Singapore: beacon or pariah? Or...

November 29th: Singapore once more tops the global education rankings. Cue articles in the conservative press bemoaning Britain's stagnating educational standards and our under-performance in the global race. Cue DfE initiatives to copy whatever they're doing that works so well. Cue educational consultants selling Singaporean snake-oil to cure all your OfSTED needs.

November 28th: A social media movement fighting exam shaming in Singapore gains enough traction to make it to national news on British websites, TV and radio. Cue liberal media attacks on the regimental hot-housing of vulnerable children. Cue lazy (and borderline-racist) stereotypes of the cruelty of east-asians, the selfishness of tiger-moms, and the soullessly mechanistic nature of Sinagporean education.

Which is right? How are we to make sense of these globalising stories about education?

Well, it's easy to read what we want into any particular news story. It's comforting, for example, to think that we've got it completely wrong (and so need to adopt the approach of the high-performing countries wholesale) or that they've got it completely wrong (and so we need to ignore them and their cruel system). Whenever a Pisa or Timss comes out it's tempting to jump on the results to 'prove' whichever educational axe it is you want to grind. The liberal left did it when Finland - with its late starting, low-test culture - hit the top of the tables ten years back, just as the conservative right are doing it now that the old-fashioned approach of South-East Asia are performing better.

But these simplistic reactions don't get us anywhere.

Another article on the bbc website - 10 ways to be the cleverest country - goes just an inch or so beneath the surface to explain why it is that the South-East Asian countries are currently topping the lists, and most of these reasons are not ones that can be transplanted into a different country. For example, the article explains that one of the factors which improves educational performance is to "Be a young-ish nation". Hard to imagine how the UK could take that on board. Or what about "Make sure you don't have natural resources"? Or adopt "a focused, conformist culture, a sense of collective purpose, or even an old-fashioned one-party state"?

What this article highlights is that education is fundamentally cultural. It is not something that can be painlessly transplanted from country to country.

Too often education is reduced to processes and schemes of instruction, as if these were analogous to stages in a factory production line. It's not. The project of education is richer than this: it reflects in crucial ways what we believe as a country and what we hope the future to look like. It taps into our collective ideals and our conception of human dignity. It exemplifies what we believe about autonomy, authority and creativity. It is completely interwoven into our cultural fabric.

Holding Singapore's education system to be a beacon whose methods we should transplant into our country makes as much sense as saying that their food culture is objectively better than ours and that we should replace every fish and chip shop with a hawker centre. This might make for objectively better food, but it would leave us culturally alienated and disempowered. And it's not as simple as changing schools, anyway: the Singaporean system only works because a powerful cultural expectation exists which expects parents to sacrifice their time and money to invest in their children's education. That expectation doesn't exist to anything like the same extent in the UK.  

Similarly, rejecting Singapore's education system as too regimented and authoritarian misses the point: different countries have different cultures and believe different things to be of importance. We can disagree with the importance your average Singaporean might place on stability and obedience instead of freedom and creativity, but these are culturally specific values which are not straightforwardly transferable. 

What these articles show is that education is cultural. It is interwoven throughout every structure of society, both public and private. We can't as outsiders peer into the Singaporean (or any other country's) system and tell them they're doing it wrong, just as we shouldn't ask them to do the same to us.

If we really, as a country, want to get to the top of the table we'll need to make some pretty drastic cultural changes. Changes in the way that we view authority. Changes in our attitudes to difference and inclusion. Changes in our beliefs about parental responsibility and the state's role in our private lives. We could do that. It is an option. But it's not an easy option, and it's not going to happen only in schools.

Real change in educational outcomes means real cultural change, and real cultural change only happens with the involvement of everyone. That means a real open discussion about what we, as a country, want from our education system. Do we want to be more holistic and accepting, to focus on children's creativity and wellbeing (and to take the short-term hits that will cause in our Pisa rankings); or do we want to be more results-driven, focusing on outcomes and economic success? It's not an easy question to answer, but one which we all have a right - and a duty - to engage with.