Figuring out that billion-dollar question

That the tuition industry is now worth $1.1 billion a year is cause for concern, although tutors are contributing to the gross domestic product and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore has recovered more than $2.3 million in unpaid taxes and penalties from private tutors and tuition centre proprietors who under-declared their incomes. There would be nothing to complain about tuition per se as an educational transaction engaged in by parents and tutors, willing buyers and sellers of knowledge and skills. But it is the purpose and impact of tuition on students generally that warrants introspection.

There certainly is a case to be made for tuition when it enables students to catch up in certain subjects. Often, tutors can help to identify and fill in the gaps in a student's learning process. Individual attention can help immensely here. But for many parents, tuition is synonymous with educational rites of passage such as the PSLE and later national examinations. To them, tuition is all about making a difference to test scores.

However, those who truly embrace holistic education might instead tap tuition to spark or sustain a child's interest in the arts or sports, to broaden his social horizons, or to equip him to participate more fully in the life of the country. Not every such child will become a literary or sporting star, but all children will gain from a sounder sense of their place in the social scheme of things.

The problem occurs when parents view tuition not as an exceptional means of meeting minimal educational goals or of expanding a child's mind, but as a perpetual attempt to game the educational system at elusively higher and higher levels of expectation.

Astonishingly, there are tuition classes to help pupils to get into the Gifted Education Programme and even for students who are already in the programme. Consulting firms are becoming a conduit for hopefuls trying to earn a place at top universities such as Oxford or Harvard. Tuition, in these cases, simply feeds on parents' hopes and fears.

It's perhaps pointless to argue that those who have the means should not spend money on chasing real or imagined opportunities for their children. But tuition helps only up to a point and, in some cases, it can be counter-productive. It ironically adds to the academic demands on children that just about every parent says should be alleviated.

Singapore's education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary, as officials have said over and again. Parents who believe otherwise have a right to their views, but all that they are doing is to contribute to a hothouse in which tuition is essential just because everyone believes so. Children deserve better lessons.