‘Tuition can worsen existing inequality’
Why do people turn to private tuition and is Singapore unique that so many students rely on it?
Singapore is not unique, says Professor Mark Bray.
The tuition problem is particularly acute in East Asian countries and territories that have strong Confucian traditions for learning, diligence and effort, he says. These territories include South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. China, with its burgeoning tuition sector, is swiftly joining these ranks.
These East Asian territories are highly globalised and competitive. They stress a need for workers to remain ahead in skills and for students to acquire skills relevant to the global economy. Some publicise their performance in global education rankings, spurring more competition, he observes.
Noticeably, tuition is prevalent in systems which are examination-based. In Singapore, there are tough examinations at the end of primary education and it also streams students largely according to academic ability, says Prof Bray. Such a system adds to parents’ anxiety and they turn to the tuition market to give their children the extra push in mathematics, science and languages.
In emerging market economies like China and India, and the former Soviet Union states like Lithuania and Azerbaijan, poor salaries drive some teachers to deliberately teach less in class. They then deliver the rest of the curriculum after school in private tuition classes – for a fee.But tuition is relatively absent from many Scandinavian countries. Teachers are highly trained pedagogues who help students of varying academic abilities do well in school. Parents and society trust national schools and work closely with teachers.
Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah recently said that tuition is unnecessary for students who are doing well, while weak students are helped through existing school programmes. Is this the right approach?
Prof Bray admits that the Singapore education system is a good one that has delivered high-quality output. “In that sense, I can understand that the minister might feel frustrated that the tendency to go to tutors might imply that it is not a good education system when indeed it is.
“But Singaporean parents, like those in many other cultures, are competitive, seeking what they perceive to be the best for their children in a competitive system, and thus are trying to add more even though the school system is already delivering much that is already very good,” he says.
Singapore, he stresses, must acknowledge the shadow education system and tackle it early.
Countries and territories that have not done so have seen the phenomenon spiral out of control. In Hong Kong, it was bad enough when parents began sending their children at the kindergarten levels for tuition. Now they are sending babies as young as six months for lessons on recognising colours, he says.
The Hong Kong tuition class sizes have also ballooned with tutors drawing in teenagers by dressing up as glamorous movie stars. In some centres, more than 100 students pack lecture theatres at night, with webcasts for students in adjoining tuition classrooms, he says. His global research shows that once shadow education swells, it cannot be easily made to contract.
“Once habits, structures and social expectations become entrenched, it’ll be difficult to steer or stem its growth,” he warns.
But if parents are willing to spend the money on tuition, what is the problem?
Tuition can worsen existing inequality, believes Prof Bray.
Leaving private tuition to market forces threatens a society’s social fabric. “The shadow system maintains and exacerbates inequalities,” he says. His research shows the shadow system widening the rich-poor gap and allowing wealthier families to find and pay for good-quality tuition.
Poorer families find themselves being forced to buy tutoring in order to remain in the race to do well in school, he adds.
In Prof Bray’s opinion, the work by Mendaki and Sinda – the Malay and Indian self-help groups – is a good example of how community bodies are working with the Government to improve students’ grades and reduce the social inequality problem.
Can anything be done to curb private tuition?
Yes, says Prof Bray.
A ban on tuition is one and South Korea did that in 1980. But the ban was overturned by its Constitutional Court in 2000, arguing that it was unconstitutional to stop parents from paying someone to teach their child privately.
Other measures include the registration of centres and setting limits on the number of operating hours for centres.
Regulation also needs to be tightened on the qualifications of tutors, he suggests.
Australia and Greece, he adds, have associations that self-regulate the profession by drawing up codes of practice and conduct.
There is also a need for evidence-based research and cross-country analysis, he says. These findings must be used at public discussions so teachers, parents and students know if tuition is needed and for how long.
“It’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing,” says Prof Bray.
This article was first published in The Straits Times Opinion pages on Oct 1.