Fighting the tuition wars

Fighting the tuition wars

SINGAPORE - Madam Hong Tan Chuen insists that all her three children take private tuition.

The florist, who runs a stall in Bedok North Road, calls it her "mission in life" to ensure that her sons, 15, 14 and 11, are "armed with the best to help them gain a firm footing in society".

The affable single mother, 44, admits in a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese that sometimes she finds it hard to cope financially.

"Running the business is not easy. It's hard to make ends meet sometimes, especially after the kids' father 'disappeared' (since 2007). "It's this reason that I want my children to do well in their studies."

Tuition, she reckons, will give them the head start in school. She considers their results average, even though her two younger children get mostly As and Bs. Her eldest son, she adds, is "hopeless" with mainly Bs.

Madam Hong defends her definition of their grades: "It's not like they are getting straight As. That is considered good."

She is miffed when this columnist brings up Senior Minister of State for Education, Ms Indranee Rajah's comments Parliament on Monday.

She had heard some comments on the radio, but she needed more details from this correspondent. On Monday, Ms Indranee said the education system was run on the basis that private tuition was not necessary.

She added that for children who perform well, tuition was counter-productive as it added stress. The minister also said that weaker students could go for remedial and supplementary classes in schools and community schemes.

Madam Hong shakes her head in strong disagreement and says: "My sons are all in neighbourhood schools. The teachers are okay but you can't expect the best from them."

She offers her second son's results as an example. He was in the top 25 per cent in his cohort and received the Edusave Merit Bursary for three consecutive years.

Yet, his PSLE results on a national level fell in the mid-range category and he ended up going to a neighbourhood school - his fourth choice.

Madam Hong says: "If I could find the means to, I'd even engage private tutors or enrol my boys in some of the better-known tuition centres."

As I ambled through Bedok, Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio this week, and talked to people, it was clear that parents from poorer educational and financial backgrounds are more eager to enrol their children in tuition classes.

This also seems to apply to parents whose kids are not in the "good schools" (the point that the Education Ministry wants to make, that every school is a good school is not really percolating through to the heartlands yet, I'm afraid).

I suppose it's a positive thing. These parents believe strongly in meritocracy and hence the importance of achieving good grades to ensure future success.

But this columnist is concerned about how the tone of some of my discussions with heartlanders gravitated towards a class divide.

Which this Heartland Auntie finds intriguing that it transcends beyond just the parents' needs to see that their children cope well in school.

Some parents openly declare that sometimes, it can be a case of a class-divide.

Where it all depends on, says IT engineer Terence Loh, 46, explains how he and his insurance agent wife are paying $2,000 for a term of 12 lessons for his 11-year-old son in a "really famous tuition centre" and another $1,600 a month in private tuition for his 14-year-old daughter.

It's important that his son, who will take PSLE next year, makes it a good school.

"A good school plays an important part in getting my son ahead of his peers when he goes to university, and later in the working world."

He feels like he is helping his child compete with children who have richer parents, and who have more resources.

"This is my way to helping him get onto the same base as his peers."

Never mind if the high costs means that the family will have to scrimp on holidays and meals out.

The same line of thought runs through the minds of 34 out of 40 parents randomly approached this week.

Nominated MP Janice Koh, who has children in Primary 1 and Primary 3, said in an earlier interview with The New Paper: "... it is natural for parents to want the best for their child. In a competitive, high-stakes environment like Singapore, many parents see that as providing their children with the best opportunities possible to succeed academically..."

Some letters sent to The Straits Times forum page attest to how widely that sentiment is shared.

Mr Paul Sim Ruiqi wrote that "often, it is parents from poor educational and financial backgrounds who are more willing to enrol their children in tuition classes, as they believe in the importance of achieving good grades to ensure future success. The role of tuition has developed from merely 'plugging the gaps' to helping students achieve As".

Mrs Jessica Wong, 42, a housewife says it takes a lot "to expect our children to cope well".

Her husband is a lorry driver, and the couple want their only daughter, 14, to do well in life.

And "well", she explains, means that her daughter gets "a decent job that pays well and (does) not have to struggle to make ends meet".

As a parent, I can understand how some of these parents feel. I know of some friends who refuse to even send their children to a neighbourhood tuition centre because of the "likely low standard of tutors".

I don't agree with these sweeping statements but I understand the sentiment underlying the anxiety: The need to try to give the best to your kid is a strong instinct.

Others hear of tutors who have helped students score distinctions and will try their best to engage the same tutor.

I think it's exaggerated, but it's easy to be swayed, especially with the testimonials of past students plastered on the walls of these tuition centres, or when you hear how all the rich kids at branded schools are getting an even bigger advantage by attending super tuition centres that charge an arm and a leg.

But it is alarming when people think of tuition as a necessity to surmount the "disadvantages" of not being rich or in a good school - the politics of envy are being written out in the tuition wars.

Every parent will have a different take on this. I suspect there is no right answer because it's emotive.

Maybe parents will need to watch their children, and ask if the price of that "leg up" - whether true or not - is worth the added stress.

I have openly stated that I have yet to opt for tuition for my kids. Even if they fumble at school. I am still holding out for a balanced, holistic education and upbringing. But I know the temptation is strong to "help" them.

The question of whether that help may turn into a hindrance, by way of stress and unhappiness, is keeping me back.

But I wonder how long I'll be holding out.

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