One of the key objectives of Brunei Darussalam’s vision for development, Wawasan Brunei 2035, is for its people to be educated and highly skilled – a goal the government intends to reach by building a quality education system that provides opportunities for all. The system is also designed to meet the challenges of an ever-changing, competitive and knowledgebased global economy, as well as encourage lifelong learning and achievement in sport and the arts.

DEVELOPMENT AIMS: Forging a competitive workforce, creating technical and vocational avenues for higher education, incorporating information and communications technology into curricula, and encouraging innovation top the list of initiatives that educators and ministers are prioritising as the country strives to reach its long-term development goals. But as technology changes the world at a rapid pace, educators have also been entrusted with the task of maintaining traditional values and encouraging the development of soft skills.

Brunei Darussalam’s literacy rate was 96.7% in 2011, according to the Department of Statistics. The national net enrolment ratio in primary education was greater than 96% for both girls and boys for 2005-08, and the proportion of grade 1 students who successfully reached grade 5 is about 99%. Together, these statistics signify that the country has achieved universal primary education, which is number two of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Furthermore, it ranks 11th in the world when it comes to the prevalence of women in higher education, according to the World Economic Forum report “2012 Global Gender Gap”.

Achievements such as these are possible because the Sultanate has invested in the National Education System for the 21st Century (Sistem Pendidikan Negara Abad Ke-21, SPN21), a strategic long-term education policy emphasising human capacity development of teachers and school administrators and educational infrastructure and teaching facilities.

FREE EDUCATION: The government provides citizens with 12 years of free education, composed of 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 include Arabic as a medium of instruction. A modified form of the UK’s Cambridge General Certificate of Education (GCE) A-level examinations is used to prepare students for university and other institutions of higher education.

In 2011 Brunei Darussalam had a total of 255 state and private schools, colleges and education institutions, according to the Department of Statistics’ “Statistical Yearbook”. Of these, 172 were state institutions. There were four state universities – Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD), Universiti Islam Sultan Sharif Ali, the Institut Teknologi Brunei and the religious teachers’ university, Kolej Universiti Perguruan Ugama Seri Begawan. There are also seven technical or vocational schools and colleges.

There were also 38 state-run secondary schools and 121 state-run primary schools in 2011. The total number of students enrolled in state schools was 80,484, with 6179 of those students enrolled in university and 3283 in technical or vocational schools, as of 2011. Pengiran Hjh Fatimah, CEO of Kolej IGS Brunei Darussalam, told OBG, “University enrolment has increased since the government implemented measures to allow greater access to higher education. This will help feed private sector growth as the country aims to diversify its economy.”

There were 83 privately run institutions in 2011 at the kindergarten, primary, secondary, technical and higher education levels. These had a total of 33,191 students, mostly in primary or secondary schools.

On January 1, 2013, as a consequence of the Compulsory Religious Education Order 2012, attending Islamic religious schools became mandatory for all Muslims in primary school. For all other students, Islamic Religious Knowledge is a core subject of the national education curriculum, beginning at primary school level. The subject of Malay Muslim Monarchy (Malay Islam Beraja, MIB) is compulsory for all students from primary to tertiary education.

FIVE-YEAR MAPS: The Ministry of Education (MoE) administers and structures the education system centrally (with the exception of model schools) via five-year strategic maps, which are aligned with the five-year National Development Plans. Education and training received BN$822m ($640m), or 8.7% of the National Development Plan 2007-12 budget. Between April 2011 and May 2012, the government spent BN$576m ($449m) on education, according to the Department of Statistics and the MoE.

As of February 2012, the MoE proclaimed it had reached four of the main goals underlined in its first strategic plan, which ran from 2007-11. These accomplishments included 80% of secondary school teachers obtaining at least first-degree qualifications; more than 80% of students completing vocational and technical education; reaching a computer to student ratio of 1:10; and fully enforcing the 2007 Compulsory Education Order, which mandates nine years of education for all children starting at age six.

In its second strategic map, which runs from 2012 to 2017, the MoE laid out its vision for quality education to support the goal of becoming a developed, peaceful and prosperous nation, and its mission to provide holistic education to achieve students’ full potential. Three strategic focus areas – teaching and learning excellence; professionalism and accountability; and efficiency and innovativeness – are supported by learning and growth enablers, internal process drivers and financial and stakeholder planned outcomes. The plan’s success will be measured against key performance indicators. In addition, some new initiatives have been prioritised, including early childhood care and education, in addition to the development of the Brunei Teachers’ Standard (BTS).

SPN21: Although its education system is widely considered one of the region’s best, the country is seeking to make further improvements by transforming it to take on the challenges of the 21st century. Indeed, implementation of the strategic map for 2012-17 is taking place while the MoE carries out SPN21, its long-term education strategy.

SPN21 was fully implemented for all primary-level students in 2011. A student-centred system, SPN21 emphasises student development and soft skills like English proficiency, rather than grades. SPN21 is focused on students’ understanding, skill and behavioural development, creating multiple pathways for them to proceed to higher education.

Under SPN21, all secondary-school students follow a common curriculum for years seven and eight, after which they are assessed. On the basis of that assessment, they are selected for either a four-year or five-year programme or track.

These programmes include general secondary education, which consists of either a four- or five-year programme for academically oriented students on track to sit for the Brunei-Cambridge GCE O-Level examination. Technology and business-oriented students have the option of entering a five-year applied secondary education programme, and gifted and talented students are allowed into a specialised education programme. In addition, there is a special educational needs programme available.

DEVELOPING HUMAN RESOURCES: Another SPN21 initiative involves enhancing the system’s human capital resources. To date, at least six cohorts of educators have graduated from the UBD’s Institute of Leadership, Innovation and Advancement School Leadership Programme (SLP). At the SLP, educators receive training to enhance their skills and create better learning experiences for students. All schools participating in the SLP have seen significant improvement in literacy and numeracy. In addition to the SLP, the BTS is a guideline designed to measure teachers’ core competencies, weaknesses, as well as areas for improvement, all according to international standards. The benchmark, which will be used for performance appraisals, will be implemented through the Department of Schools Inspectorate.

PRIVATE INSTITUTIONS: Private sector involvement will be important for designated model schools, another new MoE project. Under this initiative, principals and school leaders at five schools will run autonomously and govern their schools without MoE involvement. This represents a break with the traditional ways of structuring education in the Sultanate. Model school leaders will be charged with obtaining human and capital resources for their schools, and they will have to call on the community and the private sector to do so. They will also have the authority to alter their curriculum and to encourage teacher creativity, allowing the MoE to evaluate their different approaches to learning. If the model schools are successful over the next three to five years, the MoE may convert all schools over to this system.

FORMING PARTNERSHIPS: In an effort to improve the quality of its education system, Brunei Darussalam is emphasising global cooperation via the formation of key partnerships with foreign governments and institutions. A memorandum of understanding to provide English-language instruction to all 10 ASEAN member countries was signed in June 2012 by UBD and the US-based research organisation East-West Centre. The programme’s first participants arrived at UBD in September 2012 to begin two months of training, focusing on improving communications skills and optimising the use of IT. After this, participants travelled to Hawaii to complete a further month-long intensive English language education training. At the conclusion of the three months, the programme’s participants were able to implement what they had learned when teaching at higher education institutions in various ASEAN countries.

To support its overall goal of developing a competitive, knowledge-based economy, the Sultanate has taken part in several other initiatives to enhance education. One such project is the US-supported ASEAN Curriculum Sourcebook, which will be a teaching resource for primary and secondary schools within the ASEAN nations. By addressing themes related to ASEAN’s origins, processes, purposes and achievements, the book can help cement the bonds between the nations’ 600m people and promote a stronger, more outward-looking community.

There is still room for improvement, however. According to a report published in 2011 by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Brunei Darussalam’s level of foreign direct investment (FDI) was the lowest among ASEAN countries. The UNCTAD report linked this to its low tertiary education index, which stood at 0.18, compared to the ASEAN average of over 0.30.

“The need for people in the workforce to pursue education is not so great, as jobs in the public sector are secured,” Roger Gibbons, the director of SGS Economics and Planning, an Australian consultancy firm, told local media. Gibbons emphasised the need for economic diversification in which education would play a key role. With increasing support from international partners and greater domestic opportunities for Bruneians, the Sultanate seems poised to create a knowledge-based economy that will be significant for the country, and the region as a whole.

OUTLOOK: Brunei Darussalam’s education professionals and government officials are in a delicate balancing act: they must prepare a skilled, knowledgeoriented workforce for the future on one hand, while nurturing the values of the MIB philosophy on the other. Much depends on attracting and maintaining a highly skilled professional class of educators. However, with the concerted effort of public and private professionals and institutions, there is no reason why the Sultanate should not succeed in its efforts.