The OECD, which described Singapore as a “poster child” for educational development, noted that there is a focus on “levelling up” so that the "lowest stream gets very high quality training".
As a result, the country’s test scores in PISA have consistently been among the world’s best. This year, Singapore came second in Maths and third in Literacy.
The country has some natural advantages. With just 360 schools – almost all state-run – serving 522,000 students, running the education system is more like steering “a kayak than a battleship", said Professor Lee Sing Kong, the director of the National Institute of Education, which trains the country’s teachers.
With the same government in place since Singapore won independence in 1965, there has also been stability and continuity in policy: education has always been prioritised as a key driver of Singapore’s economy and accounts for roughly 23 per cent of public spending.
The money goes on recruiting and training the best teachers. Only students who come in the top 30 per cent of their secondary school class, and who pass through an intensive screening process, can apply to the prestigious National Institute of Education. Their reward is an entry-level wage that is equivalent to that of an engineer.
Findings from PISA suggest that higher salaries for teachers are more important than smaller classes in terms of improving performances and Singapore closely tracks professional pay levels to make sure teachers are paid competitively.
Once they qualify, their careers are carefully overseen, with roughly 100 hours of training a year and mentoring from senior teachers.
For the pupils, the system is fiercely meritocratic as well as bilingual.
All students have to be fluent in English as well as in their mother tongue. Exams at the end of primary school split the students for secondary school.
Sixty per cent go on to focus on academic studies while the other 40 per cent either move at a slower pace or enter vocational and technical training. The OECD notes that Singapore’s vocational training system is probably “the best in the world". Schools are flexible enough, however, to make sure that late-blooming students who catch up can switch between the categories.
Nevertheless, under the pressure of exams, parents usually make their children study outside class and Singapore boasts one of the world’s most lucrative private tutoring industries. Figures from 2008 showed 97 per cent of Singaporean students enrolling in extra tuition classes, at a cost of some £400 million a year.
More recently, Singapore has been trying to persuade parents not to single-mindedly focus on grades. In 2004, the country’s prime minister introduced the “Teach less, Learn More” programme, part of a plan to encourage creativity rather than rote-learning.
The Education ministry has also stopped naming the top performers in national exams (Singapore, unlike the UK, still sits old fashioned O Levels and A Levels). A spokesman said the ministry wanted to “help parents and students understand that academic performance is just one aspect of a student’s overall development and progress".
As well as focusing on creativity, the Singaporean system is unambiguous in how it seeks to mould its pupils into “useful citizens", as the former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew put it.
At the end of their education, the government says, students should have "moral courage to stand up for what is right", should be “resilient in the face of adversity” and “pursue an healthy lifestyle and have an appreciation for aesthetics".