Last reviewed 4 February 2022

Is there is a need for a radical reshaping of an education system that seems to be increasingly out of touch? In the recently published results of an international programme to assess scholastic performance of 15-year-olds, Singapore came top, while the UK only managed 15th place. Former headteacher Michael Evans considers why.

The Programme for International Student Assessment

Every three years since 2000, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has carried out the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international study that evaluates educational systems in different countries by measuring the scholastic performance of 15-year-old school students in mathematics, science and reading.

The assessments are designed to be forward-looking, and rather than focusing on the extent to which students have mastered specific areas of the curriculum, they look at students’ ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.

The results of the tests are published one year after the students sit them. PISA 2021 involved students from 63 countries and was the eighth in the cycle. The results have recently been released and they make interesting reading.

Singapore, the runaway winner

Singapore swept the board with a ranking of 9.1 out of 10, a full 0.7 points above second-placed Iceland’s score of 8.4. The United Kingdom came joint 11th with New Zealand, scoring 7.8 out of 10.

It is worth looking at why Singapore was such a runaway winner, particularly since it was the smallest country to take part. In addition, it only spends 2.5% of its GDP on education, while the UK spends 5.2%.

Singapore is a city-state, of approximately 270 square miles,1.8 times the size of the Isle of Wight. When it was established as a republic in 1965, it was a poor undeveloped island with few natural resources, high unemployment, rapid population growth, substandard housing and sanitation and serious tensions between various ethnic groups.

Early on it was realised that its most precious asset was human resources, and in one generation this has enabled Singapore to transform itself from the third world to the first, making it a global hub of trade, finance, and transportation, with a strong and harmonious population of many ethnicities and religions.

What are the strengths of the Singapore system?

An early high priority was the education of its citizens. Eight core skills and values form the basis of the entire curriculum. These are as follows.

  • Character Development.

  • Self-Management.

  • Social and Co-operative Skills.

  • Literacy and Numeracy.

  • Communication Skills.

  • Information Skills.

  • Thinking Skills and Creativity.

  • Knowledge Application Skills.

In Singapore children do not start primary school until the age of seven, but they then begin a compulsory six-year course that is designed to give them a strong educational foundation. In addition to the development of language and numeracy skills, emphasis is put on character building and the nurturing of sound values and good habits.

At the end of Primary 6, when they are 13, they will take the Primary School Leaving Examination. This is intended to assess their suitability for secondary education and will direct them to a secondary school course designed to match their learning pace, ability, and inclinations. Students can also seek admission to a secondary school based on various interests in areas such as art and sport.

During their first two years of secondary school, at grades 7 and 8, students will experience a broad-based education in languages, humanities, the arts, mathematics and sciences, design and technology, physical education, plus character and citizenship education.

The following two years, in grades 9 and 10, all students will study two languages, social studies, and mathematics, and will also select from a wide range of elective subjects and programmes.

Almost all students will then proceed to a post-secondary school institution. This can be a junior college or institute offering an academic pre-university course, a polytechnic offering a three-year course to equip students with industry-relevant skills, an Institute of Technical Education that offers a broad-based multidisciplinary curriculum including engineering, technical, business and service skills, or Arts Institutions for those interested in the creative arts.

By now, all students:

  • should be resilient and resolute

  • should have a sound sense of social responsibility

  • should understand what it takes to inspire and motivate others

  • should have an entrepreneurial and creative spirit

  • should be able to think independently and creatively

  • should strive for excellence

  • should have a zest for life

  • should understand what it takes to lead.

What shortfalls have been identified in the UK system?

In contrast, the aims of the UK system seem to be focused purely on achievement in a narrow range of examinations.

The impact of Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on UK education. Staff shortages are acute, and the consequences of lost learning and grade inflation will continue for years to come. Last June Sir Kevan Collins was charged by the Prime Minister to draw up a recovery plan. After asking for £15 billion he was promised £10 billion, but when this was slashed to £1.5 billion, Sir Kevan promptly resigned.

However, one cannot help wondering if pouring in more money is the answer. After all, the successful Singapore system manages on a fraction of the GDP of other countries.

Sir Kevan’s great concern was the growing inequality across UK education. This, he said, was not a product of the pandemic, but a feature of a system that has only been exacerbated by the event. Sir Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems, echoed this, saying that even those with the fewest advantages should be given a first-class education to develop relevant skills that can be converted into jobs, to the benefit of society and to themselves.

As we come out of the pandemic, there is an increasing feeling that there is a need for a radical reshaping of an education system that seems to be increasingly out of touch. Two years of cancelled examinations have led to questions being asked about future assessments, and parents who have been home-schooling their children have come face to face with an outdated curriculum. Many of those in industry see the post-pandemic recovery period as an opportunity to transform what is taught in schools and how it is assessed.

Spiralling mental health issues among young people have also led to questions as to whether wellbeing is being ignored in the race for better grades.

Without doubt there are many brilliant teachers, but many think that their success is in spite of, rather than due to, an over-centralised and inflexible system of monitoring and control. This control fixation can be illustrated by the fact that between 1 September 2021 and 31 December 2021, the DfE sent out just over 700 emails. That averages rather more than 8 messages every weekday, including during holiday periods.

How could matters be improved?

A poll of companies by a trust set up by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry reported that profitability had suffered because new recruits were lacking in basic workplace skills. A report from the Times Education Commission suggested that the British economy would gain an estimated annual boost of £124.6 billion if greater focus was placed on commercial skills such as time-keeping, resilience, self-motivation, and common sense.

Sir James Dyson commented on how ill-equipped the UK is to train engineers. He puts part of the blame in the downgrading of design technology lessons. He believes that children are creative and love building and making things, but as they get closer to GCSEs and A-levels, creativity fizzles out. From then on it is all about rote learning and how much you can remember of other people’s facts.

Other major employers complain about a narrow, limited and box-ticking system and the fact that many young graduates are simply not ready for work. Employers feel that there is a general lack of real-world understanding.

Richard Branson expressed a strong belief that less emphasis on exams and more emphasis on employment skills would be better for the economy and for the individual. Countries that have already done this, he said, have already seen an economic boost.

Perhaps we should take a closer look at the Singapore system.


  • Every three years an international study is carried out to assess the scholastic performance of 15-year-olds. The latest results place Singapore top and the UK at number 11.

  • What are the strengths of the Singapore system that seem to make it so much more superior than the UK system?

  • What are some of the areas where the UK system fails?

  • How might matters be improved?