Amid the government push for quality pre-school education, a visiting Stanford University professor has highlighted an international test showing the importance of this early-stage learning for Singapore students.
The test of 15-year-olds from 65 countries and economies showed Singapore students excelling in mathematics, science and reading, and, importantly, that those who attended pre-school did better than those who did not.
Renowned education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, 62, said, in citing the research in an interview with The Sunday Times: "(It) shows quite clearly that quality early childhood education can make a huge difference to children from disadvantaged backgrounds."
The one-time education adviser to US President Barack Obama was in Singapore earlier this month to deliver the CJ Koh Professorial Lecture organised by the National Institute of Education (NIE).
Her remarks come just three months after the announcement that government-run kindergartens would be introduced with the aim of lifting standards in teaching the nation's toddlers.
The test mentioned by Prof Darling-Hammond was the three-yearly Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), done in 2009. In it, Singapore ranked fifth in reading with a mean score of 526, second in maths (562) and fourth in science (542). The average score among OECD countries was 500 points.
The study compared the students' scores to whether they had at least one year of pre-school education. Those who had more than one year of pre-school education scored higher than those who had not attended pre-school.
The difference in scores between the two groups of students, after taking into account their socio-economic background, was 78, which the surveyors say is statistically significant. The findings are in line with several other studies around the world which have shown that pre-school education makes a difference in later years.
The study also found that the socio-economic background of Singapore students plays a stronger role in how well they do in the reading test, in particular, compared to students in Finland, Hong Kong and South Korea.
It measured the socio-economic background of the students based on information they gave such as their parents' educational level and occupation, family structure and their home possessions - such as whether they had a room of their own, and Internet connection.
Singapore, like New Zealand and the United States, had above average reading scores but also above average impact of socio-economic background. This means that the better the background, the better the students performed.
In places such as Finland and Hong Kong, the link between test performance and socio-economic background was not as strong.
Prof Darling-Hammond welcomed the Government's push to raise the quality of pre-school education in Singapore and make it affordable to children from disadvantaged homes. She also cheered the move by the Education Ministry to start running its own kindergartens from next year which will use the latest research in early childhood education to develop the best teaching methods and practices.
A third of the places will be set aside for children from lower-income households, making high-quality pre-school education within their reach.
NIE dean of education research Lee Wing On said the link between socio-economic background and Pisa scores of Singapore students is still quite close to the average for the 34 OECD member countries.
He quoted another set of Pisa figures showing Singapore, as well as countries including China, South Korea and Finland, had a larger proportion of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who performed better than expected.
The study called them "resilient" students. These were from the bottom quarter of society in their country, in terms of socio-economic background, but whose performance was in the top quarter of the Pisa test across students from all countries.
Almost one in two poor students in Singapore was "resilient", compared to one in three in the 34 OECD member countries and the Pisa average of one in four among 65 countries.
He said Singapore is on the right track in raising the quality of education and providing opportunities for students who are lagging behind to catch up.
Prof Darling-Hammond agreed, noting that government spending on the Institute of Technical Education and schemes such as the learning support programme in schools showed its intention to give disadvantaged students access to quality education.