In a recent UNESCO report about the education system in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members states, it was noted that despite the differences in ideologies, political systems, development priorities, and education systems, members states of the ASEAN community share a common vision (UNESCO, 2014). For ASEAN +6 member states, including, Australia, China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand and Singapore education is the pillar of development that contributes to the community’s competitiveness. Exploration of education systems in the ASEAN community reveals that there are several countries with efficient education systems, including Japan and Singapore. The analysis will provide a better understanding why education system performs better in one national system than in another. In the same context, the comparison also provides tangible evidence and a practical lesson that would help researchers, policy makers, and professionals in the educational realm improve the efficiency of education system within their jurisdiction. This research paper compares and contrasts the education system in Singapore and Japan. Firstly, the paper gives a brief overview of the education systems in the two countries; then it discusses the similarities and differences in the next section.
Education System in Japan
In most scenarios where there has been an international comparison of national educations systems, Japan has emerged as one of the countries with the best education system. The roots of this accomplishment are traced to Japan’s culture and historical development. The Japanese education system has evolved from the dual system to a single-track school system through education reforms that were heavily influenced by the United States education system after the Second World War (NCEE, 2015a). Children at the age of six are registered in grade one of elementary school. School calendar starts in April and runs for three terms that end in March. All Japanese must attend school for 9 years, that is, six and three years at elementary and junior high school respectively. For foreigners, the nine years are not compulsory; hence they may go to local elementary or junior school as they wish (Tokyo International Communication Commitee, 2006). Private schools have created an environment that enrolls foreign students. After junior high school, students may opt to find employment or continue their education in high school and eventually go to university. Special schools and facilities are available for mentally or physically challenged students who may not be able to study at ordinary schools.
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Education System in Singapore
Singapore has grown from a poor and illiterate history to one of the powerhouses in Asia (Ministry of Education [MOE], 2015; NCEE, 2015b). Singapore’s population of 4.7 million people enjoys healthy living standards that are comparable to most of the developed economies in the region. This achievement can be attributed to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who understood that education is the central turbine of development and competitiveness of Singapore (NCEE, 2015b). In addition, education was used as a unifying platform for the clashing religious and ethnic groups. The Education System in Singapore is managed by the Singapore Ministry of Education, which is mandated to the administration and development of both public and private school (MOE, 2015). Unlike private schools, public schools receive their primary funding from the government. Typically, education spending in Singapore constitutes approximately 20 percent of the national budget. For instance, the national education budget in 2015 was $12.1 billion Singaporean dollars as compared to the $11.5 billion dollars in 2014 (MOE, 2015). As of this writing, there were over 360 primary, secondary and post-secondary schools supported by over 33,000 education officers (MOE, 2015).
The core trait of Singaporean education is a bilingual advantage. While English is the primary language of communication, all students are expected to learn the official mother tongue. The bilingual policy enables students to access Asian cultures and become globally competitive (MOE, 2015). Teachers, school leaders, and allied educators are at the core of Singapore’s education system. Teachers are nurtured and motivated to grow and reach their professional and individual best. In alignment with their interests and aspirations, and to engrave the qualities specified in the Singaporean Teacher Growth Model, teachers in Singapore undertake comprehensive pre-service training at the National Institute of Education (MOE, 2015).
Comparison and Contrast of Education System in Japan and Singapore
As for September 2014, 73.2 percent of Japan’s GDP originated from the service sector and 25.6 percent from industry (NCEE, 2015a). Similarly, 70.6 percent of Singapore’s GDP originated from the service industry while 29.4 percent originating from the industry sector (NCEE, 2015b). Observably, the two countries rely on industry and service sector that require highly skilled labor and knowledgeable human resources. These can only be achieved through quality education or a high-performing education system. As noted by UNESCO (2014), both Japan and Singapore are highly industrialized countries in Asia and the Pacific region. Additionally, both countries have higher-performing education systems than countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, and Nepal. Japan and Singapore have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, globally committing themselves to offering free primary education to all children (UNESCO, 2014). The rights have been incorporated into the national legislation of Singapore and Japan. Despite this achievement, Singapore and Japan had not accepted or ratified the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education (CADE). To have a clear picture of the similarities and differences of the two education systems, several aspects of education management and policy frameworks are use compared and contrasted within the education system in Japan and Singapore. In addition, some emerging trends, including educational structure, financial and legal commitment to education, teacher policies and sector management, are highlighted.
Financial and Legal Commitment to Education
The fundamental principles for Japanese education system are engraved in the Constitution passed in 1946 and the Fundamental Law of Education of 1947, which was revised in 2006 (UNESCO-IBE, 2011a). The Japanese Constitution defines the right to receive education. As outlined in Article 26, Japanese are obligated to provide all girls and boys with basic education as defined by the law. In addition, the law states that the compulsory education shall be free. In addition, provisions relating to educational administration, school system as well as financial support are included in the Japanese School Education Law (UNESCO-IBE, 2011a). On the contrary, the legal framework of Education System in Singapore is outlined in the 1985 edition of the Education Act and the 1990 edition of the School Regulations (UNESCO-IBE, 2011b). The Compulsory Education Act was passed by the Singaporean Parliament in 2000, but compulsory education was realized from January 2013. The Private Education Act No. 21 of 2009 deals with the accreditation and regulation of private education entities in Singapore.
Financial allocation to education is one of the indicators of government commitment to education. On average, Singapore, Japan, and other ASEAN countries allocate 14.7 percent of their national expenditure on education. Between 2007 and 2010 Japan and Singapore allocated 9 percent and 10 percent of their government expenditure to education respectively. In reference to expenditure on public education as a percentage of GDP, Japan spent slightly more than Singapore in the same period, as indicated in Figure 3 below.
The starting age and length of mandatory education vary slightly in the two countries. Formal education in Japan and Singapore starts at the age of 6. Both countries have 12 years of formal education divided into primary, lower secondary and upper secondary levels. Japan has 6+3+3 structure, which is also used in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia (UNESCO-IBE, 2011a). By contrast, Singapore shares the 6+4+2 structure with Philippines. Japan and Singapore’s mainstream education systems are equipped with facilities to provide support to students with special education needs. The years of free and mandatory education in Japan and Singapore are 9 and 6 respectively. Despite a variance in the duration, both countries have legal provisions for compulsory education at the fundamental level of education. It should be noted that upper secondary education in Japan is provided free of charge, however, it is not mandatory. Arguably, compulsory education accounts for the high literacy levels in the two countries.
In reference to pre-school, children aged between 4 and 6 are enrolled in Singaporean kindergartens (UNESCO-IBE, 2011b). Similarly, kindergartens in Japan enroll children aged 3-5 years (UNESCO-IBE, 2011a). Kindergartens are structured in three years: nursery, kindergarten 1 and kindergarten 2. The primary school level in Singapore consists of the foundation stage (Primary 1-4) and the orientation stage (primary 5-6). The standard subjects at the primary level include English, science, and mathematics. Science is taught from primary three (MOE, 2015). Before leaving the primary education level, students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) as depicted in Figure 2 above. In Singapore, students are admitted in secondary schools based on their PSLE performance. For example, students who performed extremely well in the PSLE can take Special course, whereas others are placed in either Normal or Express course (UNESCO-IBE, 2011b). Students who completed secondary education successfully and have the pre-requisite qualification may join centralized institutes and junior colleges.
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Management and Administration of Education System
In Singapore, education policies are formulated and implemented by the Ministry of Education (MOE). The Ministry has control over the development and administration of public or government-aided primary and secondary schools as well as junior colleges (UNESCO-IBE, 2011b). MOE also supervises private schools in the country. Conversely, education system in Japan is managed and administered by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). MEXT was formerly known as the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (UNESCO-IBE, 2011a). MEXT advances education and promotes long-term learning. In addition, MEXT encourages sport, cultural and academic activities as well as progress in science and technology. Further, MEXT carries out religious administrative affairs.
In Singapore, students with moderate or special educational needs get support from the National Council of Social Service Funds and the MOE through customized special education institutions (MOE, 2015). The aim of such institutions is to ensure that students have the values and skills they need to lead normal lives and contribute to the society as its independent members. The scenario is similar in Japan, where support comes primarily from the Ministry of Education. Singapore’s education system recognizes talent in students in both academic and non-academic domains. For example, Specialized Independent Schools in Singapore offer customized programs to develop students in diverse pathways, including sports, art, science and mathematics (MOE, 2015). These institutions develop a complete school approach to developing a nurturing environment that enables the student to discover and develop their interests and strengths for meaningful life and work.
In both education systems, public-private partnerships (PPP) are strongly encouraged in the development of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and can take place in various forms and levels (UNESCO, 2014). At the national level, PPPs can be established through an official meeting on issues such as the motivation of employer investment. At the school level, PPPs can be institutionalized through a discussion regarding how to improve workplace experiences. In Japan, PPPs are strongly encouraged because they promote skills training in the country. In Singapore, PPPs are encouraged because they leverage knowledge, skills and expertise of technology industry leaders. In addition, PPPs are encouraged because they establish networks with the private sector. They include Joint Centers of Technologies and Industry (IBT) schemes (UNESCO, 2014). TVET is provided in Japan by the Ministry or Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW). By contrast, TVET is provided in Singapore by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry or Education (MOE).
As far as education system performance in concerned, both Japan and Singapore have engaged the private sector in provision and funding of education (UNESCO, 2012). The private sector involvement in national education takes various forms including private funding (donations and fees), community schools, private tutoring, publicly funded and privately managed schools, and full free private schools among others. It is worth highlighting that most basic education in Singapore and Japan is publicly offered by public schools or the government. While, the respective governments of the two countries offer free and compulsory education for the first 9 years of basic education, the role of the private sector played in primary education insignificant. However, this observation does not imply that the private sector, including communities and families, has no role. In fact, the private sector is of great importance in these countries. Private expenses on education include uniform, tuition fee, private tutoring and textbooks.
Teacher Policies and Standards
The locus of teacher employment in Japan, including their selection, management and remuneration, rests with the regional government. By contrast, in Singapore, similar responsibilities rest with the central government. Irrespective of the level of devolution, both private and public sector plays a critical roles in the financing and provision of education. Typically, entrance to teacher training institutes requires graduation from the 12th grade (MOE, 2015; UNESCO, 2014). In both Singapore and Japan, entry to teacher training requires preschool, primary and secondary qualification. These qualifications are bundled with teacher-training certifications. Primary teachers undergo a two-year teacher training course whereas secondary teachers take three to four years of training. In Japan, secondary and elementary school teachers are trained at junior colleges and universities accredited by MEXT. In fact, the majority of elementary school teachers in Japan are graduates of four-year based programs at national universities (UNESCO-IBE, 2011a). Similarly, teachers in the corresponding levels in Singapore undertake university degree programs (MOE, 2015; UNESCO-IBE, 2011b).
In Japan and Singapore, the duration of pre-service training is four years, which implies that teachers in these countries are highly qualified to teach students and achieve desirable educational outcomes for these students. The practice is consistent with the OECD average of PISA rankings (NCEE, 2015a). Unlike Singapore, in Japan teachers take a national entrance examination. Both countries have minimal teachers standards often enforced through regular licensure renewal or entrance examinations. Teachers in both countries benefit from professional support in terms of training workshops, peer consultations, support from inspectors and advisors and study opportunities for teachers (UNESCO, 2014; UNESCO-IBE, 2011a; UNESCO-IBE, 2011b). Rewards and incentives for teachers in these high performing education systems include salary increase, promotion and certificate of recognition (SIREP, 2010).
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Clearly, the approach is effective and generates results in international assessments such as OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Figure 4 below represents Singapore’s mean score compared to the United States and the OECD average for science, mathematics, and reading. Figure 5 is an illustration of Japan’s PISA means score in relation to the United States and OECD’s average. An analysis Figure 4 and Figure 5 indicates that Singapore has a better PISA mean score than Japan and the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science.
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According to OECD (2014), Japan remains one of the most attractive economies for foreign students. In 2012, 3.3 percent of foreign students were employed in Japanese tertiary institutions, which was a 0.1 percent growth from 2000. OECD (2014) noted that 3.3 percent was the largest percentage among all destination countries. Interestingly, 94 percent of foreign students came from Asia. In fact, 81 percent came from neighboring countries. This is a reflection of the education performance and popularity of the Japanese education system in the region. However, in the 2014 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Rank, Japan was ranked at position six as compared to Singapore, which emerged at position 2 (NCEE, 2015a). In reference to INSEAD Global Innovation Rank 2014, Singapore emerged at position seven, whereas Japan was positioned at number 21. In summary, these rankings reflect the growth of Singapore’s education system in the last several years.
For more than a decade, Japan and Singapore have been at the peak of global leagues of tables that outline children’s abilities in mathematics, reading and science. This has led to the significant development in Asia and attention from the West. This paper compared and contrasted education systems of Japan and Singapore. The analysis indicates that Japan has a relatively better education system than Singapore in various aspects. For instance, the number of years of free and obligatory education in Singapore and Japan are 6 and 9 respectively. This is a reflection of both financial and legal commitment of the respective governments in the education sector. In addition, Japan is one the most attractive destinations for foreign students. Contrastingly, only 1 percent of Japanese student at the tertiary level were registered overseas in 2011. Furthermore, Japan has one of the largest fractions of tertiary educated adults and the uppermost literacy proficiency level amid OECD countries. It is evident from the research that improving education goes beyond making children attend classes. Effective education systems also involve ensuring that that the youth are well prepared for the world beyond their books and school grounds. It is in this regard that Singapore education system considers bilingual capability as a competitive advantage for their students in the region as well as in the ever increasingly globalized world. In other words, education is about providing avenues or platforms where the youth can find decent jobs, earn sufficient income, and contribute to their societies or communities as they fulfill their potential. In summary, a one-size-fits-all framework for developing an efficient education system is not feasible, but this paper provided an overview of the education system in Japan and Singapore with the hope that it may improve the understanding of the subject areas as well as strengthen education systems in other regions on the basis of experiences and success of Singapore and Japan.