Australian schools: From Good to Great…and then maybe Excellent! Learning from Singapore

“As the skills of educators rose, we needed to change our approach in how we managed them. We could no longer prescribe what they did, we had to treat them like professionals who had good judgement, knew the students well and could make their own decisions.”

Encourage peer-led creativity and collaboration of professional educators through loosening of centralised guidelines for teaching and learning.

I’ve been reading McKinsey latest report on schools – How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better*, an analysis of 20 systems from around the world, all with improving but differing levels of performance, examining how each has achieved significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes, as measured by international and national assessments.

Australia has been ranked Good** and our progress has remained stable. Just good, not great and definitely not excellent. Singapore is at the top of the list of sustained improvers within the study.

The four performance levels for school systems in the report are:

  • Poor to Fair: Achieving the basics of literacy and numeracy
  • Fair to Good: Getting the foundations in place
  • Good to Great: Shaping the profession
  • Great to Excellent: Improvement through peers and innovation

The report shows that the journey from good to great recognises the higher skills of educators and the need to decentralise pedagogical rights to schools and teachers. Singapore decreased central guidelines on teaching and learning, moved from rigid prescription to greater flexibility as the system performance rose.

So here is a 40 year snapshot of Singapore’s journey to excellence:

1959 – 1978: Survival driven

This period focused on an enrolment place for every child and was a time of massive building work. For a time one new school was built each month. Singapore achieved universal primary education, however 30% did not progress to secondary. English proficiency was low and educational wastage high.

1979 – 1996: Efficiency driven

“Our challenge was how to achieve above average outcome from below average inputs.”

During this stage streaming was introduced to reduce dropout rates and ease the burden on teachers.

The Curriculum Development Institute was created in 1980 to develop a suite of supporting materials for teachers. The same off-the-shelf resources were used by all teachers. Teaching was highly prescriptive with a mass-production mindset – textbook bound and examination driven.

The late 1980s saw the introduction of school formats with greater autonomy. Independent schools were established in 1988 and autonomous schools in 1994. And thus began the move from rigid prescription to greater autonomy.

By 1995 Singapore was among the top-performing school systems in the world and in 1996 the Curriculum Development Institute closed its doors as it was “no longer needed”.

1997 – Present: Ability driven

In 1997  Singapore Government launched “Thinking Schools Learning Nation” (TSLN). This saw a shift in focus to enable students to reach the maximum of his or her potential. Schools were given much greater flexibility and responsibility for how they should teach and manage their students, such as:

  • Freedom in classroom practice
  • Principal decision rights in school management matters
  • Introduced school clusters to create peer forums for leadership development and sharing effective practice
  • Changed school inspection model to a more collaborative focus on self-assessment and quality assurance
  • Intensive work to strengthen the calibre of teachers
  • System in place to accommodate three career tracks: Leadership, Teaching, Senior Specialist
  • Narrowed recruitment to the top third of each graduating cohort
  • Expanded PD to 100hours/year
  • Created mentorship pairing for school leaders
  • Strengthened networks of Professional Learning Communities where teachers collaborate, review and improve practice.

“Prescribe adequacy, unleash greatness”.

What can we learn for schools in Australia? If we want to move from good to great it is time for change:

More – professional collaboration and learning, coaching and mentorship, school autonomy and attracting the top graduates to the profession.

Less – prescriptive curricula, centralised control, and one size fits all.

Finland took 25 years and Singapore 40 years. It won’t take Australia that long, as we have already made significant gains.

Good to great, great to excellent? Yes we can.


** PISA units score cut off – Good 480-520. Australia is represented within a stable cohort of 43 systems not used in the sample,

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