Recently, I was shopping with my family in a neighbourhood mall. At a particular walkway, we saw many people milling about. As curious Singaporeans, we wondered if an event was planned, whether freebies would be dished out and where did the queue begin. Should we join too?
At an unannounced moment, children streamed out between glass doors –some tired and listless, some bouncing with excitement, most calling out for their parents and grandparents. The waiting crowd of people turned out to be relatives or domestic helpers waiting for their young charges to be done with tuition lessons.
Nowadays, it is common for shopping malls to cluster multiple tuition centres on the same level along a common walkway. There is a dizzying variety of subjects offered, for students attending pre-schools (!), primary schools, secondary schools and junior colleges. Not just the typical academic subjects like physics and mathematics, but also unusually titled programs like heuristics and creative writing.
One can see posters trumpeting the various undergraduate degrees, postgraduate diplomas in education, masters and even doctorates that their tutors possess. There will be photographs of past students – as if taken for their passports – beside the litany of distinctions they achieved ever since they embarked on their fantastic journeys with these centres.
Here is a sampling:
As a private tutor with almost seven years of experience, I would like to share my perspective on the rampaging beast that is the local tuition industry with you.
Firstly, one must be careful when examining such proudly advertised success stories. This is not at all to dispute the academic achievements of these spotlighted students but to emphasise that tuition centres, particularly franchised and well-marketed ones, are merely featuring the crème de la crème of their cohort. It is possible to pick and choose twenty odd students out of the tutored hundreds – if not thousands – to form a sales pitch. Let’s try, at this moment, a quick math question.
Question: One tuition chain has 20 branches. Each branch has an average of 200 students. How many students are associated with this tuition brand?
Answer: Total number of students = 20 x 200 = 4 000
Bonus: Is it difficult for the tuition branch to find 20 students with excellent grades to feature as advertisement?
Answer: NOT difficult at all
Those who failed to deliver grade distinctions will be conveniently left out of the advertising mosaic of top performers.
A concerned parent can walk into a particular branch in Jurong only to find out that the counter staff does not know which centre produced their featured top performers. It could be the Bedok one, maybe even that Clementi branch. That same parent then finds out that these displayed successes were collated from various branches throughout Singapore. There will be guarded attempts to offer reassurance that every branch is a good centre and every tutor is a committed one.
For a more accurate representation, caretakers should insist on knowing the percentage of distinctions a particular branch generates for the specific subject their charges intend to be tutored in. One branch might produce a higher percentage of distinctions for O levels Chemistry compared to another. Another branch might have tutors more skilled in explaining the inner workings of the human body. After all, there is no point paying through the nose for services that one does not need simply because of a few posters.
Given these hefty price tags, we must consider the usefulness of receiving private tuition. Tuition can improve student’s grades because of factors such as more time spent studying, additional resources as well as tutor support and attention.
Frankly, a student who revises for six more hours per week – be it at home, in class or at tuition – will see improved grades. This is, in my opinion, the primary reason why students’ grades seem to improve by leaps and bounds after starting tuition. They are less distracted – they have paid to be in an environment with fewer distractions – and are spending more time grappling with the curriculum. Assuming that students have the self-discipline to study and assuming that there are conducive environments for them to do so and assuming that they would seek explanations from their school teachers if need be, students can do well without attending tuition classes. These are, of course, rather unrealistic assumptions.
Some tuition centres, to be fair, provide excellent supplementary materials. This is however not to say that Popular bookstores do not stock helpful guides and assessment books. There are also multiple resources – animations, videos, mcq quizzes, even slides and notes – available online for FREE. The challenge is to find suitably engaging materials, then use them.
Tuition can help to improve grades, that much is clear. Why it helps to improve is less clear though, given the tangle of factors. But is it possible to score better grades without tuition? Definitely, though one must be more self-disciplined.
This is, however, missing the point.
People tend to say that the Ministry Of Education focuses excessively on grades. Even while the Ministry attempts to shift away from grades-centric education, families continue to buy into the competitive culture, throwing wads of money into a profit-centric industry. Anything can be tutored, any talent (for admission into top tiered programs) can be bought. Parents just want the best for their kids even though what they think is best may not necessarily be so in the long run.
When my group of private tutors meets, we compare how much we charge for our services. Someone says that it is possible to charge S$120 for an hour for a Junior College subject. Others say that is a waste that they are paid so well to sit there and nanny kids into doing their work simply because they have short attention spans and their parents are too busy to do so.
If people are willing to pay, tutors are willing to be present. This is the market economy at work. As much as I dislike this commercialisation of education and the societal factors leading to this commercialisation, I will continue to give tuition simply because there is a demand for it and I need to earn my living expenses.
In conclusion – there should be a conclusion, right? – be aware of the services you are paying for. Don’t pay so much simply because a tuition chain is better at marketing. Even better, find a family member to sit down and offer support for studying children. That, along with support from school teachers, is a superior, if not cheaper, alternative.