Change the way students are assessed

The recent Straits Times-Nexus Link tuition survey of 500 parents has highlighted the extent of parents' reliance, fear via peer pressure, and spending on tuition. Once again, the evergreen debate about tuition has reignited.

In the 1980s, tuition was necessary only for weak students. Now, tuition has become necessary for even the brightest students. Why is our society so obsessed with tuition?

And that, too, despite Singapore's students scoring top marks in global rankings in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and other benchmarks - or perhaps because of that.

First, the need for tuition can be directly co-related to the demands of school education. Mass education the world over has inherent problems that accentuate the need for tuition. The quality of teachers, undue emphasis on assessment and exam- orientedness, inability of education systems to individualise learning and ineffective use of available technology - all contribute to key problems of mass education globally.

While the Ministry of Education (MOE) has over the years made significant improvements in various areas of mass education, even Minister Heng Swee Keat will agree that his is a work in progress. Removing exams for the lower primary years, removing ranking of schools, and raising the quality of teachers are important policy steps. But until and unless several more fundamental changes take place in the school system, Singapore will continue to be a tuition nation.

The ST-Nexus Link survey has shown that there is an over- reliance on tuition. To address the abuses and unfairnesses tied to this, MOE must accept that tuition has a role in the education system, step in to regulate the sector and reduce the weightage of exams in assessing students. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Second, the paper chase leads to an endless spiral of competition in society. The traditional belief that only a good education can lead to a prosperous life, and the alarming pace at which wealth gaps are widening have put undue pressure on families to get ahead.

With both parents working, even well-educated parents "outsource" the tutoring and mentoring support of their children to private tutors. Wealth gaps have also led to elitism, where richer children have access to super tutors who really can help average students to become top students. That has caused much angst and anxiety in society.

The ST survey findings also imply that although more money is spent on tuition, many feel that tuition has been ineffective. Tuition can be effective if it is delivered by a good tutor who is not motivated purely by money, but also by his responsibility to deliver improvements for his tutee.

Bad practices by some in the industry not only hurt parents but colour perceptions of tutors and tuition centres that are committed to providing good service. These problems will not go away unless there is government intervention to regulate the industry and raise standards.

Tuition is increasingly perceived to be ineffective because there is no barrier to entry and more unqualified and incapable people - who want to moonlight for easy extra money - are becoming tutors. MOE does not regulate the industry and anyone can become a tutor or set up a tuition centre.

Parents, especially mothers, are often at their wits' end when they try to source for a good tutor for their child. While there are a reasonable number of very committed and dedicated private tutors around, it is hard to identify them.

Many mothers call a tuition agency, which then assigns a home tutor for her child who needs, say, maths tuition. Often, the tutor's credentials, if given, cannot be verified. The mother accepts whoever is assigned. After some months when the mid-year results are out, she finds that her child has not improved at all. She discusses the matter with the tutor and the tutor may ask her to wait till the final exam result.

If the results do not improve, the mother will fire the tutor and hire another one. The tutor in question, however, gets away with no blemish on his record.

Such bad practices by some in the industry not only hurt parents but colour perceptions of tutors and tuition centres that are committed to providing good service. These problems will not go away unless there is government intervention to regulate the industry and raise standards.

I suggest MOE act in two ways:

First, MOE must move from its stated position that "our education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary".

That was the stance of Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah in Parliament in September 2013. A decision by MOE to recognise the relevance of the tuition industry and regulate it will not make parents lose confidence in the public school system. It is not an indictment of the education system. Tuition is necessary for students who cannot cope in a public school system. That is a fact the MOE and its teachers certainly understand.

Some years ago, when foreign students were mishandled by some private tertiary institutions, MOE moved swiftly to introduce industry standards by setting up the Council for Private Education. It also put in place the EduTrust accreditation framework. Likewise, the authorities have also raised the standards that private preschool operators have to meet.

Second, MOE must also recognise that the burgeoning tuition industry is a symptom of the paper chase in society. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Education Minister Heng have emphasised that the education system needs to prepare children for the workplace.

That means the focus should be on the holistic development of children. And for that to happen, there needs to be a radical change in the way students are assessed across all levels, to allow for greater weightage of all-round development and practical skills, with correspondingly less emphasis on exams.

Exams have become a commodity of sorts and no longer test skills and knowledge that last a lifetime. Instead, they merely test how well students have mastered exam techniques and the model answers to past exam papers.

It is an opportune time for MOE to swiftly move to make the changes that the education system needs.

  • The writer is chairman and chief executive of Singapore Education Academy (Asia Pacific)and a former Member of Parliament.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2015, with the headline 'Change the way students are assessed'. Subscribe