To all my clueless tutors: Thank you

To all my clueless tutors: Thank you

Like many kids, I had to go to private classes outside school in order to sharpen my skills in mathematics and Chinese - and all the time wishing I were dead.

From around Primary Six till Secondary Four, I spent about three nights a week chained to someone who, like me, wished he were smart enough to not have to do this any more. This was because, back in the 1970s, my parents hired private tutors the same way that corporations hire cleaning contractors: lowest bid wins.

This meant that most of the time, my tutors were not much more than glorified baby-sitters, except with the additional duty of checking my homework and, very often, doing it for me.

It was in the kitchens of teenagers just a few years older than me, solving my algebra problems, that I first encountered the concept of outsourcing.

My parents saw extra coaching as medical triage for my leaky brain and once I was on my feet again, marks-wise, I would be ushered into a top school (I think they are still waiting for that to happen).

The idea of private tutoring was quite new back then, and its forms were raw, so a boy like me could spend years doing it and emerge with no danger of being harmed by either knowledge or wisdom.

That is not so true these days. Every day, I walk past a tuition centre near my block. The front of it has a neon explosion of posters bearing neuro-holistic-EQ-programming buzzwords. And to make sure that parents understand the true meaning of education, its brochures are dominated by rows and columns boasting of clients' high examination scores.

The cherry on that cake is the largest poster on the wall, showing a smiley man sitting atop a pile of dollar bills. Everything put together feels as if Harvard Business School had a one night stand with a psychotherapy clinic and they had a baby inside a casino.

Every time I walk past the centre, I see a pile of child-sized shoes at the door, and wonder if the children could feel the centre's trademarked mental magic tickling their brains, or if they see it as a torture chamber for dumb kids, as I did then.

A part of me envies them - here, there is at least a promise of a teaching methodology, in contrast to the random set of instructions I was given each week by the adult in control.

At the very least, it does not seem to be just a way of forcing lazy kids like me to put down their Beano comics and pick up a textbook now and then.

Last week, Singapore came in at No. 1 in global school rankings. Old news perhaps, but the difference here is its scale. Published by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), this is the biggest-ever analysis of children's skill levels in mathematics and science, taking in more countries than before.

So it is more authoritative than ever: We really don't joke around about school. As the spokesman for the study says, smarter kids make for adults who can find a place in the job market.

The result is a system of education that is the envy of the world, yet, with the exception of our mathematics syllabus, the world is not beating a path to our door. As with all things that have to do with achievement, Singaporeans can always find a way to take it too far.

A statistic that is quoted often is the amount spent on extra coaching, around $1 billion a year.

A study by private firm Blackbox Research says that in families with a child receiving coaching, 50 per cent spend more than $500 per month per child, and other research shows that a fair chunk of the coaching is not for marginal students but for those seeking to enter or remain in the elite tiers.

You can blame parents gaming the system to get their offspring into the Gifted Education Programme, but I think the rise of storefront tuition centres like the one near my home, which opened three years ago, gives a power boost to the problem of death by tuition.

The centre's advertising, as in almost all centres, draws a straight, bold line between its "unique" methods and improved grades.

This is not quite on the same level as snake oil, but it does have a whiff of reptile grease. Besides being misleading, the promise is in poor taste - it preys on the insecurities of parents and demoralises students struggling in school, despite the extra coaching.

People say there is an arms race going on between students in the scramble to the top.

If that is true, then the arms dealers are the tuition centres making aggressive claims, driving up demand.

If you, as a parent, read about a place that could turn kids into Einsteins, you would probably be sorely tempted to enrol your child, not because you are afraid to lose out - as is the common belief - but out of what's-the-harm-in-it due diligence. You see it as your duty.

Every day, as I walk past the tuition centre, I look out for the boss, the grinning man in the brochure with the power to work mental miracles.

And I wonder: If he had been around when I was in school, my parents might have sent me to him, and my life might have turned out differently. Armed with top marks in mathematics and science, I might have gone on to a tech job, but as an employee with no natural aptitude in either subject. I would be miserable.

So it was for the best that my tutors had no idea what they were doing, allowing me to fail gracefully, step by mediocre step, into the position I have today. To all of them, I say: "Thanks."

This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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