Triggered much by NTUC Income’s cleverly-done “Worst Parents in the World” YouTube video? I was, initially. But that was why I watched it through. It was one of the few ads I watched without clicking on the SKIP button. And when I finished, I cried. I realized then what it meant when the producers of the video lumped “esteemed tuition centers’ fees” with “trips to theme parks in Florida”. A significantly-high expense it was. Hang on, IS. Especially if you count pre-k to tertiary. And 3 kids. (And since I’m only halfway through, I can safely say bye bye to my retirement.)
I am no economist. I am not trained in finance or business management, but there must be a few alarm bells ringing somewhere, particularly within closed doors of the Ministry of Education when, in December 2016, it was reported that Singapore households spent some S$1.2 billion on tuition. If you break that down to a year, that is S$3.287 million EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
A local finance blogger Dr Wealth puts it this way: To get an idea of how amazing this amount is, consider that the total amount of money set aside in the FY2014 National Budget for education was S$11.49 billion. That means that Singaporeans’ consumption of private tuition amounts to 10% of what the entire nation spends on education. (Keep in mind this total National Budget figure includes expenses on all levels of education; from pre-school, to university, to ITE and polytechnics.)
No Containing This Education Arms Race
As a born and bred 3G (third generation) Singapore mother, I can attest to falling into the category of that kiasu parent you know and read about. My 1st Gen Grandparents didn’t care if my father finished his Primary school education or not. And my mom, upon completing her ‘O’ levels couldn’t afford to continue studying. After all, as our government reiterates every now and then, Singapore is a meritocratic society. Every parent wants what’s best (for their children) with what they could afford. Without needing an audit, I can safely say I regularly invest up to 50% of my take-home salary towards my kids’ tuition and enrichment. And this is done with the sense that I’ve been able to fulfill my responsibility as any parent ‘should’, to provide them the best guidance and tuition help with whatever resources I can muster. That, ladies and gentlemen is quintessentially kiasu-ism at its finest. And you can bet your posterior I’m not the only one.
In a 2015 Straits Times (ST) article by senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie, she stated that the majority of Singaporean parents may be spending hundreds or thousands of dollars every month on private tuition, despite knowing that having tuition may not significantly help raise their children’s grades. This however stems from a strong commitment to education in Singaporean families – doing well at national examinations is a top priority for most parents and children.
From a survey of 500 parents conducted by ST and research company Nexus Link in 2015, 7 out of 10 parents say their children are enrolled in extra classes. Out of these, nearly 4 in 10 had children in pre-school enrolled in tuition classes, 8 in 10 parents with children in primary school pay for tuition, while 6 in 10 parents with secondary school children do so. But the main gist of the survey findings was that 70% of these parents say they enrolled their children in tuition to help improve grades, whilst 52% say it was to keep up with others. A case of keeping up with the Joneses. In the extreme.
Nexus Link’s chief methodologist Jack Loo was quoted in the article as saying, “Parents perceive tuition as a form of safety net and something that is necessary because everyone else is doing it.”
Says another ST journalist, senior tech correspondent Irene Tham, “I’m not a Tiger mom. My child does not need to obtain a 90th percentile score for every subject every time – as long as she puts in effort. But it is another story if being left behind in class leads to confidence issues or a dislike for learning (the subject) altogether.”
Agreeing, ST’s assistant Foreign Editor Tay Hwee Peng says, “My daughter’s teachers tell me she doesn’t need tuition. I don’t want it and neither does my daughter. But my husband says I should stop portraying tuition as a Big Bad Monster. Because one day she might need it and have a hard time reconciling with the Big Bad Monster.” Ms Tay then signed up for a mathematics workshop recently to learn how to use models to solve problem sums. The instructor let on that the current (2015) maths syllabus is 3 years ahead of the level taught to pupils 30 years ago. The current Primary 3 and 4 pupils are learning the equivalent of our Primary 6 and Secondary 1 maths from back then. And the standards have not just increased dramatically for Math. English, Mother Tongue and Science have also seen leaps and bounds in standards.
If this isn’t the curse of the “bellcurve Gods”, I don’t know what is. But as recently as May this year, I’ve done quite a bit of research in this area (of PSLE Maths), allowing me to conclude that these “bellcurve Gods” have existed since the beginning, and is not just a recent phenomenon. (Click here to access earlier Tueetor blogs on PSLE Maths.)
Another ST journalist cum parent, Deputy News Editor Mr Aaron Low hedged for as long as possible before he caved in to his wife’s request of Chinese tuition for their primary-school daughter. As he says, his daughter tries very hard but speaks Mandarin with a distinct English accent. He asks, “As parents, we have to constantly remind ourselves: What is the point of an education? Is it to merely chase grades? Or to learn about the world? Keeping this in mind, a balance has to be sought. If tuition can help our daughter learn Chinese better, then it is a boon.”
Meteoric Rise of ‘Parentocracy’ and Inequality
Associate Professor Jason Tan of the National Institute of Education noted in mainstream media that tuition is no longer meant only to help weak or failing students pass their exams. “Tuition has morphed into this huge industry to keep one’s child ahead of the rest. Many tutors teach ahead of the school curriculum, so that the child has a competitive edge. Even students in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) have tuition.”
He pointed to tuition programmes that have spouted to cater to students of varying abilities and for different purposes. These include helping students get into the GEP or to prepare students for the Direct School Admission scheme, which allows schools to accept students not just based on academic ability, but also to further ‘prep’ them with their talent in sports and the arts.
Given the burgeoning size of the shadow education industry, the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore has begun auditing tuition centres’ owners and private tutors. It has found under-declaration of income to be a “common problem”.
Assoc. Prof Tan coined the phrase ‘Parentocracy’ as it is a warped version of meritocracy. Meritocracy, by definition, recognises talent and ability, over wealth and circumstances of birth. It motivates society to work hard, it encourages us to develop our talents, and put our talents and strengths to good use. And as families do well, they believe in meritocracy and therefore, they spare no effort investing in the next generation, including enrichment classes from a very young age. Hence, children today from more affluent families are now doing better that those from lower income families in school. However, in this ‘parentocratic’ society, a child relies on his parents’ social connections, status and money to get ahead in life, rather than through sheer hard work and effort.
At the perceived ‘higher’ end of the SES spectrum, a veteran educator and curriculum consultant Mrs Marietta Koh says she pays around S$2,000 per term for tuition (or more than S$600 a month); despite the fact that she was once a secondary school and junior college teacher, and later a tutor who would be in a position to teach her daughter herself. But she chose not to. Other parents, like single parent and legal assistant Mdm Mala Ramakrishnan, believe that tuition is a necessity, taking up a second job just to pay hefty tuition fees, believing that the extra classes would put her 3 children on par with others.
Full-time taxi driver Goh Teck Seng said to The New Paper that ordinarily, his family of 4 would be able to live quite comfortably on his and his wife’s total household income of S$3,800. Except that he spends some S$2,100 on tuition for both his children. Mr Goh says that they now live on a tight budget with no savings, so that his 15-year-old son and his 11-year-old daughter would be able to receive private tuition and entry to a popular learning centre.
Dr Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) says, “Tuition has become an “inequality of opportunity”. Parents use this to give their children an advantage in the mobility game. Parentocracy can un-level the playing field, giving students from families with the means to give them a turbo boost in their performance in academic subjects, exposure to enrichment courses, even more grounding in useful skills.”
“It has been a focus of education research, whether tuition here leads to inequality and by and large, research does show that it is the case,” says Dr Kelvin Seah, economics lecturer at NUS.
Is Tuition A Magic Bullet?
Dr Yeap Ban Har, principal of Marshall Cavendish Institute, which conducts professional development courses for teachers, reckoned in the same article that tutoring helps in mastering the basics, but does not contribute significantly to performing well in novel, challenging problems.
He said a teacher’s skillsets make more of a difference in a student’s learning process. “It is not a case of tuition or no tuition…if a teacher can create opportunities (for students) to explore, to collaborate, to think structurally, to reflect, to be confident…It does not matter whether he or she is a teacher in a school or a tutor.”
Dr Yeap had a point. From traditional one-on-one teaching to group classes, to NO tuition, my own children have tried it all. My eldest was schooled in English from when she was in primary 2 as her school English teacher complained that she was behind everybody else in class. So with the help of the lovely English tutor whom she adored, scored an A* in PSLE English. And when she finally went back to the same tutor for ‘O’ Level Literature help 4 years later, she scored A1 (when she used to fail, even at her preliminary exams).
But when it came time for her younger brother to join her, my son absolutely hated the environment. Saying that the very same tutor was not helping him much at her group classes. Then when he was given one-on-one (with a different tutor), it seemed to help for a little while, but even then, his grades plateaued, calling for a change in tuition strategy, aka zero tuition, and he was scoring the same grades as when he had tuition.
According to Tanith Carey, author of Taming the Tiger Parent, when you put an under-confident child in one-to-one tutoring with a tutor who does not know how to handle problems such as low academic self-esteem, that child will often end up feeling even worse about themselves and end up more resistant to learning.
A Necessary ‘Evil’ to Curb Fear of Failure & FOMO
“Today, education has become transformed to less of a social leveler and more of a teeth-on-edge arms race. It has become harder for those from less well-to-do backgrounds to compete on equal terms with their well-to-do counterparts,” says Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University (SMU) and a former nominated member of parliament. “So, even as the opportunities are open to all, access to and utilisation of those opportunities are unequal.”
But income levels affect more than the ability to afford something. “Parents investing [resources] in their children is an important type of capital. This includes sending them to a good preschool, enrichment classes, having a good caregiver or the time to coach them. If the parents are struggling with daily needs, I don’t think they have the time and energy to do these things,” says Daniel Goh, associate professor of sociology at NUS.
In another online press source ‘The Conversation’ and Yahoo news, Ms Amanda Wise, associate professor of sociology at Australia’s Macquarie University compared Australia’s education system with the world’s best. Her discovery? That Singapore’s reputation for being able to churn out the world’s best students year after year has something to do with the more than a billion dollars Singaporeans invest in what she deemed a “soul-crushing” shadow education industry. She crunched the numbers put out by the Singapore government and what she found is that the bottom-fifth quintile of Singapore households earn about S$2,000 per month on average – the next quintile is around S$5,000 – hence this investment is a considerable, significantly-sized portion of the average family budget. Imagine if the family has more than one child with two or three children? And you start to get the sense of the potential socioeconomic inequalities at work when educational success depends on private tuition.
She also discovered that the marketing tactics of these tuition centers are very good at inducing anxiety in parents about fear of failure; and unless they are willing to pay to help their children get ahead, they won’t. Hence the quality of tuition received is very much linked to how much one can afford to pay. It has become big business. Especially when its star tutors are considered Millionaire Tutors, regularly interviewed in mainstream media, with wait lists longer than a year. And when they have become this big, they certainly are able to command a level of influence.
A case in point was when the Ministry of Education recently announced (rather shockingly I might add) of major changes to school exams for primary and secondary levels. Most of these changes will be effectively implemented almost immediately in 2019 through 2021. Instead of welcoming these measures though, most Singapore parents overwhelmingly said they were concerned this would then make it harder for them to assess how their child was performing in school.
Tuition centres – big and small, unilaterally said that their in-house or centres’ mid-year cum year-end exams would remain, even though schools are removing such exams for certain levels. Ruffled feathers were hence soothed when these centres and other tutors stepped in to fill the needs of anxious parents. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung who made the announcement of the changes then was reported as saying, “Doing so would just be preying on the apprehension and anxieties of parents and students.” In their defence, the tuition centres said they were simply ‘meeting a demand’.
When interviewed, parents say the measures would do little to curb academic stress for their children but instead, delay it till the year-end examinations. Others say this is why they would still rely on tuition. Homemaker Sharon Tan was quoted by mainstream media as saying “Whether or not you do away with mid-year exams or not, there will still be an exam at the end of the year, and there will also be national exams to sit for. Placing emphasis on the year-end exams will actually make it worse for the child, for example, it will not promote healthy learning behaviours like being consistent with your work.” Another parent, Mr Ian Lum says, “If the school does not track how my children are doing, the only other way to know it will be through my sons’ tuition classes.”
Tueetor’s Social Pillars
Hence, tuition will exist as long as there are high stakes national examinations. And this is where we, Tueetor, a homegrown EdTech start-up, established right here in Singapore, have come in. As the world’s and Singapore’s first, fully-automated, location-based free platform that enables users to instantly find tutors and trainers for a wide range of academic and non-academic subjects; we plan to disrupt this industry as you know it.
Just as Grab is a location-based platform matching drivers and commuters, Tueetor matches learners and trainers based on the set of criteria that’s submitted: preferred location, subject(s) you want to learn, your level, preferred qualifications or teaching experience, and of course, budget, and Tueetor does the matching all within a minute, guaranteed. On browser and via its smartphone app. Without charging any commission or middleman or referral fees.
But for all intents and purposes, Tueetor was founded to address two prevalent ills of the private tutoring cum enrichment industry – that of accessibility and affordability. Founder Tan Han Sing said it all boiled down to this, “Private tuition and enrichment should no longer be considered a luxury in this time and age, particularly in our ultra-competitive Asian societies. As a result, in a little over two years since our founding in August 2016, we are able to confirm that more competitive pricing across a basket of the more popular subjects both academic and non-academic has materialised.
For example, Math lessons can be attained from just S$8 a session, compared to as much as a few hundred dollars a month at traditional tuition centres, due to the middleman brokerage and referral fees which are inevitably passed on to consumers.
“With lifelong learning as a primary objective being set by our government, whether it is to learn new trade skills that could lead to gainful employment and income – be it full-time or passive, part-time, freelance; it is Tueetor’s main social pillar to offer learners the means to sign up for lessons that could be of benefit to them, throughout their entire lifetime.
On top of that, Tueetor also aims to be at the forefront of the gig economy. From when our users are learners, to when they can become a trainer (or tutor) in their own right. Having our learners become trainers to teach and train on our platform in the vocations and skillsets of their choice, can enable them to turn their passions into recession-proof employment.”
With private education or generally Education being one of the largest, tried and tested industries globally, and other new, disruptive proprietary technologies are rushing to close the gap on supply and demand, made-in-Singapore Tueetor is setting its sights to becoming a force in redefining the education landscape of Asia and beyond.
And this is timely as, according to Forbes, market research firm Global Industry Analysts, Inc. released a study which stipulated that the global private tutoring market will surpass US$102.8 billion by end 2018. And according to GIA, the Asia-Pacific which comprises Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China, are responsible for more than 90% of this global market.
What is YOUR Measurement of Parental Success?
What it all boils down to however is not mere dollars and cents. Let’s keep in mind that we are bringing up our children in a highly-competitive culture, encouraged by our government and status-obsessed schools. Parents are made to constantly fear that they are never doing enough to help their children succeed in a cut-throat world of work and higher education.
But as Ms Tanith Carey prescribes, it is time for parents to reclaim a carefree childhood for their children and to enjoy parenting once again. Parents, she says, need to stop raising their children on the principles that they must beat everyone in their class, that their school needs to rise up the tables, or for their country to defeat every other nation on Earth in global education rankings.
Happiness and security, not exam grades should be the real measure of parental success. Parents who continuously subscribe to academic success will realise that they are far from producing a brave new world of accomplished wunderkind. That we are instead, churning out anxious and depressed children. Instead of helping children do well at school, hothousing and tiger parenting risk instilling homework resistance, math anxiety, a lack of enthusiasm for reading, low confidence, sleep problems and disconnection from parents.
Some parents have decided to look the other way. A local blogger Michelle Choy, a mother of 6, decided to stop her daughter’s tuition 3 months before her PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) wrote last year that, “As a parent, I’ve decided not to succumb to thinking that I don’t have a choice. I do have a choice. And I realized that I made the right decision to cancel all of my daughter’s tuition classes because I knew I couldn’t stand by and let her sink into depression because of an exam.”
Another local blogger also stated that over-reliance on tuition, rather than allowing their child to try and do his or her best on their own, is a main reason why he would put off tuition for as long as possible for his 3 children. “If a child constantly has tuition and has known tuition all his childhood life then, he may be over-reliant on external help to learn a topic, which he otherwise should have paid more attention in class and figured out on his own.”
Another parent, Jane Ng confessed in the Straits Times earlier this year about her decision to not give her son any tuition for his PSLE year. She reported that whilst her son may not produce sterling results, her son showed enthusiasm for school and relished the challenge of solving difficult math questions all on his own, refusing to give up until he got the answer. For the grit, resilience and increased confidence her son had chalked up in his primary school years were all the more important successes in Ms Ng’s book than any academic progress her son may have made, as they weren’t reflected in his final PSLE scores.
She summed it up, “My husband’s and my decision over the years of not inundating my son with tuition may not have gotten him top-notch scores, but if it helps in encouraging him to enjoy learning, then that’s half the battle won.”
In conclusion, Charles Chu wrote in Medium something I thought all of us, as parents and now, lifelong learners should consider. He wrote, “What happens in a world, where everyone goes to college? Economist Ha-Joon Chang once wrote that once the proportion of people going to university goes over a critical threshold, people have to go to university in order to get a decent job. When say, 50% of the population goes to university, not going to university is implicitly declaring that you are in the bottom half of the ability distribution.
Education may be stuck in this kind of vicious spiral. To be competitive, we need to get bigger degrees. But what happens in a world where everyone has a meaty degree? We need to get even meatier.” (This spiral) will never end. What I think we should all realise is best encapsulated in what has been widely attributed to Albert Einstein. Who (reportedly) said, “Everyone’s a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
For more information on how Tueetor can help lower your costs of tuition and enrichment, visit tueetor.com or download our free app at tueetor.com/apps. Or call us at +65 6206 6660 or WhatsApp us at 98833867 or drop us a line on Telegram or Line.
‘The real costs of tuition and education in my personal opinion, are the opportunity costs of not knowing how much play and recreation should have replaced all that wasted time doing exactly what other parents thought best to have done. Follow your own gut and dreams and remember to listen to your children. It has been a pleasure writing for you. Cecilia out.’ Blog written and edited by Cecilia Leong.