Singapore’s education system has grabbed headlines with the news of its students dominating global tests. Despite high test performance at higher grades, the country understands that to be competitive in the knowledge economy, its citizens need 21st century skills like creative problem solving, critical thinking, communication ability and being able to work in diverse teams.
Wheelock College is leading in this approach within the early childhood education field in partnership with the Singapore Ministry of Education and the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT). Wheelock was the first foreign specialized institution to work with Singaporean educators and administrators in early childhood education and has been doing so for over 20 years. The rapid and continuous expansion of the need for high-quality child care centers has afforded Wheelock the opportunity to design and deliver innovative programs to meet the changing needs for professional development in the early childhood field in Singapore.
One of the reasons Singapore does so well on international tests is that its leaders understand that education is the best means of achieving social mobility in this highly income-stratified society. With a strict policy of meritocracy that promises success to those who perform well in school, parents demand that their children do well on tests and are willing to invest large amounts of time and money to ensure that they do. This focus on education comes from a deeply held societal belief that because Singapore is tiny and has few natural resources (it even has to import 30% of its water supply), the only way for it to achieve a high level of wealth and development is through its human capital. The State has invested heavily and smartly in education and there is massive consensus that it should be doing so. Currently, about 27% of the relevant age group (late teens/early 20s) gets a university degree. Singapore has decided to raise that percentage to 40% by 2020, a massive undertaking needing considerable investment. Because the three existing universities cannot handle that level of expansion, it has created two new universities, including SIT.
Early Childhood education is one of the few spots where Singapore is not yet a world leader. In 2012, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore 29th in the world in terms of its early childhood education system in what was a national call to action. Since then, the government has announced new funding initiatives for subsidies for parents and childcare centers, new sources of scholarship money for teachers and the creation of new kindergartens. In United States, a few progressive politicians like Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Bill de Blasio see the importance of early childhood education and push for it. Singapore, on the other hand, is moving full steam ahead in raising expenditures in the sector with little of the opposition we see in the US because they see how crucial it is to their future economic prospects.
In June, the last cohort of students from the Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education offered in collaboration with Ngee Polytechnic and SEED Institute graduated. This program was the first Singapore program linking a Foreign Specialized Institution with a Singapore polytechnic to offer a baccalaureate degree in a “niche” field. Two students from the program attended Wheelock’s graduation in Boston as well as the graduation in Singapore with their families. As of January 2012, SIT became Wheelock’s new program partner. Wheelock’s Early Childhood Education degree is one of seven new degree programs SIT offers. Other programs include occupational therapy, physiotherapy, communications design, interior design, aeronautical engineering, and aerospace system. In addition to its partnership with Wheelock, SIT collaborates with three other Overseas University partners for its August 2012 intake to include the University of Glasgow (UK), The Glasgow School of Arts (UK), and Trinity College Dublin (UK).
As Singapore continues to invest in early childhood education to build a strong workforce of highly trained educators, it will be interesting to watch how its international reputation in this field grows. Just as Singapore used its low ranking as a national call to action, the United States needs more national action and collaboration for a country wide wake call to heavily increase funding.