Keeping our schools tops

For Singapore to top the world's most comprehensive education rankings should give its educators, students and parents both cause for cheer and reason for pause. A survey of 76 regions and countries by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has awarded Asia the five top places, with Singapore leading the achievers.

A warm sense of national success is warranted by the educational distance covered since the 1960s, when illiteracy still existed in Singapore. Since then, the decision to treat education as an urgent strategic necessity has fuelled Singapore's swift transition from the Third World to the First.

The wisdom of that approach has been underscored by the OECD study's correlation of academic scores and economic growth around the world. It puts in sombre relief the experiences of countries whose head-start in the global race for development afforded them periods of economic supremacy. They lost that advantage in part because of their inability to sustain a results-oriented education system built around the universally-significant, and culturally-neutral, centrality of mathematics and science. Singapore's emphasis on these two fields of enquiry and endeavour, without ignoring English, the mother tongue languages and the humanities, has propelled it forward.

However, glowing international assessments of Singapore's educational proficiency should not make it complacent. If honours can be won, they can also be lost. Pausing at this moment of success, Singaporeans need to ponder on the steps ahead. The first is to ensure that the momentum gained, from the time Singapore was competing at the lower ends of the international education ladder, is not lost as it rises.

Education has become an international imperative. Even in countries where the state fails to live up to its educational mandate, parents are willing to expend small fortunes to ensure that their children do not lose out. Much as Singaporeans did and do, education for parents elsewhere is the greatest gift that they can bequeath to their children.

Equally, the quest for excellence must not undermine the continuing democratisation of education. Top schools and others must never translate into two educational nations; every school should be either good or must be on the way there.

Singapore's strength has lain in the inclusiveness of its social system, of which its schools are an intrinsic part. A common stake in excellence must remain a shared goal both to improve the lives of all and to ensure skills improvement occurs at every level as demanded by the economy. That would be a greater source of pride than topping a global ranking.