I visited Singapore to see why it is ranked as the top education system in the world. Here’s what I learned

Low pupil-teacher ratios, well-equipped classrooms and dedicated teachers contribute to positive learning atmosphere in modern schools

Last month I attended the International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISPT) in Singapore. The over-arching theme of the three-day event was “reimagining education, realising potential”, and was attended by representatives from high-performing and rapidly improving education systems worldwide.

Since becoming an independent republic in 1965, Singapore has transformed from an impoverished island with no natural resources and a mostly illiterate population to a country of almost six million people whose living standards match those of the most highly developed industrial nations.

From the outset, a strong emphasis was put on the importance of an educated workforce to fulfilling ambitious economic goals. This has paid off and in recent years Singapore’s education system has been blazing a trail in the international rankings. It therefore came as no surprise to me to witness excellence in their primary schools.

Each day of the summit began with organised school visits to provide context for discussions in the afternoon. I was really impressed with the amazing infrastructure at all three schools, well-designed classrooms albeit much smaller than where Irish pupils typically learn, an abundance of flexible learning spaces, a suite of specialist rooms for music lessons, creative arts work, mother-tongue language learning and many rooms to support children with additional needs including those who needed behavioural support, school canteens, all-weather outdoor spaces, well-developed school gardens and energy efficient buildings.


Singapore’s education system is known for its rigorous and comprehensive curriculum. Students are exposed to a wide range of subjects, including mathematics, science and languages from an early age. This broad-based education ensures that students develop a strong foundation in multiple disciplines.

A crucial aspect of Singapore’s success is the quality of its educators. Teachers undergo rigorous training and professional development, ensuring they are well-equipped to deliver high-quality instruction. This commitment to teacher excellence directly benefits students. Every year, Singapore calculates the number of teachers it will need, and opens that many places on the teacher training programmes. If only we were doing this in Ireland. The selection process is competitive: teaching is a highly regarded profession in Singapore. Student teachers are paid the equivalent of 60 per cent of a starting teacher salary and their tuition fees are covered by the ministry of education.

In their third year of teaching, teachers can choose a leadership track and can advance to department head and vice principal. In this way, all principals start out as teachers and then serve in two administrative roles before advancing to school principalship.

Singaporean schools provide a conducive environment for learning. Low pupil-teacher ratios, well-equipped classrooms and dedicated teachers contribute to a positive learning atmosphere in state-of-the-art school buildings.

An online student learning space (SLS) provides a library of curriculum-aligned, digital resources for all grade levels and subjects. Using templates, teachers create lessons by compiling SLS resources or using a mix of online resources and their own materials. Students can also access SLS resources on their own, independent of assignments.

Parents in Singapore place a strong emphasis on education and are actively involved in their children’s learning journey. They provide unwavering support and create a conducive environment for studying, which motivates students to excel.

Singaporeans are known for their strong work ethic. This cultural trait extends to the classroom, where students are encouraged to work hard and strive for academic excellence. This dedication to their studies sets them apart.

Singaporean schools incorporate innovative teaching methods, such as problem-based learning, to foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills among students. This approach prepares them to tackle complex challenges. Schools there also embrace technology as a valuable learning tool.

Currently, about 80 per cent of all students with special educational needs attend mainstream schools. Learning support specialists help students with conditions such as dyslexia or autism. Specialised training in special education is provided to a designated group of general education teachers within each mainstream school, to create a support system for students with special needs.

For students who need more intensive or specialised assistance, there are government-funded special education schools similar to our own special schools. Extra funds are allocated for students with special needs at 150 per cent or 300 per cent of the base per student cost, depending on whether they attend mainstream or special schools.

Despite its success, Singapore’s education system faces criticisms, including concerns about high stress levels among students and overemphasis on exams. Additionally, it has been identified there is a need for a greater focus on creativity and critical thinking.

Singapore’s consistent top performance in the Pisa test can be attributed to a combination of factors, including a well-structured educational system, emphasis on maths and science, supportive learning environments, parental involvement, government policies, teacher quality and cultural attitudes towards education. Although there are challenges to address, Singapore’s approach to education continues to serve as a benchmark for excellence on the global stage.

Were Ireland to host the ISTP summit, there’s no doubt delegates would be impressed by many of the advancements we have made over the last six years since the gradual unwinding of the austerity era. There is much to be admired within Ireland’s primary and special education systems including the inclusive nature of our schools, a child-centred – albeit overcrowded – curriculum and the high quality of our teaching professionals.

The introduction of a redeveloped primary curriculum here next year should herald an exciting new era for Irish education, but unfortunately the spectre of overcrowded classrooms, the teacher-supply crisis, the dearth of psychological and therapeutic supports for children with additional needs, and the underfunding of our schools loom large and threaten our ambitions.

John Boyle is general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation