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Teaching abroad – Is the grass really greener on the other side?

Its education system has a stellar reputation – and its teachers tend to stick around – but Singapore doesn’t have all the answers, says Paul Middleton...

  • Teaching abroad – Is the grass really greener on the other side?
  • Teaching abroad – Is the grass really greener on the other side?
  • Teaching abroad – Is the grass really greener on the other side?
  • Teaching abroad – Is the grass really greener on the other side?
  • Teaching abroad – Is the grass really greener on the other side?

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For many educators, Singapore is the home of the world’s best education system (PISA, 2015) a pedagogical polestar for European teachers; but is this really the case?

Frustrated with the endless ‘grass is greener’ dialogue, I decided to find out for myself.

So, while the majority of teachers spent their summers catching up on much needed sleep and ignoring anyone under the age of 18, I forfeited my physical and mental wellbeing to meet with teachers working on the front line in this tiny city state.

At around half the size of London, Singapore is the second smallest country in Asia.

One employee from the Ministry of Education explained how, “as a small country, it is all about survival, and education is at the very heart of this.”

This is reflected in the sheer amount of money that is poured into education.

Teachers, for example, receive competitive salaries, annual performance bonuses and retention payments every five years.

Like you, this absolutely blew my mind and I spent the rest of the day thinking about permanent residency and what I would miss from back home (cheap beer, fresh air and sausage rolls – if you were wondering).

Still stressed

However, the more time I spent in schools, the more I realised that teachers in Singapore faced many of the same problems as us, with workload being the number one issue causing stress and anxiety.

The classes I observed contained as many as 44 students and every teacher I spoke to protested about working a seven-day week.

Parents are even given the personal telephone numbers of their child’s teachers, which leads to many sleepless nights for these eastern educators.

All of this left me wondering why attrition rates in the country are so low, averaging 3% after the first two years compared to our 25%.

Perhaps it is due to the support that is offered to teachers in the first few years in the profession.

There are formal, two-year mentoring schemes in every school and it is common for teachers to team-teach challenging classes in their first year.

A focus on life-long learning also ensures that this development does not just end at year two.

For example, teachers are encouraged to attend 100 hours of free professional development courses provided by the Ministry each year.

Yet, no amount of CPD can prepare Singaporean teachers for their annual appraisal.

This is one aspect of this foreign education system that really unsettled me and it is the only time I saw a crack emerging in the happy façade of its employees.

At the end of each year, staff are graded and ranked alongside those of a similar level, with a handful of teachers having to receive the lowest grades.

I suppose this is the dark side of working within a meritocracy, something that the Singaporean government is at pains to hide away from the public eye.

Taking over?

So, did I send off that application for permanent residency? No, not yet at least.

The level of accountability placed on teachers’ shoulders was just too great and aside from the financial bonuses, I felt Britain could pretty much replicate most of what I saw.

Many of us have already noticed a shift in the conversation surrounding teacher attrition, with cries of ‘strengthen the profession’ replacing ‘extraneous workload’ as the stock phrases of aggrieved educators – no doubt helped by the introduction of the Early-Career Framework earlier this year.

If we can continue to throw our support behind teacher development, particularly for those new to the profession, then perhaps we can solve the elusive teacher retention crisis.

Who knows, maybe there could even be another island nation topping the PISA league tables in 2021…


Paul Middleton is head of history at a secondary school in Hertfordshire. Earlier this year, he was announced as a 2019 Churchill Fellow and is documenting his research project at teacherbreakdown.co.uk.

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