Education in Singapore is managed by the Ministry of Education (MOE), which controls the development and administration of state schools receiving government funding, but also has an advisory and supervisory role in respect of private schools. For both private and state schools, there are variations in the extent of autonomy in their curriculum, scope of government aid and funding, tuition burden on the students, and admission policy.
Education spending usually makes up about 20 percent of the annual national budget, which subsidises state education and government-assisted private education for Singaporean citizens and funds the Edusave programme, the costs for which are significantly higher for non-citizens. In 2000 the Compulsory Education Act codified compulsory education for children of primary school age (excepting those with disabilities),and made it a criminal offence for parents to fail to enroll their children in school and ensure their regular attendance. Exemptions are allowed for homeschooling or full-time religious institutions, but parents must apply for exemption from the Ministry of Education and meet a minimum benchmark.
The main language of instruction in Singapore is English, which was officially designated the first language within the local education system in 1987. English is the first language learned by half the children by the time they reach preschool age and becomes the primary medium of instruction by the time they reach primary school. Although Malay, Mandarin and Tamil are also official languages, English is the language of instruction for nearly all subjects except the official Mother Tongue languages and the literatures of those languages; these are generally not taught in English, although there is provision for the use of English at the initial stages. Certain schools, such as secondary schools under the Special Assistance Plan (SAP), encourage a richer use of the mother tongue and may occasionally teach subjects in Mandarin Chinese. A few schools have been experimenting with curricula that integrates language subjects with mathematics and the sciences, using both English and a second language.
Singapore's education system has been described as "world-leading" and in 2010 was among those picked out for commendation by the Conservative former UK Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded the Singapore Institution (now known as Raffles Institution) in 1823, thereby starting education in Singapore under the British rule. Later, there were three main types of schools appeared in Singapore: Malay schools, Chinese and Tamil (together) schools and English schools. Malay schools were provided free for all students by the British, while English schools, which used English as the main medium of instruction, were set up by missionaries and charged school fees. Chinese and Tamil schools largely taught their respective mother tongues. Students from Chinese schools in particular were extremely attuned to developments in China, especially in the rise of Chinese nationalism.
During World War Two, many students in Singapore dropped out of school, causing a huge backlog of students after the war. In 1947, the Ten Years Programme for Education Policy in the Colony of Singapore was formulated. This called for a universal education system that would prepare for self-governance. During the 1950s and 1960s, when Singapore started to develop its own economy, Singapore adapted a "survival-driven education" system to provide a skilled workforce for Singapore's industrialisation programme as well to as to lower unemployment. Apart from being an economic necessity, education also helped to integrate the new nation together. The bilingualism policy in schools was officially introduced in 1960, making English the official language for both national integration and utilitarian purposes. Universal education for children of all races and background started to take shape, and more children started to attend schools. However, the quality of schools set up during this time varied considerably. The first Junior College was opened in 1969.
In the 1980s, Singapore's economy started to prosper, and the focus of Singapore's education system shifted from quantity to quality.More differentiation for pupils with different academic abilities were implemented, such as revamping vocational education under the new Institute of Technology and splitting of the Normal stream in secondary schools into Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams.The Gifted Education Programme was also set up to cater to more academically inclined students.
In 1997, the Singapore education system started to change into an ability-driven one after then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong outlined his "Thinking Schools, Learning Nations" vision. Under this policy, more emphasis was given to national education, creative thinking, collaborative learning as well as ICT literacy.Schools became more diverse and were given greater autonomy in deciding their own curriculum and developing their own niche areas. Differences between the various academic streams became blurred.The Ministry of Education also officially acknowledged that "excellence" will not be measured solely in terms of academics; a mountain range of excellence – with many peaks".