UK's DoE races to adopt Singaporean methods as Singapore's Ed Minister says it's "not a competition"

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In October 2017, the Financial Times [1] reported on a school in West London using "Singapore-style" teaching for the subject of maths, reportedly raising their children's test cores from "baseline levels" to "well above the national average" – by all accounts a fantastic feat! Little wonder that the UK Schools Minister, Nick Gibb MP, announced a "£41m injection of public funds for Asia-style maths teaching."

Just over a year earlier, the same paper published an article exploring "Why Singapore's kids are so good at maths." [2] This article pointed out that Singapore's schools were at the top of global league tables, whereas the UK were 20th. It also noted that many other governments were expressing interest in the Singaporean method, but the UK was only "the latest."

It's interesting, then, that the FT seems to have completely missed an announcement from Singapore's Education Minister in October 2018: that children's test rankings would no longer be shared with children or parents from 2019 onwards. [3]

In fact, type "Singapore abolishes school exam rankings" into Google, and you'll struggle to find a British news publication covering this story. In fact, when I tried this myself (on the date of writing, 15th July), I encountered an article from a different FT – the Filipino Times – suggesting that, last month, Singapore actually abolished exams entirely! [4]

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Singapore's Education Minister Ong Ye Kung outlined his thinking: "I know that ‘coming in first or second’, in class or level, has traditionally been a proud recognition of a student’s achievement. But removing these indicators is for a good reason, so that the child understands from young that learning is not a competition, but a self-discipline they need to master for life."

He conceded that there would still be "some form of yardstick and information to allow students to judge their relative performance, and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses." But it seemed he was shifting the emphasis from "a narrow focus on grades" towards a plan "to help children discover the joy of learning."

Go back to that FT report from October 2017 again – the one revealing the DoE as backing the Singaporean style to the tune of £41mil – and you can already see some clues as to why this side of the Asian model isn't being shouted about as much in the UK. Mr Hannay, the teacher from the West London school in question, had accepted that the Singaporean method "involved changes that [went] far beyond maths classes." [1]

These changes included "high levels of autonomy for individual teachers, who are given far more time than their UK peers to plan lessons." In addition, Mr Hannay said, "we don’t scrutinise and monitor our teachers to death." And Mike Ellicock, chief executive of the charity National Numeracy, added, "We are trying to ‘retro-fit’ a new approach with primary teachers who are not necessarily confident in their own maths ability." [1]

All a far cry from Minister Ong's view that "The [Singaporean] overhaul of the educational system will allow teachers more space to explore new ways of making learning enjoyable and lasting." [4]

And yet, at last check, Singapore still tops the global school rankings...

Here at Epic Tales, the Singaporean method makes sense. As the FT said in 2016, Singapore aimed to "move away from simple rote-learning and focus instead on teaching children how to problem solve." [2] And problem-solving is fun!

Doubt that? Consider this: problem-solving is at the route of every good story in the world. Whatever the problem – a wolf in disguise as a family member, a caterpillar so hungry it's getting sick, an interstellar dictatorship, a single woman entering her 30s – stories work by engaging us in considering which direction the problem will take the hero(es), and how they might come out on top (or, at least, come out).

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Consider also the popularity of puzzle pages, gaming apps, Go Ape courses... Humans love solving challenges! It's a natural part of survival, so it probably follows that we'd be predisposed to get a kick out of it.

And it's probably also little surprise that, when we did our own controlled experiment as part of an EU Lifelong Learning project back in 2013, we found that children who just sat down to enjoy a story recalled, on average, 25% more facts than a control group who'd been given the facts to learn by rote. This report was later referenced by exactly the same Nick Gibb MP as mentioned in the FT 2017 article above – albeit, interestingly, just 5 months before he announced the £41mil investment into the Asian method... [5]

All the while we push our children to perform better in tests, we're undermining the whole point of the Singaporean practice – i.e. to learn for the love of it, and the love of life, not to try being better than everyone else. Singapore's example shows that when you do this – learn for the love of it – that's when you become the best!

Of course, the "Singaporean method" is nothing new. Schools have seen the benefits to their children's attainment from our storytelling since we began in 2007 – but teachers everywhere have seen their students' skill and knowledge improve since humans began storytelling 30,000 years ago or so. And every famous scientist, writer, sportsperson etc has an obvious passion for what they do – they love it, that's why they're the best at it.

And the best part is that storytelling is a communicative artform – so everyone can do it. Even maths can be grasped through story – by both teacher and class. All it takes is the knowledge of how to use storytelling properly within a learning environment – and that's where Epic Tales can help, or perhaps even your own local storyteller.

So help your children enhance their love of learning today: contact us, or contact your local storyteller, to run some INSET so your staff can develop their skills at using story-led learning — to grow more engagement, enjoyment, and attainment in your classrooms.

PS: If this is something your local storyteller isn't sure they can offer, why not invite them to come to an Epic INSET session at your school? You'll then get your staff and your local support talent trained at the same time! Just visit

PPS: And if you're a storyteller wanting to offer Epic INSET, please get in touch with us – we'd love to help you help schools benefit from the full potential of story-led learning. You can also contact us via

By Chip Colquhoun

Epic Director & Storyteller


[1] Financial Times, October 2017

[2] Financial Times, July 2016

[3] Citi Newsroom, Ghana, October 2018

[4] Filipino Times, June 2019

[5], February 2016

Proving the power of storytelling

Copyright © 2020 Epic Tales

Epic Tales is the trading name of Epic Storytelling Ltd, a limited liability social enterprise registered in England & Wales No.11867069.
Its registered office is at 43 Norfolk Road, Wyton, Huntingdon PE28 2EF.

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