Tuition is popular due to education system issues

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 30, 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.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 30, 2013

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