Tuition will always have a place in S'pore

SINGAPORE - It is well-known that Singapore has one of the world's best education systems. The Education Ministry's budget is second only to Defence. The Government has put in a lot of monetary and non-monetary resources into mass education.

Despite that, I feel very strongly that there is a huge need or demand for private education to flourish in Singapore. As public and private sectors play complementary roles, whether it is at the pre-school level, K-12, polytechnic or university level, there is a place in the sun for the private sector.

In public schools, our educational standard is probably among the top three countries in the world, possibly after Finland and Canada, with Japan coming close.

Despite the high standards attained by Singapore, there are still huge gaps in our school system that provide the shadow education industry, also known as tuition (supplementary education), with the opportunity to sustain itself for a long time to come. There are several reasons for this.

Singapore has introduced changes and adopted best practices from across the world, to improve our system.

However, technology has changed the world, and the Internet has changed the way we use data and information.

So paradigms have changed in terms of knowledge but the paradigms of thinking of governments, parents and society have not changed in tandem with the capability of the advances in technology. So there are big gaps. There are also a lot of non-technology areas in which public education is not moving as fast as it should, if I may be so bold to suggest.

We are one of the few countries where ICT (Information and Communication Technology) is used in a big way in schools. Or rather at least a lot of money is spent on it. But to what extent are the teachers using it effectively remains a big question.

It is not just about putting a projector, charts and flipcharts in class. It is much more than that. How do you use it to improve the capabilities of students, on a daily basis? Each student is different and has different abilities. How can technology be used to enhance the capabilities of students?

All over the world, the school layout and school system, as a whole, hasn't changed significantly in the last 30-40 years.

A couple of decades ago, a classroom in Singapore had 30-40 desks, was not air-conditioned, had fans, a green board, chalk and duster.

Today, most of the classrooms are still not air-conditioned, there are 30 chairs and tables. The green board has given way to projectors and some additional stuff at best. But the fundamentals have not changed. One of the key points I am alluding to is class size.

Our leaders normally take the politically-correct stance that class size does not matter. What they really mean is that if a class size of 40 students is reduced to 30, the amount of teacher resources that you have to put in is probably 33 per cent more.

The important question is: Can this reduction to 30 students in a class make a significant improvement? Well, it will to some extent.

But is it enough to warrant that kind of large spending? Do we have enough good talent in each cohort, who want to become qualified teachers? This has been an age-old debate not just in Singapore, but around the world.

Class size can be reduced to some extent by technology. I think you need to individualise learning for every student, every lesson. It is a forward-looking concept, but very hard to do in a mass education environment.

Mass education in schools still adopts a "one size fits all" approach. What is wrong with that is you cannot "mechanise" mass education as each student has different abilities.

So, I think we need to customise education in more ways than one. This is something that public education may not be able to do as well as private supplementary education can.

The second problem, after class size, that troubles many of us is that there is automatic promotion of children who don't do well.

Why governments do this is because it is expedient for budget reasons, or because parents want to "save face" by letting their child move up one level even if their child has failed. The child's best interest is compromised for the wrong reasons.

In a classroom, each lesson is delivered using a one-size-fits-all approach. But every student absorbs differently.

Some who fall behind in school will have parental help, some will have supplementary education or tuition and some will have the natural ability to cope in school.

Some may be able to cope, but others may not. So every day, every lesson a child is taught there is a "delta" that builds up, i.e. a learning gap is created in every student, in what the teacher has taught and what the child has comprehended.

And this learning gap in each student for every subject accumulates over school terms, over a year and so on. At the end of the year even if the child fails, he or she is pushed to the next level, to learn harder things.

We (Singapore Education Academy) run Singapore's largest chain of tuition centres. We have more than 30 centres around the country. Our approach is very different from other centres.

In some regular tuition centres there are 15-20 children but it is still a one-size-fits-all approach. At our centres, we do diagnostic tests of a child when he/she comes to us. We undo what the school system does.

If a child is 11 but is at the level of a nine-year-old in mathematical ability, we teach concepts suitable for a nine-year-old, without the child knowing this fact. The child slowly copes and improves quickly. A strong foundation is built up by this approach.

Supplementary education is a large sector in Singapore. A Straits Times survey revealed that the tuition industry has grown by about eight to 10 times in the last decade.

Without understanding the role of supplementary education many players running tuition businesses are possibly misrepresenting or playing to the sentiments of parents who are at their wits' end and don't know who can best help their child.

There is no regulation of the tutoring industry. I think there needs to be some light touch regulation of this sector. No government will say that tuition is necessary, because it puts pressure on the school system.

But any honest government should recognise and regulate this sector - meaning that they must set certain standards or at least facilitate the private sector to come together to regulate.

I hope the Ministry of Education will move towards this step. I am prepared to lead this effort, if asked, for the sake of our children's and country's future.

R. Sinnakaruppan is the chairman and CEO of Singapore Education Academy. He is also the president of the NTU Alumni Club, and a former Member of Parliament in Singapore.