Tuesday 24 September 2013

Tuition too prevalent to ignore

Policymakers will connect better by thinking out of their self-imposed box
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Sunday Times, 22 Sep 2013

There was widespread incredulity last week when Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah declared that tuition is unnecessary.

Responding to a question in Parliament on the "shadow education system" and its impact, she said: "Our education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary. Some parents believe they can give their children an added advantage by sending them to tuition classes, even though their children are doing reasonably well. We cannot stop them from doing so."

The parents who spend US$680 million (S$848 million) each year (according to a 2012 Asian Development Bank report on tuition) on private tuition for their children here clearly think that tuition isn't unnecessary.

Various polls suggest tuition prevalence here as anything from nearly half of households (a MasterCard survey on spending in April) to over 90 per cent of students (the Asian Development Bank report).

But in a way, Ms Indranee's view is internally consistent: the Ministry of Education (MOE) does not consider tuition necessary, so it designs its curriculum accordingly, and its teachers are expected to teach like there is no such thing as private tuition.

Thinking within the box that says tuition is unnecessary leads to this rather ostrich-like way of tackling the issue: not needed, not an issue, go away.

How different it would be if the ministry could get out of its self-imposed box to contemplate: What is it about the education system that is making so many parents send their children for private tuition?

In fact, this was precisely what Nominated MP Janice Koh asked in Parliament: Whether more should be done to make tuition "less necessary and desirable" in Singapore, and if the ministry had data on tuition.

If the ministry took the issue of tuition seriously, its thinking might go this way: "We think it's unnecessary, but many parents and students clearly think otherwise. Is there something we're missing? In fact, how prevalent is tuition? Maybe we should study this, and see what students have tuition in, how much is spent, and if tutors are qualified.

"Better still, let's study if tuition is effective, for different groups of students: the weak, the average and the academically strong.

"Do some of MOE's existing policies create conditions that fuel demand for tuition? Could large class sizes result in weaker students needing personalised attention from tutors? Could our move to grade exams on raw scores rather than in broad bands compel students to get extra coaching to chase up every extra mark to get ahead of others?

"Could our marking and grading system fuel hyper-competitive behaviour and lead to an arms race in grades and tuition? What can we do to reduce these effects?"

If such thinking goes on in the ministry, the public is none the wiser.

Singapore's policymakers have a tendency to present a closed, united front on an issue and speak within the confines of existing practice, ignoring different realities and views.

There may be reason for such an approach: in this case, it might be to avoid spurring a frenzy for tuition; or to assure parents that schools are doing their job teaching students. But this approach lacks credibility when there is a vast gap between their pronouncements, and the reality on the ground.

As Singapore undergoes significant shifts in policy, and its leaders try to recalibrate a new bond with the people, it is vital that the Government discard the old mode of responding to criticisms - or questioning of its policies - by ignoring them out of existence.

I have interviewed and spoken with many senior civil servants in both formal and informal settings and know most of them for a thoughtful, serious-minded bunch. I would be extremely disappointed if the questions on tuition I can think of, off the top of my head as I write this article, have not occurred to them in the course of their work.

I am sure ministry officials, and educationists, have studied these issues and come to some conclusions. But when the discussion is kept behind closed doors, out of sight and hearing of the public, it might as well not have taken place.

When all the public sees are pronouncements that defend the status quo and ignore the shadow system beneath, it begins to think that either the Government doesn't know what's going on, or doesn't care, or is powerless. It can erode the Government's credibility.

The ministry would be unwise to ignore tuition when it has become part of students' life, and when the excesses of a hyper-competitive tuition culture in countries such as South Korea and Japan are so visible.

I cite the example of tuition not because I believe tuition is a good thing. Indeed, I went through my school days without any. I cite it only as the most recent example of a distressing tendency to gloss over problems in Singapore, rather than look at them candidly and tackle them.

The policy shifts of the last year, on public transport, health care, childcare and housing, among others, should be reminder enough to all policymakers and Singaporeans just how dangerous it is to ignore problems, to close one's eye to troublesome specks of activity and refuse to connect the dots.

If officials who noticed the surge in employment pass, work permit, permanent resident and new citizenship numbers had voiced their concerns, and if the Government had listened to its own MPs' complaints about overcrowding instead of dismissing them, there might have been a faster build-up of housing and transport infrastructure to prepare for the larger population.

In health care, calls to extend the MediShield umbrella to cover people till death, and to include people with pre-existing illnesses, have been made for years. Thinking within the box led policymakers to defend the status quo resolutely and refuse extending coverage.

When you keep within the confines of policy, the refusal is internally consistent: Bringing in the very old and sick will jack premiums up so much, the young and healthy will flee the insurance scheme and scupper it. Ergo, keep the old and sick out.

Then, this year, the Government acquiesced.

What changed? The Government was ready to get out of its self-imposed policy box. Instead of treating MediShield as an opt-in insurance system that healthier people can flee from if the net is broadened to cover the very old and sick, it decided to make it compulsory. With a broader risk pool, the sums will be more manageable.

Singapore faces many choices in the years ahead, on social policy, on education, and certainly in politics. The Government and the intellectual elite in Singapore can choose to debate options within the confines of what is currently agreed on, and within the self-imposed limits of existing policy.

Or it can do the more politically difficult thing and really acknowledge problems, study them and see how the status quo can change to address the problems.

Start with the shadow education system. The best way to remove a shadow is to bring it into the light, not dismiss its utility.

Why more tuition may not be better
By Euston Quah, Published The Straits Times, 25 Sep 2013

LAST week, Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah voiced her views in Parliament that tuition is unnecessary for most children in Singapore as the education system is more than sufficient to provide them with the tools and information that they require.

However, the fact is that many Singaporean parents invest in the hiring of tuition teachers or private tutors for their children. The general perception is that given the additional specialised coaching, students are expected to perform better than their counterparts who do not have tutors.

But is this really borne out in terms of empirical evidence? What research exists on the efficacy of tuition?

In 2005, this question was specifically investigated. My co-author Roland Cheo and I explored whether tuition, as well as a multitude of other factors, had any significant influence over academic performance.

An econometric study was conducted with three secondary schools in Singapore - Tanjong Katong Girls' School, Anglo-Chinese School and Fairfield Methodist Secondary School. A total of 429 randomly selected Singaporean Secondary 2 students from the three schools were used for the study. Testing was conducted on both students who have had tuition and those who did not.

We looked at students' grades and then assessed variables such as: time spent on private tuition; time spent on extra-curricular activities, the arts and the computer; time devoted to personal studies; parents' attitude; time travelling to school; time spent at home; and home environment.

We then tested the impact of these variables on students' grades to identify the significance of the relationship between each of the variables and the grades.

The study involved qualitative elements and the sample selected was not meant to be representative of the entire population. It was a focused exploratory study looking at the impact of maids, mothers and tuition on the academic grades of children in Singapore.

The study was published in the British journal Education Economics (Volume 13, 2005). Some of the results were surprising and bear repeating, given the interest in tuition today.

Contrary to people's perception, having a private tutor might be counterproductive.

The potentially positive influence of a private tutor over one or a few subjects' grades does not seem to lead to improvements in the grades of the remaining subjects. Instead, the time taken away from studying those other subjects may lead to a decline in the overall academic performance of the student.

Excessive studying in the Singapore context could be counterproductive in the same way that doing too much in any one activity, including leisure and recreation, often brings about a decline in the enjoyment of those activities.

This may explain why too much studying brings boredom, and this in turn affects students' rate of absorption of the subjects, which then affects the students' grades - an all too familiar notion which economists describe as "diminishing returns".

Furthermore, the market for private tutors itself is not regulated and hence, one cannot be certain of the quality of tutors. This is also true of agencies providing private tutoring.

In fact, a society with too plentiful a supply of, as well as demand for, tutors could end up inadvertently harming the education system.

How can this happen?

There are two possible negative consequences. First, from the children's perspective, there is always a ready substitute for formal education provided by teachers in school. For example, students may not give their full attention to what is being taught in school as there is the possibility of tuition to cover what they might have missed in classes.

Second, from the teacher's perspective, the fact that most students have private tutors provides some form of "insurance" that students will have recourse after school to make up for poor teaching or a lack of attention in class.

The prevalence of tuition per se does not say anything about the confidence level in the Singapore education system. It could simply be the consequence of an increased climate of competition, which results in parents over-investing in education, whether private or public.

The cost to society of having widespread tuition comes not only from the negative impact on students' overall academic grades but also from the opportunity cost in terms of the forgone pursuits of other activities such as music, dance and drama, literature, sports and other arts. Increased time taken up by academic lessons clearly cannibalises time for these other pursuits.

In addition, the study identifies "travel time a student takes to reach his or her school" and "number of negative factors perceived by a child about his or her study environment" as factors which are not related to academic grades. That is, whether a student travels a longer time to get to school or not, or how comfortable his study environment is, does not affect his grades.

On the other hand, "time spent at home" is considered a significant factor that has a positive impact on grades. A student who spends more time at home is expected to score better grades.

The study also identifies other variables, including "presence of a domestic helper in the home", "study hours a day", "last-minute study hours", "homework hours a day" and "computer hours", as not having any significant influence over the child's academic performance.

In examining the impact of parental relationship factors on academic performance, the results seem to show that while a mother's attitude to studies may not necessarily have any influence on the outcome of grades, a father's discouraging attitude is related to the academic performance of a child. The more negative a father is towards his child's studies, the worse the child's performance.

These results need further research with a larger sample. More study on the tuition phenomenon will call into question the usefulness of some of these variables, as they traditionally play a critical role in formulating education policy and influencing decisions about education in the minds of parents.

The conventional wisdom of "the more the better" in terms of private tutoring is not borne out by the results of the study; instead, it argues that diminishing returns set in far quicker when an over-investment in the child takes place.

The writer is professor of cost-benefit analysis and head of the economics department at Nanyang Technological University. He is also president of the Economic Society of Singapore.

'Tuition can worsen existing inequality'
Tuition is a global phenomenon, says Professor Mark Bray, 61, of the University of Hong Kong. He shares his views on the "shadow education system" he has researched for over 20 years. Between 2006 and 2010, he worked in Paris as director of Unesco's International Institute for Educational Planning.
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 1 Oct 2013

WHY do people turn to private tuition and is Singapore unique that so many students rely on it? Singapore is not unique, says Professor Mark Bray.

The tuition problem is particularly acute in East Asian countries and territories that have strong Confucian traditions for learning, diligence and effort, he says. These territories include South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. China, with its burgeoning tuition sector, is swiftly joining these ranks.

These East Asian territories are highly globalised and competitive. They stress a need for workers to remain ahead in skills and for students to acquire skills relevant to the global economy. Some publicise their performance in global education rankings, spurring more competition, he observes.

Noticeably, tuition is prevalent in systems which are examination-based. In Singapore, there are tough examinations at the end of primary education and it also streams students largely according to academic ability, says Prof Bray. Such a system adds to parents' anxiety and they turn to the tuition market to give their children the extra push in mathematics, science and languages.

In emerging market economies like China and India, and the former Soviet Union states like Lithuania and Azerbaijan, poor salaries drive some teachers to deliberately teach less in class. They then deliver the rest of the curriculum after school in private tuition classes - for a fee.But tuition is relatively absent from many Scandinavian countries. Teachers are highly trained pedagogues who help students of varying academic abilities do well in school. Parents and society trust national schools and work closely with teachers.

Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah recently said that tuition is unnecessary for students who are doing well, while weak students are helped through existing school programmes. Is this the right approach?

Prof Bray admits that the Singapore education system is a good one that has delivered high-quality output. "In that sense, I can understand that the minister might feel frustrated that the tendency to go to tutors might imply that it is not a good education system when indeed it is.

"But Singaporean parents, like those in many other cultures, are competitive, seeking what they perceive to be the best for their children in a competitive system, and thus are trying to add more even though the school system is already delivering much that is already very good," he says.

Singapore, he stresses, must acknowledge the shadow education system and tackle it early.

Countries and territories that have not done so have seen the phenomenon spiral out of control. In Hong Kong, it was bad enough when parents began sending their children at the kindergarten levels for tuition. Now they are sending babies as young as six months for lessons on recognising colours, he says.

The Hong Kong tuition class sizes have also ballooned with tutors drawing in teenagers by dressing up as glamorous movie stars. In some centres, more than 100 students pack lecture theatres at night, with webcasts for students in adjoining tuition classrooms, he says. His global research shows that once shadow education swells, it cannot be easily made to contract.

"Once habits, structures and social expectations become entrenched, it'll be difficult to steer or stem its growth," he warns.

But if parents are willing to spend the money on tuition, what is the problem?

Tuition can worsen existing inequality, believes Prof Bray.

Leaving private tuition to market forces threatens a society's social fabric. "The shadow system maintains and exacerbates inequalities," he says. His research shows the shadow system widening the rich-poor gap and allowing wealthier families to find and pay for good-quality tuition.

Poorer families find themselves being forced to buy tutoring in order to remain in the race to do well in school, he adds.

In Prof Bray's opinion, the work by Mendaki and Sinda - the Malay and Indian self-help groups - is a good example of how community bodies are working with the Government to improve students' grades and reduce the social inequality problem.

Can anything be done to curb private tuition?

Yes, says Prof Bray.

A ban on tuition is one and South Korea did that in 1980. But the ban was overturned by its Constitutional Court in 2000, arguing that it was unconstitutional to stop parents from paying someone to teach their child privately.

Other measures include the registration of centres and setting limits on the number of operating hours for centres.

Regulation also needs to be tightened on the qualifications of tutors, he suggests.

Australia and Greece, he adds, have associations that self-regulate the profession by drawing up codes of practice and conduct.

There is also a need for evidence-based research and cross-country analysis, he says. These findings must be used at public discussions so teachers, parents and students know if tuition is needed and for how long.

"It's like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing," says Prof Bray.

Paper chase weakening family bonds

IT SADDENS me to see well-meaning parents getting sucked into the vortex of preparing their children to cope with schoolwork and exams, especially in primary school.

We want the best for our children as we cannot bear to see them struggle academically and straggle behind their peers.

We also want to help them do well enough to eventually qualify for a secondary school of their choice.

Tuition is thus a necessary evil that has become a rite of passage for most schoolgoing children in Singapore.

However, packing our children's schedules with tuition classes, on top of their already heavy workload in school and co-curricular activity commitments, exacts a distinct toll on family life.

The bitter reality is that schoolwork can take precedence over family time, with families truncating or even forgoing their commitments, functions and holidays just so junior can complete his assignments.

It is far worse in the weeks leading up to the exams, when time spent as a family engaging in leisure pursuits practically grinds to a halt.

This begs the question: How strong are our family bonds when the family hardly spends quality time together, or when conversation revolves round prosaic topics such as whether the child has completed his homework and what his test scores are?

Will our children have meaningful childhood memories that they can cherish in the years to come?

Scratch beneath the veneer of the seemingly intact family and one may be confronted by the startling truth that relations are tenuous at best.

Once the child grows up, is it any wonder that he may not possess any real depth of feeling for his family?

Perhaps parents need to evaluate their priorities and decide if certain compromises, such as allowing their children's studies to eclipse family bonding time, are worth making.

Marietta Koh (Mrs)
ST Forum, 25 Sep 2013

'90 marks is never enough'
More top students, even at tertiary level, opt for tuition to maintain form
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 23 Sep 2013

JASMINE Thoi, 14, has tuition outside school for her two strongest subjects, Chinese and Maths - even though she already gets As in them.

The East Spring Secondary student is among a rising number of youngsters who are opting for tuition, regardless of how good their scores may be. She said: "Tuition lets me explore more and learn faster than my friends."

Even students at tertiary level are getting in on the act.

Ms Vivian Koh, 20, a first-year social sciences student at the Singapore Management University, will start tuition this week for a calculus module.

"We're learning so fast in university," she said. "I'm not good in maths so I'm lost in class."

A week ago, Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah told Parliament that tuition for children who do well is counter-productive.

But tuition is not just for the weak and struggling. Many straight-A students are seeking help so they can maintain their standards or do even better.

Recognising this, tuition providers like GrayMatter Education Centre cater to students including those in the Integrated Programme, which takes in the top 10 per cent of each PSLE cohort.

Twelve-year-old Christie Ko is another high-performing student who has tuition, studying Chinese, Maths and English. The Primary 6 pupil in a girls' mission school, who gets As for all her subjects, said: "If I don't work hard, my grades will fall. Tuition helps to maintain my grades and ensure I do my work properly.

"My tutors teach ahead, so I understand faster when my school teacher starts a new topic."

A mother who declined to be named said her daughter, a Primary 6 pupil at Raffles Girls' Primary, has tuition in all subjects so her grades - consistent As - do not slip. "Tuition is a form of revision for her, to reinforce concepts, and tackle questions not covered in school," said the housewife.

Latest figures from 2008 show Singapore households spent about $820 million on private tuition, up from $470 million in 1998.

It is a growing business. There are 800 tuition and enrichment centres registered with the Ministry of Education, up from about 700 last year and 500 in 2010.

Mrs Amy Bellars, who owns Growan Learning Centre, said: "These kids' basics are already there so when they come to us, they are looking for teachers who can give them that extra edge.

"I have a pupil who is No. 1 in his primary school but he feels he needs tuition because he's afraid he'll drop to No. 2."

Mrs Summer Toh, 32, who set up The Water Family Enrichment Centre, sees a mix of strong and weak students. For stronger ones, "90 marks is never enough, and even if they get full marks, they want to maintain it," she said.

Centres like Maths Hub also cater to "specialised" needs, like preparing students for maths and science competitions.

Undergraduate students like Ms Koh form about half of private tutor Ng E-Jay's pool of students.

Mr Ng, 36, who teaches maths, physics and chemistry, said: "At this level, it gets more complicated. Some need help in explaining difficult concepts."

But demand for tuition from genuinely struggling students has not lessened either, said True Learning Centre owner Max Tan.

Managing director of Adam Khoo Learning Centre Frederick Tan said most of his students are not doing very well, but some are already riding high.

"The message from them and their parents is very clear," he said. "They want to learn beyond what schools are teaching, like more problem-solving methods."

Ask right questions about tuition

SENIOR Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah has stirred up the proverbial hornets' nest ("'Tuition not needed under our education system'"; Sept 17).

The "debate" over whether tuition is necessary has morphed into an airing of personal views and experiences. Cathartic perhaps, but it gets us nowhere.

Children are sent to tuition classes for a variety of reasons, including:
- Helping weaker students improve their grades;
- Helping strong students achieve even better grades;
- Parents worrying that they are not "doing enough" for their children;
- Parents being unable or lacking the time to assist their children;
- Students lacking discipline to study on their own;
- A poor learning environment in school, such as unsatisfactory teachers or disruptive classmates;
- Peer pressure; and
- The desire to get grades that allow entry into certain schools.

The debate should not centre on the nebulous question of whether tuition is necessary, but whether it is an effective way to address these factors.

The other aspect that has been forgotten is the cost of tuition. I am not referring to money but the opportunity costs in terms of time spent, which could have been used for rest, family bonding, self-initiated pursuits, exercise and sleep - all of which contribute to long-term mental and physical health.

In the long term, tuition could potentially damage the confidence and belief that we can get something done on our own.

Tan Boon Khai
ST Forum, 25 Sep 2013

Pupils' efforts more important

I AGREE with Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah ("'Tuition not needed under our education system'"; Sept 17).

I have never had tuition even though I am only average in my studies.

My mother feels that as long as I study hard and pay attention in class, I should be capable of scoring well.

If pupils do not put in hard work and effort in studying, going for tuition is a waste of money.

Parents should not put stress on their children by enrolling them in too many tuition classes. The children should be given time to rest.

I have heard that some tuition centres "audition" the students before they can be enrolled.

Aren't tuition centres supposed to be for weaker pupils to improve their studies, rather than for the smarter ones?

In my case, the money saved from not going for tuition is used for my art and violin lessons, which I enjoy a lot.

Eponine Tan, 11, Primary 5 pupil
ST Forum, 25 Sep 2013

Don't add to students' stress

TO MANY parents and students, tuition is seen as a necessary part of the educational journey ("No tuition? No way, say some"; last Thursday).

Throughout my schooling years, I have not attended any tuition classes as I believe that performing well in exams is a matter of self-discipline and individual effort.

Also, teachers are well-trained to prepare students for exams.

Paying large sums of money every month to private tutors is a waste when students can get the same lessons for free in school.

The onus is on the student to take responsibility for his own education.

Some of my peers sign up for tuition classes so they will be "forced" to practise and complete the work assigned by their tutors. But if a student is willing to work hard and has the drive to succeed, such tutors are not needed.

Students have piles of homework and assignments to complete daily. Why add to their stress by enrolling them in tuition classes?

Amanda Chia, 17, junior college student
ST Forum, 25 Sep 2013

Tuition and the MOE
By Hri Kumar, Facebook Note, 26 Sep 2013

SMOS Indranee Rajah’s statement in Parliament that “our education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary” has been criticised in both the mainstream media and online space. I think much of it is misplaced because it fails to first address a more fundamental issue - what is the government’s role in education and more importantly, what are the limits of government schools?

The issue of the government’s role is a difficult one. Unfortunately, most of the discussion is reduced to motherhood statements ("we want a holistic education"; "emphasis on real learning" etc). However, when we drill down to the details, the differences in views appear. This is where the OSC sessions have proved revealing. A case in point - most OSC participants agreed to keep the PSLE despite the many criticisms it has received. Why? Because the alternatives have flaws too, and no one could come up with a more acceptable system.

I say “acceptable” because there is another important factor at play – people will act in their own self interests. A good example of this was in September last year, when the MOE announced that the English Language syllabus for upper primary pupils would be revised to incorporate ‘a sharper focus on 21st century competencies to enable our students to communicate effectively and confidently in the globalised world’[1]. Sounds logical. However, the reaction of parents, as reported in the newspapers, was interesting. They were in favour of or against the change based on how they perceived it would affect their child’s position relative to others in exams. There was little discussion as to whether the change would be good for the child’s English.

Bottom line – MOE can and should do the right things to give our children a good education, but the competitive element in the system is the tail that wags the dog. I can predict the response – it is MOE’s fault for our obsession with grades. But no one is disputing that examinations are a necessity and there is always a competitive element in any exam at any level. Therefore, even if MOE does everything “right”, grades will still be important.

So, what should we expect MOE to do? Do what is within its ability to give the child a solid and relevant education. On the academic side, I suggest this includes:

(a) reducing class sizes (if it can hire enough good teachers - a very big IF);

(b) giving extra attention to those who fall behind and encouraging the quicker ones to challenge themselves;

(c) ensuring that teachers teach and complete the syllabus properly so that students are not forced to turn to tuition to make up the gap;

(d) not testing what it does not teach. This includes setting exams to test whether the child has understood what he has been taught and not to differentiate abilities; and

(e) keeping its ears to the ground to ensure that its policies and principles are followed in practice.

What is not in MOE’s control? MOE does not, and obviously cannot, design a curriculum for each child. So, some will inevitably find it easier to cope than others. It can reduce class sizes, but unless there is a drastic reduction (which is unrealistic), the teacher will not be able to give each child individual attention all the time. The teacher cannot teach at the pace of the slowest learner. The teacher cannot ensure that every child gets an "A" in every subject. And just because a child does not get an "A" does not mean that the teacher has failed or that the child has not received a proper education.

Which brings us to tuition. Parents who believe their children need more personal attentionfor whatever reason will look for solutions elsewhere. Every exam (even at tertiary level) requires some level of preparation and practice. Parents and students will always try and get an edge, and if they believe tuition will help, that is what they will do.

There are reports which suggest that tuition does not help. That may well be so, but the truth is that most of us are insecure, and will feel guilty if we feel we have not done all we can for our children. That is precisely what the tuition industry thrives on. This insecurity will remain even if MOE does everything it can and should do.

Tuition is popular due to education system issues
By R. Sinnakaruppan, Published The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2013

THE national debate about tuition was reignited in Parliament on Sept 16, when Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah, in her reply to Nominated MP Janice Koh, said that "our education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary".

Straits Times journalist Chua Mui Hoong declared in a subsequent column that, contrary to the comments made by Ms Indranee, parents who spend a significant portion of their household income on tuition "clearly think that tuition isn't unnecessary".

I remember having lunch a few years ago with one of the most senior civil servants in the Ministry of Education (MOE). This person, while chatting about tuition, whispered that his own children had private tuition. I am sure this is the case with almost all MOE administrative service personnel and, I believe, even the children of politicians.

I don't think they are hypocritical. But I do think they face a dilemma. There is a big gulf between policy intent, outcomes and expectations. Policymakers accept that tuition is necessary for their own children as a short-term solution. But it is not one they will proclaim publicly.

Many observers cannot understand why tuition is so common in Singapore when the country's education system is one of the best in the world, possibly second only to that of Finland. Why is it that Finland does not have a tuition culture like we do?

Currently, I run one of the largest tuition franchises in Singapore. My aim in writing this article is to educate the public on the proper role of this often-misunderstood industry.

Clearly, the popularity of tuition is a symptom of several serious deficiencies in our education system.

Ranking of schools

THE first is the way the heavy emphasis on meritocracy has found its way into policies such as the ranking of schools and streaming of students. Unlike the Finnish government, which pursues neither streaming nor ranking of schools during the first 10 years of education, our Government has enthusiastically adopted such policies.

This has inevitably resulted in huge strains and stresses, making our students, parents, teachers, heads of departments and principals "kiasu" in more ways than one.

When he was Education Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam managed to convince the Cabinet to shift from ranking to banding of schools. It was an important reform, which eventually led to the dismantling of the public ranking of schools last year by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

In the past, say, when a particular school's ranking dropped from 69th rank to 70th, there was a perception that the principal could be denied promotion. In order to avoid such a development, the principal would put pressure on the vice-principal and the heads of department. And these, in turn, would pressure the teachers, who would respond by adding more homework and thus placing more stress on students and parents.

The point I am making is that there is lot of pressure for schools to perform and that parents are often worried about ensuring that their children not only pass their exams, but also score as high as possible. That is why wealthy parents are willing to pay several millions of dollars for the privilege of living near a good primary school so that their children can gain admission.

For most, however, tuition becomes the panacea. Parents send even their brightest children for tuition. It is not about just passing exams.

The current drive towards character-based education, a less stressful Primary School Leaving Examination, and preparing children for the workplace or life by teaching financial literacy, are all good policy moves. But parental behaviour, which has been conditioned by the MOE for more than 30 years, will not change overnight. It could take a generation or more for parents to adjust.

Problem of mass education

THE second issue to be addressed when considering the popularity of tuition arises from the inherent problems of mass education. These are the quality of teachers, class sizes, and the automatic promotion of failed students. These problems are faced by almost every government as it tries to educate young citizens.

It is difficult to attract the best to go into the teaching profession. As Mr Heng said last year at the MOE Workplan Seminar, more than 20 per cent of our teachers have less than five years of experience and are "still finding their feet". This, of course, does not mean that the remaining 80 per cent of teachers are very good. In Singapore, a graduate can become a teacher in just one year by enrolling in a postgraduate Diploma in Education programme at the National Institute of Education.

Teachers are also required by schools to do far too many things besides teach. This is in spite of the introduction of assistant teacher schemes. Many leave the profession disgruntled with the extra non-teaching chores.

Finland has a five-year teacher-training programme and is able to attract many in the top 10 per cent of each cohort.

The Government may argue that class size does not really matter. My experience and that of many learned experts and research studies have established the fact that children who are in a class of, say, 12, will arguably do much better than in a class of 30 to 40. In Finland, class sizes are at 20, not 30, as in Singapore.

Technology is a great enabler. The industrial revolution moved from mass production to "batch of one" through flexible manufacturing systems in the 1990s, and now through 3-D printing technologies. Yet public school education has yet to move in a big way towards recognising the fact that each student is different and that they need customised education in this technology era.

Role of tuition

THE purpose of tuition can be defined as identifying the learning gaps of a child in a subject, and providing the necessary (individualised) instruction to minimise or eliminate those gaps.

I believe that more than 70 per cent of tuition centres in Singapore are not as effective as they should be. Many even mimic the problems of mass education by having a "one size fits all" approach. A very large number of unqualified people also moonlight by giving home tuition in an unregulated environment, where quality is not defined or benchmarked.

The Government cannot continue to defend mass education and say tuition is not necessary. Tuition, the shadow education industry, should be seen as a supplementary pillar. There must also be some form of regulation to inject quality and responsibility into the industry.

While a light touch is appreciated, government involvement in the tutoring industry must begin now, and not when it earns the wrath of parents, the voters.

The writer is chairman and chief executive of Singapore Education Academy (Asia-Pacific), a tuition franchise, and a former Member of Parliament.

No comments:

Post a Comment