITE Certificate (Nitec); Technical Engineer Diploma (TED) (from 2007). There are also other skills certification through part-time apprenticeship courses conducted jointly by ITE and industrial companies. In addition, trade associations have been set up for workers to raise their quality of work, which in turn benefits industries as a whole. The Creative Craftsman Apprenticeship Programme was launched to develop a pool of skilled local carpenters for the Singapore furniture industry. Singapore has six autonomous public universities, namely the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University, Singapore University of Technology & Design, Singapore Institute of Technology and Singapore University of Social Sciences. The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University each have more than 30,000 students and provide a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes including doctoral degrees. Both are also established research universities with thousands of research staff and graduate students. As of 2016, both universities are ranked among the Top 13 in the world by QS World University Rankings for the second consecutive year and Top 54 globally by THE World University Rankings.
A third university, Singapore Management University (SMU), opened in 2000, is home to more than 7,000 students and comprises six Schools offering undergraduate, graduate, and PhD programmes in Business Management, Accountancy, Economics, Information Systems Management, Law and the Social Sciences. The University has an Office of Research, a number of institutes and centres of excellence, and provides public and customised programmes for working professionals through its Office of Executive and Professional Education. The government has planned the fourth autonomous university, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), to meet the rising demand for university education. It started its operations in April 2012. Its permanent campus at Changi was opened in early 2015. A fifth autonomous university Singapore Institute of Technology was announced in 2009. The institution started in 2010 and is intended to provide an upgrading pathway for polytechnic and arts institution graduates. SIM University was established in 2005 as the only local private university in Singapore. In 2017, SIM University was renamed the Singapore University of Social Sciences and became the country's sixth autonomous public university.
Many foreign universities have established campuses in Singapore such as the Chicago Business School and Technische Universität München.
James Cook University, University of Adelaide, Southern Cross University University of New Brunswick, Queen Margaret University, Temple University, The City University of New York, Baruch College, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Aventis School of Management, Curtin University of Technology & University of Wales Institute, Cardiff have established offshore campuses in Singapore to provide local and foreign (in particular, Asian) students the opportunity to obtain a Western university education at a fraction of the cost it would take to study in Canada, the UK, the USA or Australia. University of New Brunswick College, Singapore, Queen Margaret University, Asia Campus, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Asia began operations in Singapore between 2007 and 2008, with the Curtin University of Technology Singapore Campus & University of Wales Institute, Cardiff: Asia Campus due to join them in December 2008. Other Universities such as the University of London, offer their programmes through external providers, such as Singapore Institute of Management, Singapore Accountancy Academy and Stansfield College. Because of its large expatriate community, Singapore is host to many international schools. International and private schools in Singapore generally do not admit Singapore students without permission from the Ministry of Education.
However, on 29 April 2004 the Ministry of Education permitted three new international schools to be set up without permission being needed to admit Singapore students. These schools must follow the compulsory policies set by the Ministry such as playing the national anthem and taking the pledge every morning, as well as following the nation's policies on bilingualism. These schools – Anglo-Chinese School (International), Hwa Chong International School and SJI International School – are private schools run by the boards of other locally renowned institutions. The school fees are 15 to 20 percent lower than those of foreign international schools. Their intake includes students from countries such as Malaysia, India, Indonesia, People's Republic of China, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
Established under the Private Education Act, the Council for Private Education (CPE) is a statutory board empowered with the legislative power to regulate the private education sector. In addition to its role as the sectoral regulator of private education institutions, the Council facilitates capability development efforts to uplift standards in the local private education industry. On 20 May 2010, the CPE has registered the first batch of private education institutions (PEIs) under the Enhanced Registration Framework (ERF). Following the launch of the new private education regulatory regime on 21 Dec 2009, all PEIs within the regulatory scope of the Private Education Act are required to register with the CPE under the ERF. Under the Enhanced Registration Framework, private institutions must meet requirements relating to their managers, teachers, courses and examination boards. Out of 308 which applied, less than a third were given the stamp of approval and students are relieved that their school has made the mark. Only 63 ERF applications have been evaluated by the CPE, of which 36 PEIs like MDIS, EASB, SDH Institute, Coleman College, STEi Institute etc. have been registered for a period of four years ERF, and 26 PEIs have been registered for one year. The registration period awarded to a PEI is dependent on its degree of compliance with the Private Education Regulations.
In addition to the international day school, Singapore's Japanese population is served by a weekend education programme, the Japanese Supplementary School Singapore (JSS; シンガポール日本語補習授業校 Shingapōru Nihongo Hoshū Jugyō Kō). In Singapore, madrasahs are full-time, religious institutions that offer a pedagogical mix of Islamic religious education and secular education in their curricula. There are currently six madrasahs in Singapore offering primary to tertiary education, namely, Aljunied Al-Islamiah, Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiah, Al-Maarif Al-Islamiah, Alsagoff Al-Arabiah, Al-Arabiah Al-Islamiah, and Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah. Four of them are co-educational, while the other two offer madrasah education exclusively to girls. Madrasah students take a range of Islamic religious subjects in addition to mainstream curriculum subjects and sit for the PSLE and GCE 'O' Levels like their peers. They can often be easily identified by their distinctive traditional Malay uniform, including the songkok for boys and tudung for girls, in stark contrast to national schools that prohibit such religious headgear.
Madrasahs are deeply rooted in Singapore's history, and prior to Singapore's independence, had enjoyed a "golden period" in becoming the centre of Islamic education in the region by producing and attracting many of the prominent Islamic religious scholars. But by the turn of the 21st century, madrasahs were subjected to numerous discussions on the national platform as to their purpose and relevance in contemporary society. There was also a new expectation from the Malay-Muslim community that madrasahs should provide not only religious education, but also academic skills like mathematics, science and English. Madrasahs were forced to adapt and implement sweeping reforms, especially in response to government policies such as the Compulsory Education Act. Today, madrasahs have improved significantly - but challenges pertaining to their funding, curricula and teaching methodologies remain largely unsolved till today.
Private tuition is a lucrative industry in Singapore, since many parents send their children for private tuition after school. A straw poll by The Straits Times newspaper in 2008 found that out of 100 students interviewed, only 3 students did not have any form of tuition. In 2010, the Shin Min Daily News estimated that there were around 540 tuition centres offering private tuition in Singapore. Due to their high demand, tuition centres are able to charge high fees for their services; they have an annual turnover of SGD$110.6 million in 2005. However, this industry is largely unregulated, though tuition centres are required to be registered with the Ministry of Education. There is no such requirement for individual private tutors. Despite its pervasiveness, private tuition remains a controversial subject in Singapore. Students generally attend tuition classes to improve their weak academic performance. Some parents send their children to such tuition because they are worried that their child would lag behind in class because their classmates have individual tuition themselves, or because they are worried that the teacher does not completely cover the syllabus required for national examinations. Teachers and schools allegedly encouraged weaker students to receive private tuition as well, though the Ministry of Education's official stance is that "Teachers should not recommend tuition to students or parents as a form of learning support". Some students who are doing well academically have had requested to have private tuition to further improve on their grades.
On the other hand, some have criticised the over-reliance on private tuition, saying that students may not pay attention during lessons as they are able to fall back on their tuition classes later. Students may also be unable to find answers on their own, having relied on their tutors for answers during their school years. Some tuition centres reportedly do schoolwork on their students' behalf. Others have also criticised private tuition for taking up too much of students' free time. Due to the high cost of tuition, there are concerns that low-income families were unable to send their children for such classes. However, the government have partially subsidised private tuition at certain community bodies for children from low-income families. The official government stance on private tuition is that "it understands parents want the best for their children and that it is their decision whether to engage tutors". Education has always represented an area of focus for Singapore since its independence in 1965. Its emphasis on education partly reflects Singapore's virtual lack of natural resources and Singapore's need to develop its human resource and manpower capability in its continuing quest to build a knowledge-based economy.
In recent years, the goal of the education sector, and in particular tertiary education has moved beyond simply building local manpower capabilities, and is actively being developed by the Singapore government as a source of revenue. The government's plan, which was initiated in 2002, is to make Singapore a "Global Schoolhouse", attracting revenue-generating international students. In 2002, the education sector accounted for 3.6% of Singapore's economy. The government's aim was to grow this sector to 5% of Singapore's economy over the subsequent decade. Institutions offering tertiary education represent a diverse and "tiered system" comprising world class universities, local universities, and private universities. World class universities that have set up campuses or centres of excellence in Singapore include Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, INSEAD, ESSEC, FOX EMBA, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, Technische Universitat Munchen, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Local universities include the National University of Singapore, formed in 1980 by the merger of the University of Singapore and the Nanyang University, Nanyang Technological University, the Singapore Management University established in 2000, and the recently established Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT). Both SUTD and SIT were established in 2009. The first private university, the Singapore Institute of Management University, known as SIM University, was established in 2005.
Meritocracy is a fundamental ideology in Singapore and a fundamental principle in the education system which aims to identify and groom bright young students for positions of leadership. The system places a great emphasis on academic performance in grading students and granting their admission to special programmes and universities, though this has raised concerns about breeding elitism. Academic grades are considered as objective measures of the students' ability and effort, irrespective of their social background. Having good academic credentials is seen as the most important factor for the students' career prospects in the job market, and their future economic status. Curricula are therefore closely tied to examinable topics, and the competitiveness of the system led to a proliferation of ten-year series, which are compilation books of past examination papers that students use to prepare for examinations.
Bilingualism, or mother tongue policy, is a cornerstone of the Singapore education system. While English is the first language and the medium of instruction in schools, most students are required to take a "Mother Tongue" subject, which could be one of the three official languages: Standard Mandarin, Malay or Tamil. A non-Tamil Indian may choose to offer Tamil or a non-official language such as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu. However, Chinese students from a non-Mandarin background, such as Cantonese speakers, must learn Mandarin, and students with Indonesian background must learn Malay. Non-Chinese, Malay or Indian students may choose to learn either one of these languages (Usually the Japanese, Koreans and Southeast Asians who are not from Malay or Indonesian origin will choose Chinese). Mother Tongue is a compulsory examinable subject at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and the GCE "N", "O" and "A" level examinations. Students are required to achieve a certain level of proficiency in what the government considers their mother tongue as a pre-requisite for admission to local universities. Students returning from overseas may be exempted from this policy.
The bilingual policy was first adopted in 1966. One of its primary objectives is to promote English as the common (and neutral) language among the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore. The designation of English as the first language is also intended to facilitate Singapore's integration into the world economy. In recognition of Singapore's linguistic and cultural pluralism, another stated objective of the bilingual policy is to educate students with their "mother tongues" so that they can learn about their culture, identify with their ethnic roots, and to preserve cultural traits and Asian values. Within the Chinese population, Mandarin is promoted as a common language and other Chinese dialects are discouraged, to better integrate the community. In 1979, the Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched to further advance this goal.
Education policy in Singapore is designed to ensure that no child is disadvantaged because of his or her financial background. Therefore, school fees in public schools are heavily subsidised. There is no school fee for 6 years of compulsory education in primary school although students still need to pay standard miscellaneous fees of $6.50 per month. Moreover, schools may optionally charge second-tier miscellaneous fees of up to the maximum of $6.50 per month. The Ministry of Education established the Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) to provide financial assistance for education to low income families with gross household income of SGD$2,500 or a per capita income of less than SGD$625.00. Students eligible for FAS receive a full waiver of miscellaneous fees, and partial subsidy on national examination fees. They may also enjoy full or partial fee subsidy if they are in Independent Schools. Each year, the Edusave Merit Bursary (EMB) is given out to about 40,000 students, who are from lower-middle and low-income families and have good academic performance in their schools. Individual schools also have an "Opportunity Fund" to provide for their own needy students. In addition to these, there are many other assistance schemes from either the government or welfare organisations to help students cope with finances during their studies.
Singapore students took first place in the 1995, 1999 and 2003 TIMSS Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. They used Singapore Math Primary Mathematics series. The national textbooks have been adapted into a series which has been successfully marketed in North America as a rival to Saxon math and an alternative to controversial reform mathematics curricula, which many parents complained moved too far away from the sort of traditional basic skills instruction exemplified by Singapore's national curriculum. Critics of the education system, including some parents, state that education in Singapore is too specialized, rigid, and elitist. Often, these criticisms state that there is little emphasis on creative thinking. Those defending the current education system point out that Singaporean students have regularly ranked near the top when competing in international science and mathematics competitions and assessments. Detractors, however, argue this is more an indication of the institution's use of rote learning to prepare for competition or examination than of students' critical thinking skills.
In response to such concerns the Ministry of Education has recently discussed a greater focus on creative and critical thinking, and on learning for lifelong skills rather than simply teaching students to excel in examinations. Although some efforts of these sorts have been made, many Singaporean children continue to face high pressure by parents and teachers to do well in studies. Supporters of the system assert that the provision of differentiated curricula according to streams since the late 1970s has allowed students with different abilities and learning styles to develop and sustain an interest in their studies. This ability-driven education has since been a key feature behind Singapore's success in education, and was responsible for bringing drop-out rates down sharply. In recent years, while streaming still exists, various refinements to the policy have been made. There is now greater flexibility for students to cross over different streams or take subjects in other streams, which alleviates somewhat the stigma attached to being in any single stream. Furthermore, the government is now starting to experiment with ability-banding in other ways – such as subject-based banding in Primary Schools instead of banding by overall academic performance.
Singapore was one of only two countries in ASEAN that was not a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which mandates that persons with disabilities should be guaranteed the right to inclusive education. Instead, in Singapore, "any child who is unable to attend any national primary school due to any physical or intellectual disability" is exempted from compulsory education, and there are no public schools for such children. Instead, they may attend special education schools built largely by the Ministry of Education and run by voluntary welfare organisations. These schools receive more than 80% of their funding from the Ministry of Education, but have long waiting lists, according to Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim. The Singapore government has asserted that only "a very small number of children do not attend school each year", giving a figure of 8 students as compared to a primary school intake of roughly 43000, and that requiring all special needs children to attend school would "impose unduly harsh requirements on their parents." This practice has been described as a "form of discrimination" by Sylvia Lim. The Convention was ratified in July 2013, and made effective on 18 August the same year.