Tutors band together to boost industry standards

Tuition centres are upping their game to stand out and at least one offers a money-back guarantee if parents are not satisfied. "Setting up this association is the first step to formalise this respectable trade," said its secretary, Mr Gary Ang.
Tuition centres are upping their game to stand out and at least one offers a money-back guarantee if parents are not satisfied. "Setting up this association is the first step to formalise this respectable trade," said its secretary, Mr Gary Ang.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

New association aims for professionalism in shadow education sector, promote best practices

To raise the quality of tutors in the billion-dollar tuition industry here, a group of tutors joined hands to form an association last month.

The Association of Tutors (Singapore) said it is also doing this to look after the welfare of tutors and their professional development.

Set up by economics tutor Anthony Fok and nine others, the body also hopes to "professionalise" the shadow education industry, which tutors said helps churn out top performers.

"I believe it is timely to set up an association for tutors to connect and collaborate," Mr Fok, 32, the association's president, told The Straits Times. "The ultimate benefit will always be geared towards the interest of students."

Mr Fok, who has been a full-time tutor for five years, is hoping tutors will attend meet-ups to share best practices, improve teaching standards and network with other players in the education scene.

  • $1.1b

    The amount Singaporeans spend on tuition in a year, according to the Household Expenditure Survey released in 2014. This is nearly double the $650 million that households spent in 2004.

  • 70%

    Proportion of parents who enrolled their children in extra classes, according to a survey conducted by The Straits Times and research firm Nexus Link in 2015. 

  • 600 

    Number of tuition centres registered with the Education Ministry, up from about 500 in 2011.

Mr Fok, a former teacher, is one of a small but growing group of "super tutors" who earn at least $1 million a year in fees. Private tutors have to register their centres for goods and services tax when their annual revenue crosses that mark.

"Tuition is a global phenomenon, not merely in Singapore," Mr Fok said. "It is fuelled by ambitious parents wanting their children to secure places at top schools."

Singapore boasts a reputation as an education powerhouse and its students are world champions.

Last month, the Republic topped a prestigious international benchmarking test. Singapore's 15-year-olds were ranked tops for mathematics, science and reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment.

Tutors said they played a part in the success.

Singaporeans spend $1.1 billion a year on tuition, according to the Household Expenditure Survey released in 2014 - nearly double the $650 million spent in 2004.

Mr Fok said: "I am glad Singapore's tuition scene has not reached the mania in other (places) such as Hong Kong, where celebrity tutors, with their sophisticated hairdos and designer clothing, are treated like idols.

"Parents here choose tutors based on their academic qualifications, their experience and ability to deliver results."

But to grab a slice of this lucrative pie, tuition centres are upping their game.

Some guarantee A grades for national exams. Others engage marketing teams to promote the tutors and set up branches in malls.

At least one offers a money-back guarantee if parents are not satisfied with the results.

There are some 600 tuition centres registered with the Education Ministry, up from about 500 in 2011. Centres with 10 or more students must be registered.

A survey conducted by The Straits Times and research firm Nexus Link in 2015 found that tuition is seen as a necessity - seven in 10 parents enrolled their kids in extra classes.

Parents have longed for a tuition watchdog to flag bad tutors, including those with false credentials.

Housewife Alicia Wong, 43, who has two children in primary school, said: "Hopefully this association will improve the quality of tutors, so we can be better assured that they are good enough to guide our kids."

National University of Singapore economics lecturer Kelvin Seah said the association may raise the industry's standards if it supports tutor development - for example, keeping them up to date on curriculum matters and best practices.

"Whether tuition is necessary is debatable, but what is clear is that tuition has grown to be a considerable part of the Singapore education landscape," he said. "Given the growing numbers of students and private tutors, one cannot afford to ignore the welfare of the latter."

Dr Seah said while the association could bring greater transparency, it might cause problems too.

"Parents might wrongly perceive tutors who are not members of the association to be of lower quality, or parents may be overly optimistic about the quality of tutors who manage to acquire membership."

Maths tutor Gary Ang, 37, who is the association's secretary, said there will always be a few black sheep in an industry.

"But we should not forget the dedicated tutors who quietly helped students achieve their full potential behind the scenes," he said. "Setting up this association is the first step to formalise this respectable trade."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2017, with the headline 'Tutors band together to boost industry standards'. Print Edition | Subscribe