Woolley Report on the state of education, 1870

Singapore Infopedia


On 29 December 1869, then Governor Harry Ord appointed a select committee chaired by Colonel R. Woolley to look into the state of education in the Straits Settlements, which comprised Singapore, Melaka and Penang.1 The resultant “Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council to Enquire into the State of Education in the Colony” was the first thorough review of local education after the Straits Settlements had become a crown colony in 1867. Commonly referred to as the Woolley Report, it was presented to the Straits Settlements Legislative Council on 8 December 1870.2 The proposal was not immediately taken up,3 but was eventually implemented.4

Before 1867, the Straits Settlements government, then under the Bengal Presidency, had adopted a laissez-faire approach towards local education. The establishment and running of schools were left largely to private and missionary enterprises, with government support provided in the form of site and building grants as well as grants-in-aid. The governor submitted these grants-in-aid to the British India government for approval. When the Straits Settlements became a crown colony in 1867 and thus came under the direct administration of the Colonial Office in London, the administration of these grants was transferred to the local Legislative Council, subject to the final approval from the secretary of state in the Colonial Office.5

On 14 September 1869, a select committee of the Legislative Council – comprising E. E. Isemonger, W. R. Scott and W. Adamson – was appointed to enquire and recommend the education budget for 1870. The committee recommended a grant of $17,632.76, which was about a 22-percent increase over the $14,480.44 in the previous year. Although the budget estimates were passed, it was with the understanding that the state of local education would be thoroughly studied and that the council would not continue supporting the increased budget every year.6 To this end, a select committee – chaired by Woolley, with W. H. Read and W. R. Scott as members – was appointed on 29 December 1869 to look into the state of education in the colony.7

The committee began their study by surveying key government officials and educators in Singapore, Melaka and Penang. Wide-ranging questions concerning areas, such as vernacular education, education for girls, industrial schools, grants-in-aid, school fees, teacher training, secular and religious education, and segregated ethnic schools, were posed. The results were presented in a report that was submitted to the Legislative Council on 8 December 1870.8

The committee found the progress of education in the colony to be “slow and uncertain”, attributing this to the indifference of the local people towards schooling and the lack of government supervision and encouragement. It also noted the great number and variety of schools in the settlements. Some schools solely provided secular education, while others combined charitable elements with education. The majority of establishments were Catholic mission schools with their own administrative practices that were not under government supervision. On vernacular schools, the committee found them deficient. As most vernacular schools were religious schools, there were no attempts to impart general or practical knowledge that would help one make a living. Regarding girls’ education, the committee found that it had not been neglected but had fared poorer compared with boys’ education.9

In view of the substantial sums that the government had invested over the years through the giving of grants, and the funds that schools received through voluntary subscriptions and other means, the committee declared the current educational situation as unsatisfactory. According to the report, while the educated were able to gain employment as clerks in government offices and merchant houses, most did not have a good command of the English language in terms of reading, writing and speech. Although they were able to perform simple arithmetic or produce a copy in English legibly, they were said to lack ideas and could not express themselves logically or grammatically in writing. The committee attributed this to the short time spent in school and the limited use of English outside school. It also concluded that the ineffectiveness of the present system was due to the absence of government supervision and the lack of well-defined policies.10

The committee was cautious against overhauling the existing school system. Instead, it proposed that improvements be made through the gradual introduction of reforms. The recommendations generally sought to introduce greater government control and standardisation. Among the key proposals were the appointment of a superintendent of schools and the extension of vernacular education. The full recommendations are as follows:

1. Appointment of a superintendent of schools and formation of local committees of education

The superintendent or director of schools would reside in Singapore and his duties would encompass the supervision of schools on government grants and formulating policies on matters pertaining to the curriculum and type of textbooks used. The superintendent would also work with local committees of education in the settlements. Each settlement would form such a committee consisting of a resident and three or more members from the official and non-official classes. The committees would supervise the general management of the schools in their settlement, while deferring to the views of the superintendent. The committees would also be responsible for holding half-yearly school examinations and for submitting progress reports to the government. Hitherto examinations were not administered according to set standards, nor were they held during fixed periods in a year.

2. School fees

The committee was not inclined towards the abolition of school fees, but was of the opinion that the very poor should be exempted from paying. To ensure affordability, the committee recommended a fee scale that corresponded to the financial abilities of the people.

3. Grants-in-aid

Grants should only be disbursed to schools that were prepared to come under the supervision and control of the superintendent of schools and of the local committees of education.

4. Charitable elements in education

Some schools offered free boarding, food and clothing in addition to education. While the committee was not opposed to combining charity with education, it did not favour the use of government grants for purposes other than education.

5. Secular and religious education

The committee advocated that schools on government grants should admit students of all races and creed, and educate them under one roof. Education should be purely secular, and religious instruction should only be available as voluntary classes.

6. A general college or normal school for the training of teachers

While it acknowledged the lack of experienced teachers, the committee was not prepared to promote the establishment of a teachers’ college then. Instead, it suggested that outstanding students who were keen to join the profession should receive special training and supervision as a student teacher or practice teacher. Stipends should be given to help these students defray their expenses during the period of training, and trainee teachers should be hired based solely on merit.

7. Vernacular schools

The committee recommended a large expansion of vernacular schools, but not as religious schools. Vernacular schools were to be establishments where students would receive secular education in their mother tongue. The committee opined that there would be no real progress in education unless a child was well grounded in his or her own language.

8. Industrial schools

Although the committee favoured the idea of industrial schools, it was of the view that the time had not come for their establishment.

9. Education of girls

The committee felt that progress could only be made when the local population overcame their prejudices on female education.11 It believed that this could be achieved when the population saw the benefits of education in the increased schooling of boys. The committee also asserted that female education should reflect women’s traditional roles and their supposed stations in life.12

No further action was taken after the submission of the report in 1870 because the Legislative Council had not been prepared to accept the committee’s recommendations as they were. The budget for a superintendent/inspector of schools was channelled to grants-in-aid for Raffles Institution instead.13

The position of an inspector of schools was only approved in 1872 upon the prompting of Governor Ord.14 In his speech to the Legislative Council on 3 October 1872, Ord referred to the Woolley Report in his appeal for an inspector of schools. He argued that an inspector was needed to supervise all schools and to report regularly on their condition. The inspector was also required to advise the Legislative Council on what schools and improvements were needed so that the council could make better-informed decisions regarding the education budget.15 To this end, A. M. Skinner – a magistrate and commissioner court of requests of the Penang administration – was appointed as the first inspector of schools on 26 December 1872, marking the beginning of an education department within the Straits Settlements’ administration.16 Skinner later developed a system of Malay vernacular education that subsequently became the government Malay schools.17

Gracie Lee

1. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 8 January 1870, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Francis H.K. Wong and Gwee Yee Hean, Official Reports on Education: Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States, 1870–1939 (Singapore: Pan Pacific Book Distributors, 1980), 12–17. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 WON)
2. R. Woolley, “Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council to Inquire into the State of Education in the Colony,” in Short-Hand Report of the Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements for 1870 (With Appendix) (Singapore: Straits Settlements Government Press, 1870), 93–36 (Microfilm NL1100); Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 12–17.
3. “Education in the Straits,” Straits Times, 1 February 1871, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Legislative Council. Singapore, 3rd October 1872,” Straits Times, 14 December 1872, 4; “Legislative Council. Singapore, 3rd October 1872 [Continuation],” Straits Times, 14 December 1872, 4; “Legislative Council. Singapore 7th October 1872,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 24 October 1872, 7; “Legislative Council. Singapore 15th October 1872,” Straits Times, 21 December 1872, 5; “The Sub-Committee’s Report,” Straits Times, 26 October 1872, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
5. T. R. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore (Singapore: Teachers Training College, 1969), 25–26, 36 (Call no. RSING 370.95957 TEA); David D. Chelliah, A History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements with Recommendations for a New System Based on Vernaculars (Kuala Lumpur: Govt. Press, 1948), 31–33 (Call no. RCLOS 370.9595 CHE); Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 461–62. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
6. “Legislative Council,” Straits Times, 25 September 1869, 3; “Legislative Council,” Straits Times, 9 November 1969, 3; “2nd November 1869,” Straits Times, 6 November 1869, 5; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 20 November 1869, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Untitled”; Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 12–17.
8. Woolley, “Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council,” 93–36; Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 12–17.
9. Woolley, “Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council,” 93–36; Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 12–17.
10. Woolley, “Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council,” 93–36; Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 12–17.
11. Woolley, “Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council,” 93–36.
12. Woolley, “Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council,” 93–36; Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 12–17.
13. Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements, 32; Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 26; “Education in the Straits.”
14. Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements, 32; Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 26; “Education in the Straits.”
15. “Legislative Council. Singapore, 3rd October 1872”; “Legislative Council. Singapore, 3rd October 1872 [Continuation]”; “Legislative Council. Singapore 7th October 1872”; “Sub-Committee’s Report.” 
16. Straits Settlements, Government Gazette, 26 December 1872. (Call no.: RRARE 959.51 SGG; microfilm NL5358); Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 12–17.
17. Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 2.

Further resources
Board of Education, Great Britain, Educational Systems of the Chief Crown Colonies and Possessions of the British Empire: Including Reports on the Training of Native Races, vol. 3 (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1950), 138–140. (Call no. RRARE 370.9171241 EDU; microfilm NL30201)

H. A. Wyndham, Native Education; Ceylon, Java, Formosa, the Philippines, French Indo-China, and British Malaya (London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1933), 200–01. (Call no. RCLOS 371.97 WYN-[RFL])

H. R. Cheeseman, “Education in Malaya, 1900–1941,” Malayan Historical Journal, 2 (July 1955): 30–47. (Call no. RCLOS 959.5 MIH)

J. Stewart Nagle, Educational Needs of the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States (Baltimore, Md.: [s.n.], 1928), 44–46. (Call no. RCLOS 370.9595 NAG-[RFL])

Richard Winstedt, Education in Malaya (Singapore: Fraser & Neave, 1923), 3–4. (Call no. RRARE 370.9595 WIN; microfilm NL5380)

The information in this article is valid as at 29 August 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.




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