Tutored to death

An MP’s recent comment that tuition was not necessary in our education system sparked off a flurry of comments from disbelieving, if not angry, parents. A follow-up broadsheet article on tuition, its prevalance and how deeply entrenched it is in our psyche, painted a dismal and depressing picture.

Thoughtful and insightful posts by fellow parent bloggers here, here and here, resonated with me deeply. Their reflections and hopes are totally worth a read.

I’ve always felt that if there was one thing that would push me over the brink to migrate, it’d be the less-than-ideal state of our education system, especially at the primary school level.

The primary school years of age 7 to 12 are meant to be idyllic ones, filled with running around parks, exploring plants, ponds, bugs on the ground… reading book after book on lazy afternoons, napping when you wish, learning how to cycle, in-line skate, or whatever the latest new-fangled thing is… having unstructured playdates with your neighbours, learning how to navigate friendships, finding out what it means to stick up for a friend, comfort a hurt kid, share your faith, as you wander around the neighbourhood playgrounds…

But no. Most kids have tuition after school, and it even takes up a huge chunk of their weekend. Most parents work long hours on weekdays as our economy dictates, leaving little face time with their kids. Come weekends, instead of spending time chatting, playing, and bonding through leisurely meals, parents play chauffeur, shuttling their precious offspring from one premier enrichment centre to the next, sometimes grabbing only a bun for lunch because there is only THAT timeslot left at that prestigious (and not to mention, very pricey) centre with the long enrolment waiting list.

WHY have we come to this state of the world?

I know many teachers, and have read many primary school parents’ experiences of the system. I have concluded that this pervasive tuition culture arises because:

1. Schools test far beyond what they teach. Sure you can pass without tuition, but complete familiarity with one’s textbook and classroom materials will only get you 60%. Up to 40% of examined material, is not taught in school. Only tuition teachers and centres are familiar enough with what EXACTLY is outside the syllabus that will be tested, can help in this respect, it seems.

[I understand the need to differentiate between students, but expecting children to be able to answer exam questions without teaching them the content, is a bit much, no? It’s just primary school, for goodness’ sake. Sure, set 10% of out-of-this-world questions to separate the wheat from the chaff, but is it necessary to demoralise a whole class or drive them to tuition with so many ‘outside’ questions? It seems like an uphill task to get through a year of school with one’s self-esteem intact these days, and I’m not even talking about how a kid feels when he fails the ‘entrance test’ to one of those premier enrichement centres!]

2. Teachers have too much administrative work, CCA obligations, and excessively large class sizes. If admin work and CCA responsibilities were devolved to specialists, and classes kept to 30 pupils, the teachers I spoke to said that they would have no problems teaching all that tuition teachers currently cover too.

3. Teachers are not primarily assessed on and sufficiently rewarded for good teaching. The quote below was excerpted from a post by a former teacher, and corroborated by the teachers I know.

Spending the bulk of the time on teaching and learning matters is considered as low level work. It doesn’t add much value to the annual work review. Teachers are better off spending their time on their CCAs, rehearsals, student leadership programs, or other school matters that can raise their public profile in school. All these add more value to the annual work review.

(Whilst the high achieving teachers insultingly say), “if you like to teach only, then you should resign and go be a private tutor.”

I find that very, very, sad.

Are we entrusting the next generation’s learning to teachers who are more concerned with profiling themselves? Do we promote such ‘teachers’ to higher office, to school management positions, when they have no idea how to teach well? Are we over-looking those who really have a heart for teaching, causing widespread disillusionment?

An upside-down world if there ever was one.

Beyond the teachers, fundamentally, do we need our primary school students to have all this phenomenal head knowledge? Does such intensive rote learning produce better future contributors to our workforce? Does whatever fancy math modelling they do these days produce more cogent thinkers?

I think not.

What all this merely fuels is a thriving, lucrative tuition industry, built upon the insecurity, competitiveness and ultimately materialistic bent of our society. Parents fork out thousands of dollars of their hard-earned money every month, so their kids can keep up, sometimes at the behest of school teachers themselves.

My kids have not entered primary school, and I’ve heard that the first two years are likely to be smooth sailing. The real trauma begins in Pri 3. I am totally not looking forward to that. I ask myself if I am robbing my children of a proper childhood by staying, by putting them through this unforgiving and somewhat pointless education system?

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things that I appreciate about our schools and our teachers. I am grateful for our meritocratic system, and I must admit that I thrived in it, in my time. My parents couldn’t really afford tuition, so I had none throughout, even when I felt like I could have done with some help at times. And I still managed to do really, really well (by God’s grace). But it seems a totally different ball-game now, and one that certainly disadvantages the less well-heeled, which is another post for another day.

In our education system, the hardware is unparalleled worldwide. But as always, what matters most is the software, isn’t it? A school can have the best looking science lab in the world, or the most elaborate IT plan, but what if the students within its walls are tired, stressed out, and always thinking of how to push others down so they can get ahead? What if the teachers are demoralised, over-stretched, and those who really just want to TEACH, are sidelined and told that they are not performing? What if the syllabus is geared towards high scores in international benchmarking exercises, but students perform only because they are drilled, drilled, drilled?

I hate to say this, but the rot is deep. It is not easy to change a nation’s education system overnight. 10,000 teachers, and a whole layer of senior management across hundreds of schools (not to mention HQ) have been conditioned to think and behave a certain way because of how the incentives are structured. I am not sure if I’ll see change in my lifetime.

It is a good thing that we have very intelligent people with good hearts helming the ministry at its highest levels right now. What we need is for them to stay long enough to push through real and lasting change. It will be worth it. It has to start now.

If nothing is done, we will just be producing generation after generation of drones, who have been mollycoddled by tutors all their life, whilst the ‘enrichment’ industry burgeons, and tuition chain owners laugh their way to the banks, whilst real teachers fade to a shadow of what they were called to be, overworked and unappreciated.

  6 comments for “Tutored to death

  1. October 9, 2013 at 4:55 am

    very well written, lyn! i cannot agree more. in fact, i’m rather resigned to the fact that i will need to keep working to save some money for the kids’ tuition fees in future.

    • October 10, 2013 at 1:22 am

      Thanks! Yes, that’s the true hidden cost of education in Singapore, though the official fees are low!

  2. October 9, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    You made lots of good points. I have a huge problem with schools testing more than they teach. That to me is simply not the point of tests. It means that a student could be conscientious, attentive in class, does all his homework and still be demoralised as he won’t be able to answer questions? Why go to school and do all that homework then? I think the point of tests should be for teachers to check that students have learnt and understand their work, not to “differentiate” as is the popular notion. We need to kill the latter mindset.

    • October 10, 2013 at 1:23 am

      Agree! But it seems to have been the case for quite a number of years now, and it’s this that principally fuels the tuition industry. Sigh.

  3. pc
    October 10, 2013 at 1:36 am

    Occasionally I do wonder why are we here…

    Perhaps, it is still better than where I come from.

    Hope the voices are heard and considered seriously.

  4. October 10, 2013 at 11:10 am

    On one occasion I called up the publisher of a workbook to point out what was obviously an error in a maths questions. He insisted that there was nothing wrong and told me to take a closer look at the picture accompanying the question and said that MOE expects students to be able to find in the picture the correct answer AND NOT DEPEND ON THE WRITTEN QUESTION ITSELF!!! Nowhere was it indicated that the picture has any bearing or significance other then merely an illustration! And there is a picture accompanying all the questions and they have no bearing on the question EXCEPT the one in question. According to this publisher, that is how the MOE differentiate between an A and an A*! I call it presumptuous and absolutely unreasonable!

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