Ambitious education reform efforts aim to better prepare students for the global market

The Sultanate’s long-term strategic vision of a diversified, knowledge-based economy depends heavily on how well the education system can prepare the country’s future business leaders for the rapidly evolving and increasingly integrated global market. Preparing to build on its already solid foundation of core academic skills, Brunei Darussalam is revamping its entire educational model in a bid to provide the next generation of students with the tools needed to be competitive in the 21st century. Complementing the transformation of its basic education system is an equally ambitious overhaul of tertiary institutions designed to combat unemployment across a broad range of sectors and skill sets.

From The Top Down

Many of the current education reforms are being made with the long-term goals of Wawasan Brunei 2035 (Brunei Vision 2035), the nation’s strategic development plan up to the year 2035, in mind. Although Wawasan Brunei 2035’s three education-related key performance indicators are more subjective – namely, that Bruneians are recognised as educated and highly skilled by the highest international standards – the shorter-term targets drawn up by the Ministry of Education (MoE) are decidedly more targeted. For the five-year strategic plan running from 2007 to 2011 the MoE achieved all four of its primary targets: increasing to at least 80% the ratio of teachers who have obtained first-degree or higher qualifications; ensuring that 80% or more of students complete their vocational and technical education; improving the ratio of computer access for students to 1:10; and introducing Compulsory Education Order 2007, which stipulates a minimum of nine years of mandatory education.

New Plan

Having accomplished its previous goals, the MoE is now focused on its current strategic plan for the 2012-17 period. This includes three focus areas: teaching and learning excellence; professionalism and accountability; and efficiency and innovation, all bolstered by 14 strategic objectives and 18 key performance indicators. New priority initiatives include early childhood care and education; the development of the Brunei Teachers’ Standards to continuously improve the quality of education, including technical education through the Model Schools initiative; and finally, the Boarding School or Hostel With a Holistic Approach initiative. Much of these efforts will be directed towards the implementation of the new curriculum and teaching models introduced in the National Education System for the 21st Century Plan (Sistem Pendidikan Negara Abad Ke-21, or SPN21) in 2009, which focuses on integrating more innovative and modern teaching methods and tools into the classroom.


The government is sparing no expense in its education reform efforts. The 2013/14 budget included substantial expenditure on capacity building, especially among youth, and strengthening the private sector. This trend continued in the 2014/15 budget, in which the MoE received the secondlargest allocation of any government entity at BN$770.78m ($604.5m) – 13% of the total, behind only the Ministry of Finance with BN$1.17bn ($917.6m). In addition, funding for development under the 10th National Development Plan totalled BN$1.15bn ($901.95m) for 2014/15. The plan includes numerous education-related development priorities within its purview, with a total of 75 education projects requiring expenditures of BN$124.7m ($87.8m) over its five-year lifespan until 2017.

From The Ground Up

As part of the Sultanate’s commitment to education, the government provides free education to all citizens and permanent residents starting from kindergarten. This includes seven years of primary education (including one year of pre-school), three years of lower secondary schooling and two years of upper secondary, vocational or technical education. State and private schools use Malay and English as their languages of instruction, while Islamic institutions also instruct in Arabic.


To fulfil its educational obligations, the government operated a total of 177 of 257 educational institutions as of 2013, according to the Department of Economic Planning and Development (JPKE). The bulk of these are 122 pre-school, kindergarten, primary and preparatory schools; followed by 41 secondary, sixth-form pre-university schools; five tertiary institutions; and nine technical and vocational schools. These are complemented by 80 private schools, 74 of which are pre-school, kindergarten, primary and preparatory schools, with technical and vocational schools (four) and tertiary schools (two) accounting for the remainder. The two international schools are the Jerudong International School, established in 1997, and the International School Brunei, set up in 1964. Both follow the British curriculum for students up to the age of 18 and are members of the Federation of British International Schools in South-east and East Asia.

The Sultanate’s premier tertiary institution is the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, which was established in 1985 and houses seven faculties, nine research institutes and three academic support centres. Traditional public and private universities have been complemented by a growing number of technical and vocational institutions as the country grapples with rising unemployment and a growing reliance on foreign workers (see analysis). The most recent additions in technical and vocational training were Brunei Polytechnic in 2012, Wasan Vocational School in 2006 and the Business School in 2005.

Aligning what students learn in the classroom with the needs of the labour market is a particular focus for the sector going forward. Pengiran Hajah Fatimah Momin, the CEO of Kolej IGS, told OBG, “What institutions of higher education in Brunei Darussalam are now looking to instil in students is the importance of self-learning in tandem with traditional teaching, while encouraging personal development and the attainment of soft skills to make them better suited for the job market.”

A total of 7706 teachers served in the public school system in 2013, down from 8584 the previous year, as the number of students also declined from 82,331 to 71,057. The private sector employed roughly one-third this amount, with 2315 teachers serving a total of 34,575 students in 2013.

Grading On The Curve

Brunei Darussalam’s dedication to investing in education continues to yield tangible results, with the country consistently ranking high among its regional peers. The Sultanate ranked 30th in the education category out of 187 countries in the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) 2014 Human Development Index, which placed it firmly in the highest-ranked category of “Very High Human Development”. Brunei Darussalam was also one of the few nations in Asia to achieve this distinction, along with Singapore (ranked number 9 overall), the Republic of Korea (15), Hong Kong (15) and Japan (17), and well above Malaysia (62), China (91), Indonesia (108) and the Philippines (117). Already high literacy rates continue to inch upwards, reaching 97.2% in 2013, up from 96.8% in 2012, according to the JPKE. The 2013 data include a 98.1% literacy rate for males and 96.3% for females. The Sultanate also scored well across a host of other UNDP categories, including gross enrolment ratios for primary, secondary and tertiary institutions of 95, 108 and 24, respectively, as well as 63.8% of the population attaining at least a secondary education, and a primary school dropout rate of 3.6%. These achievements indicate that not only has Brunei Darussalam exceeded the UN Millennium Development Goals for education by achieving universal primary education, but also that its education system is one of the best performing in the region.

21st Century

Not content to rest on its laurels, the education sector continues to roll out its SPN21 reforms across the board. Based on a three-pillar strategy of defining clear career pathways from enrolment to the workplace, a major overhaul of national curricula and reformatting of technical education, the SPN21 plans to rework the education sector into a more nimble, demand-based system able to better prepare its graduates for the evolving requirements of the modern economy. In line with the long-range goals laid out in plans such as Wawasan Brunei 2035, the reforms will cover a diverse array of learning areas, including languages, mathematics, science, humanities, social studies, arts, culture, technology, Islamic studies, the Malay Muslim Monarchy, health and physical education in hopes of producing well-rounded students with lifelong learning skills. In contrast to past systems, the student-centred SPN21 programme will also retrain teachers to emphasise development of crucial soft skills and behavioural development of core values and attitudes that will better prepare students for secondary education and, eventually, employment.

Implementation of SPN21 was initiated on a limited basis for only year-seven students in 2008 under a transitional period before adding students from years one and four in 2009, with full implementation at the primary level starting in 2011. Upon the completion of primary education, secondary students then follow a common set of curricula for years seven and eight before moving on to either an additional four- or five-year programme, depending on the results of an evaluation after completion of year eight. Based on their assessed strengths and weaknesses, students attend a variety of secondary education programmes focusing on academia ( culminating in a Brunei-Cambridge GCE O-Level examination), technology, business and other specialised education tracks in fields such as science and mathematics, sports, music, performing arts and fine arts.

Brave New World

Included within the SPN21 programme is a focus on integrating technology into the classroom. This is part of an effort to familiarise students with technology used in the workplace while providing innovative ways to keep them engaged in school. Samir Patel, principal consultant and project manager for Singapore-based consultancy globalSOF consortium, told OBG, “The key areas of focus for enhancing the use of technology in schools include boosting the competency of teachers, instilling key 21st-century skills such as digital literacy, improving curriculum design and realising the authorities’ vision for ICT integration in schools.”

Taken from the Arabic word meaning “moving forward”, the e-Hijrah programme will be based on a new next-generation ICT network connecting all government schools and administration, and allowing for real-time management and support, as well as access to information and locally developed curricula presented to students in state-of-the-art classrooms. Collectively the e-Hijrah blueprint targets the three primary objectives of the Whole School ICT Development (WSID), i-Services, and Foresight and Innovation programme.

First initiated in 2011, stage one of the WSID programme was to collect data on the students themselves to gain a better understanding of their needs for curriculum development, including information on academic performance, literacy, numeracy, discipline, leadership, teachers’ and administrative strengths and weaknesses, school resources and wider community participation. The project is now in the implementation stage, starting with a limited number of model schools to act as pilots, and i-services and integrated management systems are being rolled out. By 2014, 20 model schools across the country had adopted the new WSID programme, including two pilot programmes in which interactive devices such as laptops and tablets were introduced. In all, the WSID programme contains 16 initiatives dedicated to increasing the use of ICT in the classroom by students, teachers and administrators alike.

The second stage of development, creating curricula and other educational electronic content, is also making significant progress. As of mid-2014 the government, in conjunction with globalSOF, which is assisting with the e-Hijrah roll-out, was testing the content of e-books, primarily with Islamic studies course matter. To develop entertaining yet educational learning content, globalSOF and the MoE have also brought on board Singapore-based media entertainment and creative services firm Infinite Studios, which has a successful track record of developing its own content aired on networks such as HBO, the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. One example of the content yielded from these partnerships is the development of the game-based learning application on Bruneian history and culture named the Castille War Interactive Learning Resources, which allows users to play a Bruneian character from the 16th century and experience the events leading up to the Castille War.

Another advantage in partnering with globalSOF, which has also helped develop educational curriculum programmes in Taiwan, New Zealand and Singapore, is that it can apply lessons learned from past efforts to the new Bruneian system. The ultimate goal of providing educational devices such as tablets for all students, for instance, will likely be delayed somewhat, as previous attempts at this have revealed that the devices often initially prove more distracting than educational for students.


Building on its strong educational foundation, Brunei Darussalam’s education sector is likely to encounter some transitional growing pains over the next few years as the country works to completely overhaul its education system. In the long run basic public schools should produce many graduates who are better prepared to take on the challenges of an increasingly fluid and demanding marketplace. Efforts to place more Bruneians in technical positions currently dominated by foreign workers are also continuing through the reorganisation and expansion of the technical and vocational education (TVE) system (see analysis). While there have been early signs of success so far in training workers for the energy sector, larger challenges remain as other sectors are less mature. The ICT and construction industries are also being promoted as the next major targets for increased local participation, with a number of other sectors on the horizon ranging from aircraft services and maintenance to agriculture.

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The Report: Brunei Darussalam 2014

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