Is tuition necessary? No, but how long can we hold out?

The writer with her daughter, Nidia Sng, nine, at a padi field in Bali last month. Nidia’s teachers say she does not need tuition. The writer decided not to send her for extra academic classes so that their weekends will be relaxed and flexible.ST PHOTO: TAY HWEE PENG

In Singapore, nearly eight in 10 households with primary school children have tuition, according to a new Straits Times survey.

I belong to the minority 20 per cent that don't. But it is a struggle to resist. I decided not to send my daughter, aged nine, to extra academic classes so our weekends will be relaxed and flexible.

Call me a selfish and lazy mother if you must - but I believe there is more to life than having to plan family weekends around the timetable of your child's weekly enrichment classes. (Already, Sunday afternoons are kept free for her ballet class. Piano was dropped a couple of months back and what a relief we felt. Such enrichment classes in non-academic subjects aren't considered tuition in the survey.)

Many Singaporean parents I know spend their weekends rushing from one class to another.

The writer with her daughter, Nidia Sng, nine, at a padi field in Bali last month. Nidia’s teachers say she does not need tuition. The writer decided not to send her for extra academic classes so that their weekends will be relaxed and flexible. ST PHOTO: TAY HWEE PENG

During the holidays last month, I spent 30 hours - over five days of annual leave - to take my daughter to a five-day creative writing class in Tampines. We travelled by bus.

Were the course fees of $600 well spent? I have no answer. Parents who send their children to regular tuition fork out even more, I console myself.


The Straits Times-Nexus Link survey, one of the few conducted on an important issue that all Singaporean parents grapple with, shows that seven in 10 parents do not think tuition improved their children's grades noticeably.


So why are parents still spending time and money - a median of $155 to $260 a month - on something that doesn't benefit their children?

The answer lies in one word: Fear. Fear that your child is losing out to others; and fear that he or she is idling time away on weekends and during school holidays.

But perhaps parents forget the opportunity cost of sending their children to extra classes. In my case, I wouldn't know if the extra holiday class would boost my daughter's English marks. But one thing is for sure: We had to skip The Little Prince In The Dark exhibition at Alliance Francaise de Singapour. By the time we reached home at 4pm on those days, we were exhausted.

It is tiring to take your child around for tuition or extra classes. But it is actually no less tiring to take on the role of tutor yourself.

It takes discipline and commitment from both parent and child to keep track of the school timetable, check homework, and plan and stick to a revision routine.

My friends and relatives have been on my case about this. Why not just hire a tutor and outsource all that fussing? They share with me their ever-growing list of good tutors. They ask me why I'm being so hard on myself and why I'm short-changing my own child.

One mother who should know predicted: "It's just a matter of time. You can no longer resist tuition when she enters Primary 3 and has to study science."

Her words have since come back to haunt me. Last weekend, I got myself a Primary 3 and 4 science guide for parents and wondered if it was now time to get her a science tutor . "Didn't you manage to get an A-star for PSLE science without tuition?" my husband asked in jest. I did, but those grades are useless now. "Times have changed. Kids are smarter these days," my daughter's science teacher replied when I asked why the science questions were so tough.

I signed up for a mathematics workshop recently to learn how to use models to solve problem sums. The instructor let on that the current maths syllabus is three years ahead of the level taught to pupils 30 years ago. Our Primary 3 and Primary 4 pupils are learning the equivalent of our Primary 6 and Secondary 1 maths from back then.

The packed room went stone silent, and several participants later went up to the instructor for help. He is the author of a series of maths assessment books. The kiasu mother in me bought his book the very next day, adding to the pile of unfinished assessment books at home.

My daughter's teachers tell me she doesn't need tuition. I don't want it and neither does my daughter. But my husband says I should stop portraying tuition as a Big Bad Monster. Because one day she might need it and have a hard time reconciling with the Big Bad Monster.

I wonder: How long can we hold out against tuition? And how and when did tuition become such a necessary evil in Singapore?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2015, with the headline 'No, but how long can we hold out?'. Subscribe