Churchill Fellowship...Visiting the NIE
'A teacher's learning is: Life long. Life wide. Life deep. Life wise'
'Life long. Life wide. Life deep. Life wise'. These are the four key key beliefs that every teacher in Singapore should aspire towards, according to the National Institute of Education (NIE). This mantra sums up their unique approach to teacher training, which focuses on the key values that Singaporean students, Singaporean teachers and Singapore itself wish to portray to the world.
As mentioned in an earlier post, the NIE is Singapore's only teacher-training institute; it also oversees all CPD for teachers and professionals across the state. Alongside the Ministry of Education (MOE), which is in charge of recruitment, it constitutes the country's centralised approach to education. Today, I visited two Assistant Deans to find out more about how the NIE's training and development of new and existing teachers help to keep teacher retention high. They each represented both sides of the NIE's role: pre-service training and in-service development.
Now, as this is the first meeting of a six-week fellowship, I am certainly not going to be making any grand recommendations quite yet. This post is merely a summary of the key observations at this stage of my research.
So, what are my first impressions of the NIE - the people behind the world's best education system?
As mentioned above, the most striking thing that came across was the onus placed on 'Singaporean values'. I must have been introduced to ten or more acronyms and visual symbols, each one representing yet another facet of the ideal Singaporean teacher. As one of the researchers pointed out: Singapore love a good acronym! A few decades ago, the government spent a long time thinking about what they wanted the Singaporean identity and values to be - they have integrated this into their education system ever since, to create their desired future.
This V³SK infographic shows Singapore's three core values at the very heart of teacher education. All educators need to empathise with students (1), understand their own identity (2) and engage with the community (3); doing this will help them to continue to develop within the profession. A more detailed breakdown of these three values can be found here.
It's certainly a nice idea, if not a little 'fluffy' for my taste. However, in such a small country, I can appreciate the importance of promoting such a shared vision. The Assistant Deans were both at pains to highlight how Singapore is 'vulnerable' due to its small size and how it 'needs to protect its future'. Given the country's meteoric rise to the top (in both an education and economic sense), it is understandable that its citizens would be a little anxious about what tomorrow could bring. After all, 'the bigger they are, the harder they fall' is an idiom that could be taken straight from the pages of their own phrasebook.
But having a 'vision' and a clear identity is one thing, but how is this translated into schools?Do new teachers actually buy into it? At this stage, I am definitely not the best person to judge this. After studying and teaching History for so many years, I approach everything with a frustratingly high degree of cynicism and I doubt I would make it through the strict MOE gatekeeper to make it as a teacher here. I will need to spend some time in Singaporean schools to judge whether these values are being passed down, or whether it is just fluffy propaganda with good intentions.
Another aspect of teacher training that surprised me, was the rigorous preparation that teachers go through during their pre-service training. While the duration of sixteen months is nothing to write home about, it is the content of the programmes that separates them from their international counterparts. Unlike the PGCE qualification, which (let's face it) is nothing more than a couple of administrative hoops and a few reflections, the Singaporean PGDE (diploma) is content-rich from start to finish.
The infographic above shows the number of contact hours dedicated to each aspect of teacher training (1 AU = 1 hour) and I was impressed with how the programme seemed to help new teachers cope with a range of possible scenarios. Modules in dealing with parents and understanding the pressures of Singapore (politically, economically, environmentally) are things that will no doubt prepare teachers to deal with the unexpected. Looking at this diagram, I sat there thinking how British teachers could benefit from understanding the political and economic minefield that shapes our education system - could it help to level expectations and appease initial resistance when in schools? Teachers also have to choose two subjects as their specialism, rather than the typical one here in the UK. This again prepares teachers for the unexpected and offers educators the opportunity to gain inter-disciplinary skills that could aid their teaching.
The pre-service training that teachers receive is also rich in pedagogy and education research, which is something that is then carried with them through their careers. This was the aspect of the meeting that absolutely blew me away - every single school, senior leader and teacher is expected to become a life-long learner. On paper, it seems that there are no 'in-my-day' teachers clogging up the Singapore staff room (but a school visit will be the ultimate test of this!)
In fact, CPD is not only reserved for the teaching profession. I almost fell off my chair when I was told that every single citizen has access to a central CPD database ('PLACS') as well as a monetary grant, the SkillsFuture grant. Every. Single. Citizen. So, no matter if you are working in agriculture, healthcare, the civil service... you will be able to attend a NIE workshop or course to develop your professional skills. The infographic above pretty much sums up the success of the scheme, which continues to grow in size - c.10,000 professionals passed through the NIE last year, learning skills of communication, leadership and training to help them in their respective industries.
Within teaching, educators could spend their SkillsFuture grants on MEd programmes or diplomas; however, separate CPD grants are made available to teachers and schools also help foot the bill. What you end up with, then, are CPD opportunities that are completely free to the teacher and are not necessarily limited in number. Teachers are able to develop their skills and progress in the profession without the financial burden that comes with it - can you imagine how exciting a prospect this would be for early-career teachers?! School principals in Singapore are even going so far as to recruit 'school staff developers', whose main role is to conduct a SWOT analysis of their school to identify what type of CPD is needed and where. This way, the gaps in the school's pedagogical infrastructure are constantly being filled and improved upon. As explained by the staff at the NIE, it is a three-way relationship between school, the NIE and the MOE overall.
Now, the staff at the NIE were keen to get across the fact that a 'higher degree' does not necessarily link to career progression. Teachers are still expected to apply their research to the classroom to demonstrate their skills as an educator, rather than as an academic. But the names of those teachers who do show potential for middle or senior leadership are undoubtedly passed on to the MOE, who fully fund a 6-month, full-time leadership programme for these future leaders. Oh, and did I mention that they still get paid a salary in their absence from school...? (Mind. Blown.) This ultimately shows how important education is to the Singaporean government - they invest significant amounts of money and time to guarantee a prosperous future for their country.
And lastly, what about retention? Well, it is certainly an issue in Singapore, but it is by no means a crisis; there is far more internal migration within the profession rather than a mass exodus away from it. In fact, the NIE seemed to suggest that encouraging this free movement of teachers is a way of improving teacher retention, particularly among restless millennials. In Singapore, the median age of the teaching profession is c.34 years, around five years younger than England. These teachers with itchy feet are offered opportunities of free movement to other schools every single year through 'open posting', and can apply to move schools every three years (to ensure a suitable stint in each role). This way, teachers are benefiting from greater flexibility and schools are benefiting from fresh pairs of eyes - it's a win-win! However, in the likely event that a teacher wanted to move before their three-year sentence, they would have to settle for a 'closed posting' and could be sent to any school in the country - so there is a little bit of 'stick' as well as a 'carrot'!
So there we are. Overall, I am already bowled over by the passion, commitment and efficiency of the Singaporean system; there will surely be lessons here that Britain could take away (albeit on a smaller budget!) Over the next few days, I will venture into schools to see whether these amazing policies on paper are actually carried out in practice - for now though, it's time to sleep off the jet lag...