Education has always been a high priority in the affairs of the Singapore government, especially in the early years of nation building. Consistently in the top rankings of international education standards, Singapore is known to have a “world-leading” education system with the highest achieving students in international tests for maths and sciences.
The Ministry of Education in Singapore manages the education system, controlling the development and administration of government-funded state schools, as well as holding an advisory and supervisory role in private schools. 20% of the annual national budget goes towards education spending, subsidizing state education, government-assisted private education for Singaporean citizens, and funding the Edusave programme.
In 2000, the Compulsory Education Act was passed, making education compulsory for children of primary school age (with the exception of children with disabilities) and making it a criminal offence for parents to fail to enroll their children in school and ensure regular attendance. Any exceptions required (e.g. home-schooling) must be applied for by parents to the Ministry of Education.
Officially designated as the first language within the local education system, English is used as the main language of instruction in Singapore, except during Mother Tongue (Chinese, Malay, Tamil) language lessons. The school year is divided into two semesters with the first semester running from January to May, and the second semester from July to November.
SINGAPORE EDUCATION SYSTEM
Pre-school/kindergarten: Kindergartens in Singapore provide up to three years of pre-school for children between the ages of 3 and 6. The three years are generally termed as Nursery, Kindergarten 1 (K1), and Kindergarten 2 (K2). Kindergartens provide safe environments for children to learn how to interact with others, and prepares them for formal education. Children would start to engage in activities that allow them to learn languages (written and oral), numbers, social and personal skills, music etc. Typically, lessons would be conducted in English, with Mother Tongue lessons also provided. Note that most institutions do not provide Malay/Tamil Mother Tongue lessons.
Primary studies: Normally starting at the age of 7, primary education comprises of 4 foundation years (Primary 1 to 4), and 2 orientation years (Primary 5 and 6). Primary education is free for all Singapore citizens in schools under the Ministry of Education. The first 4 years of primary education provides pupils with a foundation in English, a Mother Tongue language, maths, sciences, arts, physical education, and social studies. After the foundation years, students sit a formal examination at the end of Primary 4, and are then streamed into different classes according to their abilities. After 6 years of primary education, students sit the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations), and are then able to choose their secondary schools based on their PSLE results.
Secondary studies: Based on their PSLE results, students are streamed into different secondary schools. There basic streams are “Express”, “Normal - Academic” and “Normal – Technical”. The Express stream offers a four-year route directly to Singapore-Cambridge GCE “O” level exams. Students in the Normal routes are offered a four-year route to the “N” level exams, with the possibility of a 5th year leading up to the GCE-O level exams. The Normal-Academic stream prepares students for the GCE-O level exam in their 5th year, and the Normal-Technical stream are for students focusing on more technical subjects such as Design & Technology, and prepares them to enter technical institutions (such as the Institute of Technological Education) in their 5th year.
Post-secondary studies: Also known as “pre-university studies” (or “Pre-U” as you will hear most commonly in Singapore), post-secondary studies are a 2 year course leading up to GCE-A level exams. Students’ results in the GCE-O level examinations determine which pre-university institution they are eligible to apply for. Institutions include junior colleges, polytechnics, technology institutes, and arts institutes.
Tertiary studies: Students looking to pursue university educations will find 6 autonomous public universities in Singapore, with the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University high in world university rankings. Foreign universities from Canada, UK and Australia have also established campuses in Singapore, giving students a wider range of institutions and courses to choose from for a fraction of the cost it would take to study overseas.
School fees for primary education through pre-university education in state schools are heavily subsidized by the government for Singaporean citizens. Foreigners are eligible to enroll in state schools in Singapore, though there are different tiers of fees depending on whether or not you are a Singapore Permanent Resident, part of an ASEAN nation, or belong to other countries. For expats public school fees cost hundreds of dollars per month and generally increase each year. The Ministry of Education website lists the breakdown in fees.
Another option is sending your children to private schools, such as international schools. These costs will vary from school to school and can cost thousands of dollars per semester. There are dozens of international schools catering to students of different nationalities.
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