Independent Schools Scheme

The Independent Schools Scheme was introduced by the Ministry of Education in 1987 to give selected leading schools greater autonomy in the management of its own affairs, such as staff recruitment and salaries, curriculum, textbooks, school programmes, pupil admission and fee structures. This step to liberalise education was intended to give schools the latitude to spearhead innovative educational programmes that would develop students’ creative and critical thinking skills, in the face of a competitive and fast-changing future economy. In January 1988, St Joseph’s Institution, Anglo-Chinese School and the Chinese High School (now Hwa Chong Institution) became the first schools to turn independent.1 This initiative to diversify the education landscape was a pioneering move after three decades of centralised control since the enactment of the Education Ordinance of 1957.2

The idea of independent schools was first mooted in May 1985 by then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Speaking at the Founder’s Day celebrations of Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College, DPM Goh disclosed that the Ministry of Education would be forming a committee to explore the feasibility of giving some schools greater autonomy. He then explained how independent schools could mitigate the limitations of standardised education. While Singapore’s centralised system of education had been successful in producing achievement-oriented students, it had been less effective in encouraging creativity and developing critical and enquiring minds.

With less bureaucracy, independent schools would have the flexibility to tailor programmes that would help students reach their full potential. As an alternative model for education, independent schools would also provide a point of reference for comparing and evaluating the performance of the present education system. Initiatives that had been successfully introduced in independent schools could then be also applied to government schools. In addition, DPM Goh noted that with increased standardisation among schools, some premier schools had lost some of their unique identity over the years. The Independent Schools scheme would help these schools preserve and cultivate their traditions and characters. DPM Goh expressed his belief that the innovation brought by independent schools would help achieve the ministry’s aim of excellence in schools and bring about improvements in education for the 21st century. He also gave the assurance that deserving students would be given financial assistance to study at independent schools.3

Similar views from the government were voiced the following year. In July 1986, then Minister for Education Dr Tony Tan spoke in favour of a bottom-up approach to foster creativity and innovation in schools during his speech at the Nanyang Technological Institute Students’ Union Forum. He also stressed the need for educational policy to adapt to economic changes.4 During the National Day rally in August 1986, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew further urged six of the best schools to privatise as a government monopoly in education meant a lack of competition and diversity.5

In the months that followed, feedback was sought from educators, parents and members of the public. While some were in favour of independent schools, others were concerned about the affordability of quality education and job security for teachers.6 The minister of education also met with principals from schools deemed to possess the prerequisites for going independent, which included well-established institutions with capable principals, experienced teachers, strong alumni networks and a responsible board of governors or school management committee.7

The then principal of Raffles Institution, Eugene Wijeysingha, was among those who responded positively to the idea. He stated his support through a paper titled “A Development Programme for Raffles” where he noted that the bureaucracy of centralised education could hinder creativity and the experimentation of new ideas. He also put forward a new management model for Raffles Institution based on a board of governors overseeing an independent school.8

At the Schools’ Council meeting in January 1987, Dr Tony Tan reiterated the government’s plan to shift educational innovation from the ministry to schools. He challenged schools to transform from being implementers to initiators of change. Tan cited a study on private schools in America that contended that private schools were more successful than public ones because they were governed by market forces and hence more responsive to the needs and demands of parents and students who were consumers of educational services.9

Towards excellence in schools

In addition to gathering public feedback, Tan also led a group of 12 principals on a study tour of 25 leading schools in Great Britain and the United States in November to December 1986. Findings from the trip were collated in a report titled “Towards Excellence in Schools” in February 1987.10 Among the wide-ranging recommendations made in the report was the establishment of independent schools. The report noted that the headmasters of these successful overseas schools, appointed by a reliable and autonomous board, were given latitude when governing school affairs.

Accordingly, the report recommended that local principals be given more freedom in the running of schools, particularly in matters such as teacher selection and curriculum development. It also recommended that principals of independent schools, if they were set up, should be appointed by the governing board of the school. The board should comprise responsible members from various professional fields, academia and the alumni, so that the school could benefit from their range of expertise. The report also advocated that teachers be given more room to develop teaching programmes and select textbooks.11

Both the report and the Independent Schools scheme were discussed during the budget debate in parliament on 19 March 1987. While the recommendations were supported, some parliamentarians were concerned that less well-off students would not be able to enrol in independent schools due to their higher school fees, thus engendering a culture of elitism. There were also questions if independent schools were necessary to achieve excellence in schools. Others felt that the report placed too much emphasis on the principal as the main agent to achieve excellence in schools.12

Establishment of independent schools
The government’s decision on independent schools was announced by Dr Tony Tan at the Pre-U seminar on “Towards Excellence in Schools” in June 1987. Three schools, Anglo-Chinese School, St Joseph’s Institution, Chinese High School, were selected to join the Independent Schools scheme from 1988. School and miscellaneous fees for independent schools were raised from $9.50 to $25, with financial assistance provided to needy students. To give these schools a head start, the government would provide a grant of $2,500 per student, which was the annual cost of educating a secondary school student.13

The ministry also set up guidelines on the degree of autonomy that these schools could exercise. While schools had the flexibility to decide on curriculum, they still had to adhere to national educational policies such as bilingualism, moral education and national examinations. They also had to be managed by a board of governors appointed by the school community with the approval from the minister of education. The scope of the board’s responsibilities included the appointment of principals with concurrence from the director of education, approval of budgets, overseeing major financial decisions and changes in school policies, setting of school fees and staff salaries, hiring, promotion and sacking of staff as well as expulsion of students. Aside from these areas, the principal would have extensive autonomy in the running of the school, particularly in the selection and deployment of teaching staff, pupil admission and curriculum changes made in consultation with staff and the board.14

Implementation and aftermath
Following the announcement, the three schools set up endowment funds with a target to raise $10 million to help needy students and fund school programmes. The government gave its support by pledging a donation of up to $1 million on a dollar-for-dollar basis and also granting tax exemptions on donations.15

To pave the way for more schools to become independent,16 the School Board (Incorporation) Act, which defined the roles and responsibilities of the board, was enacted on 1 January 1990.17

More schools turned independent in the years that followed: Methodist Girls’ School and Singapore Chinese Girls’ School in 1989,18 Raffles Institution in 1990,19 as well as Nanyang Girls’ School and Raffles Girls’ Secondary School in 1993.20

However, the scheme came under public criticism when school fees of independent schools began escalating. In 1990, school fees were raised from $25 to $50–$100 to meet the cost of hiring more teachers due to smaller class sizes and to provide better facilities and more varied educational programmes.21 The following year, another round of increases brought fees up to $70–$200.22 Many expressed their dismay that quality education was becoming more expensive.23 Against this backdrop, the ministry asked Victoria School and Dunman High to defer their plans to become independent.24

Introduction of autonomous schools
In December 1991, then Senior Minister of State (Trade and Industry) Lim Boon Heng broached the subject of an alternative model to independent schools where schools could still enjoy more autonomy while maintaining normal school fees.25 The concept of autonomous schools was announced by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in July 1992 at the opening of the new Raffles Institution building in Bishan. He revealed that he had asked the Ministry of Education to identify two to three government schools to become autonomous government schools. Autonomous government schools would have the flexibility of introducing innovations in curriculum while keeping school fees affordable. This move was in line with the government’s long term plan to decentralise administration and provide more options in education. These schools would also provide competition to independent schools.26

The framework for autonomous schools was unveiled by then Minister of Education Lee Yock Suan in parliament in March 1993. Operating under the concept of limited independence, these schools were to receive 10 percent more government funding that they could use to offer elective subjects and hire part-time coaches and administrative support staff who would then free teachers up to plan and teach enrichment programmes such as computer-based lessons, field trips and special projects. However, unlike independent schools, the additional funds could not be used to reduce class sizes. School fees would be pegged at $15 to $32, higher than the normal fees of $12 to $14, but still much lower than the fees charged by independent schools. The principal would also have more say in staff selection. Autonomous schools were to be the economic and social bridge between independent schools and government and government-aided schools.27

In 1994, the following six schools became the first autonomous schools: Victoria School, Anderson Secondary, Bukit Panjang Government High, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (Toa Payoh), Dunman High and River Valley High School.28 This was followed by another six schools in 199529 and six more in 1996.30

In 2000, there were 18 autonomous schools in operation. Then Minister for Education Teo Chee Hean announced that the autonomous school model had been successful in providing quality education. Henceforth, secondary schools with good results, good community ties and a sound education programme could apply to become autonomous.31

Gracie Lee

1. Jason Tan, S. Gopinathan and Ho Wah Kam, Education in Singapore: A Book of Readings (Singapore: Prentice Hall, 1997), 279–95. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 EDU)
2. “Focus Must Shift from Ministry to the Schools,” Straits Times, 14 January 1987, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Paul Jacob, “Bold New Idea to ‘Free’ Schools,” Straits Times, 30 May 1985, 1; Peng Ailian, “Plan to Examine ‘Independent Schools’ Idea,” Business Times, 30 May 1985, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Towards a More Creative and Innovative Society,” Straits Times, 23 July 1986, 14; “Education to Keep Up with Economic Changes: Dr Tan,” Business Times, 23 July 1986, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Speech at the National Day Rally at Kallang Theatre,” The Papers of Lee Kuan Yew: Speeches, Interviews and Dialogues, vol. 9 (Singapore: Gale Asia, 1981–1987), 547–69. (Call no. RSING 959.5705092 LEE)
6. Ben Davidson, “Government to Seek Views on Independent Schools,” Straits Times, 15 September 1986, 1; “Your Move, Schools Told,” Straits Times, 9 October 1986, 11; Valerie Lee, “Dr Tan Identifies 4 Main Issues,” Straits Times, 7 March 1987, 11; Valerie Lee, “Don t Rush In, Say the 'Cautionists',” Straits Times, 8 March 1987, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Going Solo: Top Aided Schools on the Move,” Straits Times, 5 November 1986, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “‘Best Submission I’ve Received for a Long Time’ – Says Dr Tony Tan,” Straits Times, 8 October 1986, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Focus Must Shift.”
10. “Dr Tan Off to Britain, US,” Straits Times, 30 November 1986, 16; Valerie Lee, “Schools: Bold Steps Mooted,” Straits Times, 8 February 1987, 1; Valerie Lee, “What Principals Saw and What They Recommended,” Straits Times, 9 February 1987, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Ministry of Education, Singapore, Towards Excellence in Schools (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 1987). (Call no. RSING 371.20095957 TOW)
12. Parliament of Singapore, Budget, vol. 49 of Official Reports – Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 19 March 1987, cols. 587–62. 
13. “Three Schools to Go Independent Next Year,” Straits Times, 23 June 1987, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Ministry of Education, Singapore, Towards Excellence in Schools.
14. “Three Schools to Go Independent Next Year”; Ministry of Education, Singapore, Towards Excellence in Schools.
15. Valerie Lee, “Three Independent Schools to Set Up Endowment Funds,” Straits Times, 2 September 1987, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Bill to Pave Way for Independent Schools,” Straits Times, 16 January 1990, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
17. School Boards (Incorporation) Act, Cap 284A, The Statutes of the Republic of Singapore, rev. ed., 2013.
18. Lim Yeen Fong, “Optimism as 2 Girls’ Schools Go Solo,” Straits Times, 4 January 1989, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Chua Chong Jin, “RI Goes Independent from Next Year,” Straits Times, 2 September 1989, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Sandra Davie, “2 Schools Told to Put Off Plans to Go Independent,” Straits Times, 15 January 1992, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Ng Wei Joo, “RI and 5 Independent Schools to Raise Fees Next Year,” Straits Times, 3 November 1989, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Sandra Davie, “5 Independent Schools Raise Fees,” Straits Times, 11 September 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “MP Criticises Fee Rise,” Business Times, 6 November 1989, 22; “Unfair to Give Independent Schools Higher Subsidies. MP,” Straits Times, 16 November 1989, 3; “Adopt Changes at a Moderate Pace, MP Tells Independent Schools,” Straits Times, 18 November 1989, 25; “Govt Will Not Interfere with Independent Schools’ Fee Hikes,” Straits Times, 30 November 1989, 19; Rohaniah Saini, “Too Much, Too Sudden for Some Parents,” Straits Times, 11 September 1990, 3; “Paying More for More,” Straits Times, 21 September 1990, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Davie, “2 Schools Told to Put Off Plans to Go Independent.” 
25. “Boon Heng Calls for Schools that Are Not Independent but Have More Autonomy,” Straits Times, 29 December 1991, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Warren Fernandez, “Govt Schools to Get More Freedom: PM,” Straits Times, 19 July 1991, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Autonomous Schools: Monthly Fees of $15-$32,” Straits Times, 12 March 1993, 29; “Gearing Up for Autonomy,” Straits Times, 1 April 1993, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “6 Schools to Go Autonomous,” Straits Times, 18 July 1993, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Leong Chan Teik, “Six More Secondary Schools Will Go Autonomous,’ Straits Times, 31 July 194, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “6 More Autonomous Schools,” Straits Times, 2 March 1995, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
31. M. Nirmala, “More Autonomous Schools,” Straits Times, 13 January 2000, 40. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Eng Thye Jason Tan, . (1996). Independent Schools and Autonomous Schools in Singapore: A Study of Two School Privatization Initiatives Aimed at Promoting School Innovation(Ph.D diss., State University of New York, 1996). (Call no. RSING 371.02095957 TAN)

H. H. B. Lim, “Educational Reforms in Singapore – Thoughts on Decentralisation and Independent Schools,” Commentary  8, nos. 1–2 (September 1989), 75–81. (Call no. RSING 300.5 C)

Jason Tan, S. Gopinathan and Ho Wah Kam, eds., Education in Singapore: A Book of Readings (Singapore: Prentice Hall, 1997), 279—95. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 EDU)

J. Tan, “Education in the Early 21st Century: Challenges and Dilemmas,” in In Da Cunha, D. (Ed.) Singapore in the New Millennium: Challenges Facing the City-State, ed., Derek da Cunha (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2002), 154–86. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])

J. Tan, “Education in Singapore: Sorting Them Out?” in Management of Success: Singapore Revisited, ed., Terence Chong (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), 288–08. (Call no. RSING 959.57 MAN)

John Yip Soon Kwong and Sim Wong Kooi, eds., Evolution of Educational Excellence: 25 Years of Education in the Republic of Singapore (Singapore: Longman Singapore, 1990), 24–27. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 EVO)

The information in this article is valid as at September 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Private schools--Singapore
Secondary schools
Education and state--Singapore
Education, Secondary--Singapore