“Today, we face our own 1945 moment” boldly stated the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres in 2020. Since then, other sources have increasingly referenced calls to embrace a “Beveridge moment” from papers such as “Unequal Britain” (Duffy et al, 2021) to newspaper columnists, political papers and a radio interview I heard just this week, all suggesting our current political, socio-economic complexities offer a similar paradigm shift to that facing the nation in 1945; all inferring a signal for a comparable 5-year programme of reform and reconstruction.
Now I love a historical reference and there’s no doubting embracing a wartime rhetoric has worked for many in this country over the years, but a recent visit to Singapore courtesy of the British Council’s Building Educational Bridges Partnership and a passing knowledge of modern history tells me there is considerably more to solving our current complexities than soundbites and memories. The chance to observe another culture and country that has redefined itself in the face of significant political and cultural change enabled this school leader a moment of reflection on what can be learnt; a moment to consider how we might gain hope and inspiration from a former colony and now world-leading education system and economy.
After a history too complex for this blog (but fascinating), Singapore became independent in 1965. Since that point, its journey from ‘third world to first’ (Yew, L., 2011) in one generation is one of Asia’s great success stories. The subsequent rapid and highly successful transformation of their education system and consistently high levels of performance (PISA, TIMSS etc.) have garnered international respect and interest.
It is an outward-looking cohesive nation with a diverse population of c.6 million. ‘Singapore’s education system aims to bring out the best in every child’ (Ministry of Education, 2022) and does so through just 181 primary schools, 136 secondaries and 27 mixed level or junior colleges. The system has regenerated throughout its nearly 70-year history from ‘survival’ and ‘efficiency’ driven first phases creating the workforce and skills needed to build a nation to the later ‘ability’ and ‘aspiration’ phases which placed education at the heart of a national identity providing the knowledge and skills to compete globally.
Since 2020, Singapore has embarked on a ‘Learning for Life’ phase in response to the Covid-19 period, including a commitment to e-learning. So, what if anything, did I learn about this country, smaller than the Isle of Wight, that could be relevant to our larger more fragmented system in a UK of c.60 million with 16,791 primary schools and 3,456 secondary schools within England alone; a different scale and context completely.
I saw and learnt that Singapore has incredible national cohesion, there is immense optimism and pride in their collective endeavour. They see themselves as nation-builders, making the most of their small island where humans are the primary resource. Within a diverse population, temples, businesses and apartment blocks flourish where races, religions and languages co-habit in harmony, mutual respect and understanding. It was a clean and safe environment where the overwhelming impression of its people was of generosity and kindness. A much-needed taxi ride from the city to our hotel in an hour of need left the distinct impression that our driver was not in fact a taxi at all but a well-intentioned citizen who simply wanted us to be well looked after.
Across the education system there is remarkable cohesion and trust; a sense of collective responsibility and common vision that drives decision-making and fidelity to implementation. Educating the next generation is seen as the most sustainable way of securing a prosperous future for the country, “education is viewed as investment not expenditure. It is the human enterprise of paying it forward.” (Pak Tee, N., 2023). As such, teaching is highly respected and recruitment is strong. Professional development is high-quality at all levels, career pathways are broad and focus on expertise rather than hierarchy, including developing teams of SEND practitioners in each school. There is no published school ranking and no high-stakes accountability. Checks and balances in the system ensure core principles are realised authentically in the local context.
Which raises interesting questions. How many of our much-heralded personal freedoms and liberties would we be willing to surrender for such unifying national cohesion. Headteachers/ Principals do not choose their leadership posts, they go where the Ministry sends them for the benefit of the country. They trust there is a greater purpose being served when they uproot their career and restart wherever sent. In 2022 Singapore was described by the Economist Intelligence Unit as a ‘flawed democracy’ raising questions about artistic freedom, same sex marriage and openness to government critique. Whilst there is evidence of cultural shift and change, personal destiny and educational pathway is still largely determined early in life. The safety I felt to walk around at night was a product of heavy fines and strict laws – not least with a serious ban on jay-walking. How far do our ideals of liberal freedoms and individual liberty mean we struggle to achieve the unity and sense of common purpose visible in this so-called “nanny state” (Harding, 2004)? And across the education system how much of our vaunted, hard-earned freedoms and autonomy would we be willing to surrender for cohesion, common purpose and consistency for all young people? And in a system so much larger and fragmented how possible even is that as a goal?
Conversely, although prior to meeting there was preconceived perception in the English participants that the Singaporean colleagues, sitting in harmonious cohesion at the top of the world rankings, would have little to learn from the English system – the reverse transpired to the true. Through their eyes there was much to admire in our own practice and success. Where we saw fragmentation, they saw a system created for individual creativity and innovation. Where we felt pandemic-weary and accountability-exhausted they saw determination throughout the system for high standards. They saw resilient leaders, determined to succeed for every child. They saw a research-informed profession, willing to debate, to collaborate and co-create. We know this professional control is a powerful factor in retention and wellbeing (Collie and Carroll, 2023).
There is no doubt that exceptional practise exists within our system. The question is why and in what context?
In March 2022, the DfE’s Schools White Paper, “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child” communicated a vision for a “school system that helps every child to fulfil their potential by ensuring that they receive the right support, in the right place, at the right time“. Whilst the White Paper has been withdrawn, many of the key ideas remain. the Green Paper for SEND: “right support, right place, right time” remains a live discussion.
From the remarkable leaders I was privileged to spend the journey with to the inspiring leaders we visited in London schools it is clear there is talent in the English system that is powerful and dynamic; there is practice in the English system that is aspirational and rooted in moral purpose. Galvanising this energy and talent into a national vision that has cross-party consensus would allow long term sustainable planning that could be transformational.
Whilst the baseline belief across the Singaporean system is that every school is a good school, there is by nature of scale, more variability in the English system. In high-performing schools, there is a clarity of vision driving improvement; a coherent curriculum, and a commitment to supporting the children who need it most; early identification of SEND and a determination all students should access and progress. There is clarity about what great teaching looks and feels like with focused CPD to ensure no student or teacher is left behind. Teachers are well supported with clear standards for all levels and pathways for development, culture and ethos is clear and tangible leading to consistent approaches to behaviour and routines for learning. These schools have an energy and purpose that serve their communities effectively despite barriers and contextual difficulties.
So, what might be the “moment to embrace” here, what learning can be taken from a system that is a continent away and a 10th of the scale and complexity? I have some emerging thoughts:
- There is huge power in a common and compelling narrative with moral purpose. This could be and currently often is created to great effect within federations/trusts and partnerships but could be super-charged in its impact if rooted in a commonly understood and collectively embraced national sense of purpose and vision for education.
- Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration at every level: within and between schools, across and between trusts and systemically across the system. Together we are significantly more than the sum of our parts and for our current challenges we absolutely need to be.
- Recruitment to a highly valued and revered profession of experts is competitive, retention is secured through the autonomy, mastery and purpose (Deci and Ryan, 2012) ensured through generous and purposeful CPL. Dedicated time in schools and out for development in post and for future posts, supports the implementation of accepted effective practice relative to context, developing expertise and excellence at every level.
- Cohesion through fidelity to a consistent understanding of “what works” (curriculum and pedagogy) combined with respect, professional trust and autonomy for context and ability to innovate. An end to frequent change for ideological purposes. The Singaporean model creates expertise sustained over time ensuring 6-7 yrs. for any new development: through phases of research, pilot, review and launch. Such time and consultation would enable review and innovation but ensure authenticity and commitment to any change, reducing the influence of political cycles that can prove so distracting.
- Commitment to early identification and expert intervention for SEND, the streamed pathways seen in Singapore would need a much more open view to vocational and technical education than we have currently but commitment to expertise in every mainstream classroom would achieve a great deal; clarity and confidence in all teachers, guided by knowledgeable leadership, in every school for every child, inspiring trust and genuine partnership with parents.
- Digital understanding and skills. We may not be able to replicate at scale the Singaporean model of a device for every child, but we do need to equip all our young people (and staff) with an understanding of what it means to work effectively and be safe and healthy in an online environment. That will not happen if we eschew digital learning as a fad in education.
The famous Merlion statue (part lion part fish) in Singapore’s harbour represents the courage, strength and resilience needed to build a nation. We have yet (rightly) to see the benefit of combining the traditional Lion, Oak and Rose into a single English symbol but channelling the strength and endurance of the former and the unifying symbolism of the Tudor Rose might not be a bad start. However, history has many valuable lessons. In reimagining a 1945 spirit we might not be so keen to embrace the austerity, rationing and cold winters of a post-war period with escalating international tensions.
Instead of post-pandemic re-construction, maybe we should be focused on the co-construction of a new vision, a future-focused approach; investing in and building on our collective strengths, recognising context and embracing diversity within a clearly-articulated, nonpartisan, long-term aspiration. That could be a moment.
Caroline Barlow, Vice-Chair of Headteachers’ Roundtable
Collie, R. J., & Carroll, A. (2023). Autonomy-pressure profiles among teachers: Changes over a school term, leadership predictors, and workplace outcomes. Teaching and Teacher Education, 124, 103998.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory.
Duffy, B., Hewlett, K., Hesketh, R., Benson, R., & Wager, A. (2021). Unequal Britain: attitudes to inequalities after Covid-19.
Economist Intelligence Unit (2022). Democracy Index 2022
Harding, Andrew (16 August 2004). “Singapore slings a little caution to the wind”. BBC News. Retrieved 27 February 2011.
Yew, L. K. (2011). From third to first world.