The Tuition Problem nobody wants to solve

Dear Voices Editor

I refer to the Today report “MPs call for closer look at private tuition industry” (Today 17 Sep 2013)

It was a disheartening story for parents of primary school children to read.

While the original question posed by MPs in Parliament was focused on whether teachers are leaving the Education Service for more lucrative careers in the tuition sector, the replies from Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah was a disturbing indication that the Ministry of Education doesn’t consider the tuition industry to be a critical issue.

Like it or not, it’s time for policymakers to stop ignoring the Tuition Problem if we are to improve the education system in Singapore.

We can abolish the PSLE aggregate score, or change admission schemes, but all these changes will be derailed by the Tuition Problem and its root cause of an unrealistic primary school syllabus.

The facts were laid out in Parliament by various MPs – the local tuition industry may be a billion-dollar industry today and that 97 percent of Singapore students were enrolled in tuition and enrichment classes in 2008, more than double from 1992.

The Minister’s key replies, as reported, was that teacher attrition rates were low and that exit interviews did not indicate that teachers were leaving for the tuition industry. However, attrition rates and the lack of upfront feedback about the school education system do not mask the fact that the nation’s parents are facing a crisis of confidence about the education system.

Parents send their children for a variety of reasons but as many have continually voiced out in the past few years, tuition is now a necessity because of the unrealistic standards in the primary school syllabus and the poor balancing of teacher workloads.

I don’t have the hard statistics but I have many anecdotes from other parents to tell the Ministry this hard truth – The teachers struggle to cover all the topics in the school syllabus, so they rush through the basic concepts when teaching. Students are left bewildered, then asked to do “high-level” and “critical thinking” questions when their foundation is shaky. Parents don’t understand how to help their children, because they can’t even figure out how to answer some of today’s mindboggling exam questions.

Do they have a choice but to turn to tutors?

For many parents, enrolling their children for tuition is not about the desire for top grades, but because of the fear that their children cannot catch up enough to get a decent passing grade.

Then, any free time the child has is sucked up by travelling to tuition classes or doing tuition homework. Where do they get the time to enjoy outdoor activities, learn new hobbies or other things that make them well-rounded individuals?

The Tuition Problem is a symptom, not a cause, of the failures of today’s education system.

The Government spends so much time and money trying to persuade Singaporeans to have children and not to emigrate to other pastures. Are our leaders aware that it is this oppressive education environment that helps kill our fertility rate and reduce our sense of belonging? It is increasingly common to hear  young married couples saying : “I don’t want to have kids and then put them through this ordeal”

The signs have been clear for all parents to see for many years.

Now as our so-called “partners in education”, can the Ministry see the same perspective too?


Ian Tan Yong Hoe


17 Replies to “The Tuition Problem nobody wants to solve”

  1. It’ll be interesting to see the reply from MOE or Indranee Rajah herself. I wonder if students in international schools face these problems.

  2. My sister spent an average of 1.5k on her 2 children ( one taking PSLE this year) for their tuition. She is a graduate from NUS and yet she could not solve some of the mind boggling Maths questions thrown at her children!

  3. My sentiments exactly!

    For many families, tuition is a huge percent of their monthly income, and it really adds up when there are more kids in the family. :/

    Do we really need tuition? I would love to say ‘no’, that our teachers prepare our kids enough to take the exams themselves, but realistically, the papers are set at a level so ridiculous on the premise of ‘sifting the creme de la creme’ at .every. .single. .stage. of their education, that self-esteem, parental expectations, school expectations, etc. get meshed up in a veritable Gordian knot involving strong emotions and stress, fear of failing and time-loss… an utterly unhealthy way for many to go forward.

    And why are there Super Tutors when these ought to be Super Teachers? Partly because the money’s in the motivation, partly because the freedom from extraeous workload’s in the motivation. We literally have Super-Schools; schools so large that it has lost its humanity, where the kids are a mere digit out of thousands of kids in the school. Whatever happened to the smaller schools we grew up in, schools where we knew all the teachers and all the kids from our level? Part of that competitive drive is that there’s so many people to compete against… a great big systemic issue…

  4. if parents choose not to be “kiasu”, accept their kids as what they are than what the parents want them to be, would tuition be necessary?? I am a p4 student. i do not have any tuition. not because i am good but because my parents accept me as what i am, my strength and my weakness. if only every parent can just take a step back, if only all kids cannot answer the “difficult” questions in the test papers and yet be accepted by their parents, do we still have this problem? perhaps i am naive but i think i am blessed.
    i appeal to all parents to accept us children as what we are, not what u want us to be.

    1. LMS CHIJ, you really sound intelligent for a P4 student. I think you are both blessed with good parents and good genes that negate any need for tuition.

      If a child continue to fail in the school tests and exams, can it be just that the parents do nothing? You may want to ask this to your mother and get a clear direct and no-nonsense answer on this aspect as this is where most parents face, not about accepting or not accepting their children but going out to get the best for their children when they fail. If you think otherwise then there is nothing to discuss here.

      As mentioned in the write-up above, many attend to tuition to get a decent results or just to pass or just not to FAIL. If the school syllabus is right and teaching is wholesome, would the child need to get additional help, be it tuition or from their parents’ for homework etc?

      So let us get back to the issue for MOE to solve (syllabus, unrealistic questions, banding etc) and not blame parents unnecessarily here. No parents want to give any less to their children if the child needs it. Your parents will likely to the same if face with such problems but then you are blessed differently and have good genes that others may not have. Count your blessings!

      1. Yes yes, i have said i am blessed. Just for your information, there are 2 persons in my class who dont have tuition, and i am in the top class in my school. My friends are all blessed with good genes so to speak, but most “need” tuition. Why? i do not know. I am just wondering if parents can let their child get 90 and yet not push for tuition so that they can get 95 or 100?? Because really, all my friends are doing very well in school. i have friends who are already getting 90 but their parents think that is not good enough. Why?
        Anyway, my mum just asked me to end this conversation and count my blessings 🙂

  5. Free ones are called community aid, cheap ones are called tuition, and the expensive ones are called enrichment. Despite being of the same age, the dispersion of innate ability is bell-shaped. Even if the school teaching level is pitched at the medium, half will still be below it. So how? If have the means,
    seek help lor.

  6. Ian, I think it is important for you to differentiate between his opinions and facts or this will be just another post that mislead by fanning the fire and sensationalizing rather than clarifying the issues.

    Fact: 97% of students go for tuition.

    Your Opinion: Parents send the students for tuition because the primary school syllabus is too difficult.

    My Opinion: Besides anecdotal evidence, do you have other information on this? Is MOE supposed to set syllabus and policies so that “A” grades are attainable by most people? I don’t know because I am not in this career field although I have my own opinions (tried to add emphasis on the word opinion but failed…). If you have better evidence, then I can seriously consider your opinion.

    Fact: The tuition industry is a billion dollar industry.

    Your Opinion: The tuition industry is the problem based on the title of your post (or is it a symptom of a failing education system as you so succinctly put in the last paragraph?)

    My Opinion: This is where I really get confused by what you are trying to say. Singaporeans are very good at fixing problems. But you have not laid out a strong case that the tuition industry is the problem. You have no facts or figures supporting the case. I can’t even use your case to try and rebut the government’s claim that attrition of MOE teachers is not a problem. Let’s say I agree with you that the tuition problem is indeed the problem. Can you then suggest how to fix it? If the tuition system is a symptom, what then is the problem and why? And how do you suggest that it be fixed?

    Your Opinion: There is a failure in the education system and parents are facing a crisis of confidence in the education system.
    My Opinion: Are you a parent? Are you speaking for yourself or do you have evidence that you are speaking for the rest of the nation. Besides, do you have any evidence that the education system is failing, and that it is not meeting its objectives? What in your opinion should be the objectives of the education system? I am a parent, I have never spent a single cent on tuition, and I have not lost confidence in the education system.

    I am very disturbed that an eloquent (and probably very well educated) person like Ian is not exercising rigour and mental discipline in his writing. Instead he is aiming to sensationalize rather than help move the nation on these issues. I question the motives for his writing. Is it for his personal glory or is he indeed trying to further a just cause. To Ian, if you are indeed trying to further a just cause, then I would strongly recommend that you back up what you say and be more objective.

    1. Dear Guppy,

      I will let you know I only engage with commentators who use their real name, and who bother to read my profile or previous posts (and published letters + linked stories on these matters) before they ask many questions. If you’re looking to debate with me on my blog about me sensationalising this topic, or speak to me in the third person, I’m not really interested either. I have better things to do like spending time with my kids and wife, or doing my day job.

      Ian Tan

      1. I was pointed here by a friend and dropped a note because I find your post to be intellectually dishonest and lacking of integrity.

        Fortunately, I have no time to argue with you too.


  7. I dunno about 97% of students having tuition because I have seen classes of students which have no tuition. The top students have tuition because they think they need it. Its kinda of a perception thing. If a parent thinks the questions are too difficult then the parent will panic and send their child to tuition. Good family support can negate this trend but of course who can afford the time given how much work we have to do for our bosses.

    From my limited experience, no amount of tuition can change a child’s results if the child hates the subject. Teachers are trying to make lessons interesting but because parents didn’t pay for their mainstream education, students think that school is not worth paying attention for. I mean if you are forced to go for IPT and pay for a gym membership, where would you put your effort? You are right that teachers are overworked but then again all modern jobs in Singapore have over-demanding workloads. Its not the fault of the administrations, its the attitude of bosses who want the most from us and pay pittance for the luxury of having committed staff.

    The tuition problem can be solved by forcing everyone to take a step back such that child value their education, parents support the education system and teachers are given time to prepare good lessons. Right now, the attitude of society is results first, process who cares. Its true for the students and also the parents who brought them up.

Comments are closed.