Sie Yu Chuah smiles when asked how his parents would react to a low test score. "My parents are not that strict but they have high expectations of me," he says. "I have to do well. Excel at my studies. That’s what they expect from me." The cheerful, slightly built 13-year-old is a pupil at Admiralty, a government secondary school in the northern suburbs of Singapore that opened in 2002. A city-state of just 5.5-million people, Singapore is routinely ranked at or near the top in global comparisons of mathematical ability and boasts one of the most admired education systems in the world. In a league table based on test scores from 76 countries published by the OECD in May 2017, Singapore came first, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The rankings, based on testing 15-year-olds’ abilities in maths and science, reinforced a sense that western children were slipping behind their Asian peers. The UK was in 20th place and the US 28th in the table. At meetings of the worl...

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