I wrote this article 3 years ago, which appeared in the Straits Times Forum page. This past week, the tuition issue is still raging on, especially after Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah said that tuition is unnecessary for most children in Singapore as the education system is more than sufficient to provide them with the tools and information that they require. I’m not sure about her family situation, but I can safely guess that she does not have a child currently in either a Primary or Secondary school. This is my experience with the education system:
Why parents are forced to spend on tuition
My three older children are in Primary 6, Primary 4 and Primary 2 in a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school. Having put them in such a well sought-after school, I thought they would be in good hands.
All three of them were getting average grades. However, to my utter shock and dismay, my eldest came home with red marks in all her subjects for her Primary 5 year end exams, and she was the last in class. Her concerned form teacher called me to find out what happened. She told me that my daughter was attentive in class and was, in fact, chosen as the role model student for that year.
After speaking to me, the teacher was surprised that she had no tuition and that I did not coach her myself. She was even more surprised that I had not bought any 10-year series or guidebooks for her. (As she was my eldest, I didn’t know that just sending her to school and buying all the requisite textbooks were not enough to get by). I, in turn, asked her what was happening. She was the one teaching my daughter 3 out of the 4 subjects in school, so I should be querying her about her poor grades, not the other way around! She then explained to me that due to time constraints, teachers could only cover the basics, so the child needed to do a lot more extra work at home or to get tuition.
That seems to be the reality, as I have found out from parents of children in other schools as well. She was put into a different class in her P6 year. Subsequently, I enrolled her for tuition for all four subjects and for her mid-year exam, she achieved the first position in her class. In the end, thanks to tuition, she managed to get 4As for her PSLE. (I shudder to think what her grades would be like if I had not sent her for tuition in her P6 year). I can now understand why the majority of parents are willing to spend so much money on tuition. The system is just not delivering.
Tuition centres, on the other hand, are able to produce many students with As. Why is that so? The class size is about 10. The tutors are motivated to get the students to do well as there are incentives to do so. More than that, they are not bogged down with many other responsibilities that distract them from teaching. Many good tutors I spoke to are former teachers.
If we could give our teachers a good environment, and not burden them with umpteen other responsibilities, they would have more time and energy left to prepare well for lessons.
The sad truth is that parents are focusing all their energies on academic achievement, thereby neglecting more important matters like character building and family bonding, which are so crucial in today’s fast-paced and changing world. It may be a good idea to set up a forum with parents, students, teachers, tutors and the Ministry of Education to analyse the situation. Singapore has a world-class education system. Perhaps, that is in part due to a world-class tuition system.
That was my article published 3 years ago. I have since spoken to more teachers and tutors and I have identified the biggest problem. If we can solve this 1 problem, I think we are half-way there.
The problem is the incentive of the teachers. Currently, all schools have an annual review by the MOE. The principal’s performance is pegged to this review. To get a better review, the principal has to show more initiatives and programs they have achieved that year, besides teaching. So in turn, the principal will push the teachers to be involved in more initiatives, activities and competitions to pump up the annual review. The teachers are willing to do this because the more extra initiatives they take on, the better their EPMS, the better their bonuses. So in fact, the whole system encourages teachers to spend time on other areas besides teaching. As a result, where is the motivation to teach well? In fact, teaching is considered low level work. Honestly, I couldn’t believe my ears when I first discovered that fact. How can teaching be considered low level work when teaching is the primary role of a teacher? Once I made that discovery, it all made sense to me why teachers were behaving the way they were behaving. They actually benefit monetarily by doing all this extra CCAs, competitions, sports festivals, etc.
I am really curious about what MOE thinks. Do they know that it is already a full time job for teachers just to be teaching? Do they think it is really possible for a person to be handling so many other responsibilities yet be able to teach passionately and effectively? Can we instead, incentivise teachers who teach well? Peg the bonuses to the delivery of good lessons. I remember reading one article in the Straits Times about a history teacher in a secondary school. He even went to the trouble to dress like a Japanese soldier when he was doing a lesson on the Japanese occupation. He brought the lesson alive to his students and I think he even used role-play to get them involved. Ideas like that should be complimented and taken into consideration in their performance review. I think herein lies the crux of our solution. Raise teaching to High Level work with the subsequent monetary benefits and we will probably see a reduction in the need for tuition.
On a brighter note, I am very excited to read in today’s papers about the bold plans to move away from the single focus of exams to develop a more rounded education for our students. This is exactly what I have been saying in my past post. Education minister Heng Swee Keat announced that there will be an applied learning programme and a learning-for-life programme in all secondary schools by 2017. These programs will help students use what they learn to solve real-life problems and they will also discover their strengths and interests. I have also proposed this in my previous blog “so who’s smarter?” I think these 2 programmes are right on the mark.
I am really keen to find out more about the details of these 2 schemes in the dialogue session which I am attending next week at the MOE. I just hope that the delivery and execution of these schemes will always retain the right focus and purpose. Somehow, our system seems to warp all the best plans and initiatives formulated by the Ministry. I don’t know if it’s the principals, the teachers or the parents who drive everything into a competition.
Now that the Ministry is being so supportive in nurturing our children to find their individual strengths and talents, I hope all parents can take on this liberating mindset, that each and every child is different and we are not competing against one another. We should instead focus our energy in teaching our children to challenge themselves to be the best that they can be.