Career guidance in Singapore schools

Career guidance in Singapore schools

Esther Tan

Career guidance in Singapore schools went through 3 stages of development. The focus in the 1st stage was on information-giving. A curriculum approach was adopted in the 2nd stage when career education became part and parcel of the school curriculum. The 3rd stage saw the integration of career guidance with information technology and the shift of the role of the career teachers from “expert” to “facilitator.” To meet the challenges of the new millennium, there is a need to train professional career counselors, develop indigenous resource materials, and promote a new concept of career development among students.


In Singapore, a city-state of 4 million people, the development of career guidance in schools went through three stages, spanning three decades. In the first stage, lasting almost two decades from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, the main focus of career guidance was on information-giving. The late 1980s saw the introduction of the curriculum stage when career education became part and parcel of the regular school curriculum. The third stage, from 1996 to the present, is characterized by the integration of technology into career guidance, the emergence of professional training for career counselors, and the development of indigenous resource materials. This article presents an overview of the three stages of development in career guidance and looks ahead to challenges in the new millennium.

First Stage: Information-Giving (1965-1986)

In Singapore, the development of career guidance has been very much influenced by the evolution of the education system, which went through several reform movements after the country gained independence in 1965. In the early years of nation building in the 1960s and 1970s, the education system was “survival-driven” and the focus of education policy was on educating the masses and raising the standard of literacy. Thus, much effort was spent on fostering social cohesion, developing a national identity, and emphasizing technical education to support economic growth. Because the ultimate goal was “survival,” the urgent task was to create jobs to support the economy and train workers to fill these posts. This explained why vocational training was given top priority while the main concern in career guidance in schools was information-giving to familiarize the students with the world of work. Although the Ministry of Education had a “Career Guidance Unit” staffed with career guidance officers, its primary function was to provide occupational information booklets as resource materials for the schools. All the secondary schools were asked to appoint a career teacher whose main responsibility was to make regular visits to the Guidance Unit at the Ministry to collect these career information booklets. Back at the schools, these booklets were placed on the library shelves for display as resource materials for the students.

The information-giving approach was based on three assumptions: (a) that the students were motivated to use the materials provided, (b) that they knew beforehand what kind of information to look for, and (c) that they knew how to use the information once they had located it. The fact was, without encouragement and proper guidance from the teachers, many students were not motivated to look for occupational information, let alone use it for career planning. As reported by the National Productivity Council Task Force on Career Guidance in Schools, the Career Guidance Unit at the Ministry of Education was disbanded in 1979. Two reasons were given for this decision. First, the system in operation at that time was considered ineffective because the mere distribution of descriptive pamphlets on occupational information without proper guidance from trained personnel was not only inadequate but could misguide the students. Second, because the Ministry of Labour was already active in providing occupational information , there was no need to duplicate that function (Sim, 1985).

The observation that mere information-giving was inadequate was also confirmed by two research studies that were conducted in the early 1980s to determine the need for career guidance in schools. In 1984, a survey of 970 final-year students from 30 randomly selected high schools across the island state revealed that as many as 95% of the students had not had any forms of career guidance before leaving school. More than 60% of the students in the sample expressed a desire for some kind of career guidance (Khor, 1987). In a related study, interviews conducted with company personnel from leading industries disclosed that many young job seekers were ignorant of occupational information, had little career direction, and lacked job-seeking skills (Sim, 1985). These findings helped to raise public awareness of the lack of as well as the need for career guidance in schools.

Second Stage: The Curriculum Approach (1987-1995)

The turning point came in December 1986, when then-Minister of Education Tony Tan made a public announcement after he returned from a study tour in the United States and the United Kingdom to share his observations and conclusions. It was his opinion that although Singapore schools had been quite successful in preparing students for academic excellence, the affective aspect of education, such as student counseling and career guidance, was lacking in schools. The published report of the study team, titled “Towards Excellence in Schools” (Ministry of Education, 1987), also stressed the need for career guidance in schools. Soon after the release of the report, the Pastoral Care and Career Guidance Branch was set up at the Ministry of Education to devote its efforts to the planning and implementation of guidance programs in schools. From 1988 to 1993, career guidance initiatives were introduced to secondary schools as a complete personal and social education program, also known as the Pastoral Care and Career Gui dance program (PCCG). This program was implemented in six phases: 17 pilot schools in 1988, 12 schools in 1989, 19 schools in 1990,6 schools in 1991, and 20 schools in 1992. By 1993, all of the remaining 150 secondary schools were phased in. Officially, career guidance had reached all the secondary schools in the country.

The curriculum stage of career guidance coincided with the era of “efficiency-driven education” implemented by the Ministry of Education. With a stabilized economy and growing affluence prevailing in the country, the Singapore education system entered a new phase of development in the late 1980s and early 1990s in which the goal was no longer “survival” but “efficiency.” Therefore, educational policies were “efficiency-driven,” looking at what was needed to achieve excellence in education and seeking the best ways to achieve the goals with the optimal use of resources. Ability grouping and curricular changes were introduced to cater to different ability groups and to reduce educational wastage while values education was emphasized to foster social cohesion. The introduction of pastoral care and career guidance into Singapore schools in the late 1980s was another attempt to make the education system “more efficient.”

Although career guidance was officially introduced to Singapore schools by the mid-1990s, the emphasis at this stage was on career education rather than on career counseling. There were social, cultural, as well as political reasons for this. Traditionally, Singaporean parents, like most Asian parents, place a high premium on academic pursuits. The dream of every Singaporean parent is for his or her child to receive a university education. Parents would discourage their children from working part time on weekends or during vacation because this would distract them from their studies; of course, the parents would not allow their children to seek full-time employment after completing high school. Because the parents emphasized their children’s education, introducing career guidance through the school curriculum was deemed to be highly effective and desirable.

Politically, all Singaporean men are required by law to serve a 21/2-year full-time national service enlistment when they reach age 18 years (after graduation from high school or junior college). Thus, to many male high school graduates aspiring to tertiary education, the prospect of full-time work and job placement seems rather remote. This explains why although many high school students saw career guidance as desirable, they did not feel the urgency to seek counseling. They wanted to know more about the world of work and their own vocational aptitudes, not so much to help them in career planning but to guide them in educational planning (e.g., area of specialization).

Culturally, the teacher’s role in Asian traditions had always been seen as one of imparting knowledge to the young. The teacher’s role in giving personal guidance was still a rather alien concept at the time. In a national survey of a stratified sample of 1,278 high school students from 14 schools across the country, only 3.7% of the students in consulted their teachers about career planning, although many more consulted their fathers (23%) and mothers (32%). The study was conducted to determine the status of career development of Singaporean adolescents. When asked to rate the usefulness of various sources of information for career planning, the students ranked role models in their preferred occupation as the most useful, followed by printed materials and parents. Teachers were at the bottom of the list, being rated as the least helpful source of information (Tan, 1988, 1998).

To support career guidance in schools, the Ministry of Education issued guidelines and provided resource materials, copies of which were given to all of the schools. (Ministry of Education, 1994). This new program adopted a holistic approach to education that not only focused on the academic development of the students but also emphasized the personal, social, moral, and career development of the individuals. In some ways the term pastoral care in the Singapore context is synonymous with the term guidance used in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. In these countries, the term guidance is used to describe the process of developing personal, social, and career-related skills.

Rogers (1984) identified two approaches to career guidance in schools. The first is the “addition” or “careers department approach” in which a specialist careers department is created in the school to provide career guidance to the students. This specialized unit could be staffed by internal staff or specialists coming from outside of the schools, as is still the case in the U.K. (Watts, 1988). In the alternative approach, often called the “infusion” or “the whole curriculum approach,” career education is dispersed throughout the curriculum, and the responsibility of providing career guidance is distributed among the teaching staff. Subject departments are expected to be aware of the changing vocational implications of their own discipline and to “infuse” career guidance into their subject teaching as well.

In Singapore, a combination of the two approaches is practiced in many secondary schools. In a “whole school approach,” career education is viewed as the essence of the Affective and Career Education (ACE) program that should be provided to all the students (Ministry of Education, 1997). The ACE evolved from the Pastoral Care and Career Guidance program that was introduced in the 1980s. As explained in the foreword of the handbook, the aim of this program is to develop “well-balanced individuals who are able to face challenges, manage changes, work productively, live compassionately and contribute to society” (D’Rozario, Jennings, & Khoo, 1998, p. 1). The ACE covers five key areas for developing life skill competencies: Personal Effectiveness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Effective Learning, Transition to Work, and Fostering a Caring Community. All secondary schools are encouraged to set aside at least 35 minutes or one period of curriculum time per week for life skills development through a series of group guidance activities. These sessions, designed to help the students develop self-awareness and engage in career exploration, are usually conducted by the form teachers (equivalent to the homeroom teachers in the U.S.). Besides the ACE curriculum, subject teachers are expected to incorporate career education in their teaching. Such sharing of responsibilities is characteristic of the “infusion” approach. On the other hand, a fair number of Singapore schools assign a specialist teacher to provide career guidance to students through planned group guidance sessions, career assessment activities, as well as face-to-face counseling, which is conducted outside of curriculum time. Such a practice is typical of the “addition” approach.

Third Stage: Integration (1996-Present)

By the mid-1990s, career guidance had become a regular feature in the Singapore education system, and many schools are moving into the integration stage in which the responsibility of giving students career guidance is shared among career teachers; classroom teachers; school counselors; parents; and members of the community, such as potential employers. No Longer is the career teacher viewed as the expert who has all the answers. More and more, he or she is viewed as the “facilitator” who spends much time and effort coordinating various types of career guidance activities. One school summed up its career guidance program as comprising the following activities–the conduct of occupational surveys to assess guidance needs of students; individual counseling and group guidance on subject combination, learning of job application, and job interviewing skills; group sessions to develop decision-making and problem-solving skills; the organization of career weeks and career seminars; visits to industries; and, finally , work shadowing and work experience programs during the vacation to provide students with the opportunity to experience firsthand what working life is like (Ong & Chia, 1994). Increasingly, parents and the alumni are participating as role models and resource persons. Some parents and alumni are invited to share with the students their personal work experiences; others offer their workplaces as sites for obtaining work experience. Another distinctive feature of the Integration Stage in career guidance is the use of technology; thus, the use of the computer in career guidance has become a regular feature in schools since the 1990s.

Although career education continues to be the key element of the school curriculum, one distinctive feature of the Integration Stage is the new emphasis on individualized guidance to help students in developmental, preemployment career planning. Such a move is in line with the government’s current policy of implementing an “ability-driven” education that seeks to develop the full spectrum of talents and abilities in every child in school. The focus now is to pay particular attention to the different talents and abilities of every student and to equip all school children with the necessary skills and values that will allow them to go wherever their unique talents and abilities take them in this modern age of globalization. This current emphasis not only highlights the relevance and importance of career guidance but also presents challenges for career guidance practices in the new millennium.

Looking Ahead: Challenges for the New Millennium

Challenge 1: The Preparation of Career Teachers

The emphasis on career guidance in schools has resulted in an increasing demand for teacher training. Responding to this training need, the National Institute of Education introduced a comprehensive eight-module in-service diploma program in pastoral care and career guidance in 1989 to prepare career teachers for the schools (Tan, 1990). This in-service training program has been well received since its inception. Nevertheless, in an attempt to make the program even more relevant and rigorous, the in-service diploma has since been replaced by an Advanced Diploma in Guidance and Counselling, launched in January 2001, which comprises course work (seven modules) and practicum. At the postgraduate level, a part-time master’s degree program comprising course work, research, and practicum was introduced in 1997 to train educational psychologists and professional counselors, including career counselors to serve in the schools.

Challenge 2: Bridging the Gap Between the School and the World of Work

To bridge the gap between the school and the world of work and to enhance the effectiveness of career counselors in schools, the Ministry of Education launched a “teacher-in-industry” project in 1992 through which the career teachers were assigned to industries to have firsthand experience of these work settings (Tan, 1995a). An evaluation of this project revealed that it had benefited all participants. The teachers believed that the firsthand experience of the working environment enabled them to better prepare their students for the transition from school to work. For the industry personnel, the scheme had established a two-way communication channel between the companies and the schools and, in this way, linking the industries to the potential workforce (Ministry of Education, 1993).

Challenge 3: Development of Indigenous Resource Materials

With the move into a knowledge-based economy, the current emphasis on information technology in Singapore and the ready availability of-sophisticated computer facilities, there has been much research and development effort in recent years to develop computer software to enhance career guidance practices in schools. One such computer software is called JOBS (Jobs Orientation Backup System) and is designed to provide up-to-date occupational information and facilitate self-assessment of career interest, vocational aptitudes, and work values. Developed by a team of researchers at the National Institute of Education and launched in 1995, this computer software is now widely used in Singapore schools as an assessment tool for career teachers (Tan, 1995b). The success and popularity of this career guidance software highlights the need to develop more indigenous resource materials through research and development work using information technology.

Challenge 4: Promoting a New Concept of Career Development

As the new millennium progresses, traditional concepts in career guidance need to be reexamined, and some basic assumptions of career development need to be challenged. In this Information Technology age, knowledge becomes obsolete quickly, and new jobs are being created all the time. The traditional concept of career development being progression up an ordered hierarchy within an organization or profession is no longer valid. Organizations, as well as the individuals working in them, need to engage in a lifelong learning process. The term career needs to be redefined as the individual’s lifelong progression in learning and in work. Learning embraces all forms of learning, both formal and informal. Work embraces all forms of work, paid or unpaid, self-employed or other-employed. Thus, the challenge facing career counselors in the new millennium is to educate both employers and employees in accepting this new concept of career development.

In conclusion, the twenty-first century needs a workforce that believes in lifelong learning while coping with rapid changes in many arenas of life–individuals who are willing to strive, take pride in their work, and value working with others. Career guidance in schools definitely has a critical role to play in preparing and shaping such a workforce for the new millennium.


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Esther Tan is an associate professor and head of psychological studies at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Correspondence regarding this article should he sent to Esther Tan, National Institute of Education, 1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616, Republic of Singapore (e-mail:

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