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Chris McGovern: Singapore’s lesson for Brexit Britain: Learn another language


Should post-Brexit UK seek to become an Atlantic Singapore? By any reckoning, this Asia-Pacific tiger economy has been a remarkable success story since gaining full independence from Britain in 1963 and being expelled from Malaysia in 1965.

Writing in the Telegraph this week, Professor Lutfey Siddiqi of Singapore’s National University noted:

‘In absolute terms, 5million Singaporeans export almost as much every year as 60million Britons, running a trade surplus of 15 per cent compared with a 6 per cent deficit. Annual income is about 30 per cent higher than in Britain.’
He believes the Singapore experience is instructive for a nation in Britain’s position. Singapore, though, presents the West with something of a dilemma. Its prosperity, racial integration and social stability are envied, but its democracy is criticised for being too narrowly based and its social policies are commonly regarded as over-dirigiste.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is not a fan. He recently told Le Monde that post-Brexit Britain will not be following Singapore’s low-tax, low-regulation model for economic growth. We will remain ‘recognisably European’, he promised. The Financial Times agrees. It urges him ‘to abandon the idea of a British Singapore before it does more damage to the negotiations with Brussels – and to the UK’s domestic debate about its future’.

The sad truth for us about the Singapore option, however, is that it is built on high-quality schooling. This means it cannot be an option for us. One cannot reject what is not on offer.

Singapore’s founding father, Cambridge-educated Lee Kuan Yew, understood that the foundation for economic progress and social harmony is education. Singapore achieved independence shortly after Ghana and was in a similar state of economic development. Look at it now!

According to a Forbes magazine analysis of IMF data, by 2015 the island state had become the third-richest in the world based on GDP per head and purchasing power parity. The UK came in at 23rd – roughly in line with its performance on the OECD PISA tables for the educational attainment of 15-year-olds. Singapore pupils are at the top of those performance tables, up to three years ahead of ours.

This progress to educational superstar status has not happened by chance. Rigorous teaching and learning is in the DNA of modern Singapore. Significantly, it includes the British-produced GCE O-Level examination that is now, in effect, banned from being taught here since it is not classified as an ‘approved qualification’.

An underlying reason for the success of the Singaporean education system is the high priority Lee Kuan Yew gave to the promotion of bilingualism. Whilst recognising the importance of a mother tongue – Mandarin, English, Malay or Tamil – for the purpose of cultural identity, he saw that it was essential to have English as a unifying language and to meet the challenges of globalisation and world trade.

And for those Singaporeans born, like him, to English-speaking parents, he saw it as vital to learn another Singaporean tongue. In his book My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey he describes his own struggle to master Mandarin. Ethnic Chinese make up 75 per cent of Singaporeans and, unsurprisingly, Singapore is one of China’s most important trading partners.

Tony Tan Keng Yam, recent president of Singapore, summed up the importance of bilingualism to Singapore in a letter to the current prime minister:

‘Singaporeans today are able to leverage on our bilingual and bicultural edge to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves around the world.’

As native speakers of English, the world language, the UK has a self-evident advantage when it comes to world trade and, not least, in the context of Brexit. However, our laziness in learning foreign languages is likely to become an increasing burden. The rest of the world is ready and willing to sell to us in English. If we wish to sell more to other countries in a competitive market place, knowledge of the purchasers’ language and, indeed, culture, provides a considerable advantage.

It was partly for this reason that the boys’ preparatory school of which I was head became the first in the country to teach Mandarin to five-year-olds. As it is a tonal language, infants find it far easier to learn than do older children or adults. These five-year-olds were also taught French and learned Latin from the age of nine. Four other foreign languages were on offer as after-school options: Ancient Greek, German, Spanish and Arabic. I may have set the foreign language bar high, but the children rose to the challenge and parents fought to gain a place for their sons. Hot-housing? Not at all! The school’s main attraction was its relaxed, family atmosphere and its rock band!

Sadly, this rosy picture of foreign language teaching in a private school is not reflected in the maintained sector. True, primary schools are now supposed to offer a foreign language from the age of seven, but the quality of provision is patchy and many teachers are not qualified beyond GCSE.

The dire state of foreign language learning is most clearly illustrated by entrants for GCSE and A-Level. Over the past two decades the number has almost halved. Although a foreign language is a requirement of the five-subject EBacc (English Baccalaureate) for GCSE, the number of entries continues to fall – by 7 per cent this year.

The Association of School and College Lecturers has warned that ‘languages are in such a fragile state that German is at risk of becoming extinct in state schools’. The knock-on effect is now being felt in universities, with courses closing or contracting.

Singapore is not alone amongst successful economies in giving a high priority to foreign languages and bilingualism. For Brexit Britain even to contemplate becoming an Atlantic Singapore, it will need to do the same.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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