Is Tuition Absolutely Necessary In Singapore?

(This article by TheWriter first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 10 May 2014.)

Much has been said of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) attempt to take the heat off, or at least reduce, the pressure-cooker education system in Singapore. Not surprisingly, the spotlight has also been thrown on the tuition industry and overly-anxious parents seeking that extra edge for their children. Commentators opine that a paradigmatic shift is required of Singaporeans if we truly want a world-class education system that doesn’t drive students to despair and depression. While I will not disagree with this statement entirely, the curriculum that MOE demands of students should not be sidestepped in this discussion. I teach English, and is qualified to comment only on this subject. Still, there are at least three alarming developments I have observed, that makes tuition an unfortunate necessity..

1. Sweeping changes in examination requirements

In recent years, the demands for English have shifted drastically. My colleagues in the education sector and I often dissect in detail many of the changes in the English curriculum for Primary and Secondary schools as they are introduced and more often than not, we notice a trend of a “downward push” – what used to be for ‘O’ levels is now introduced at the PSLE level. Case in point – non-narrative compositions such as expository essays are now permitted for PSLE 2015. Don’t get me wrong; I am all for this change, but the question is: do teachers have the time within their packed curriculum to impart the skills? From my experience, it seems the answer is no.

A few months into the new school year, I asked my students if the schools had begun teaching them non-narrative text types and to my surprise, none of them said the teachers had done so. They further added that if I had not gone through the techniques with them last year (when the changes were first announced), they would never have known that it was accepted for the exams.

One of the boys told me this week that their teacher handed out a one-page worksheet on the abolition of school uniforms to the class, and promptly dumped it in favour of discussing narrative writing. Are we really preparing our kids well for the full breadth of the examinations?

2. Whatever happened to STELLAR?

I was very impressed last year when my primary 4s told me about field trips and reading programmes their school organised as part of Strategies for English Language Learning And Reading (STELLAR) requirements. At the start of the year though, those same students complained that the teachers have dropped all the exciting stuff that was supposed to expose them to a wide variety of text types and the only thing that has remained in the sustained silent reading programme in which they bring a book and read silently, apparently without guidance from the teachers.

In an ideal world, STELLAR and all its components would work beautifully and expose students to the nuances of the language, differentiating between appropriate tone and vocabulary for different text types and developing an interest in English. In reality, curriculum developers for the tuition industry (including yours truly) are left to pick up the pieces as we devise informative and argumentative text types that would give students the necessary exposure but not overwhelm them. Back in schools, students continue to read comprehension passages based on stories.

3. Teach Less, Learn More – how?

There seems to be so much more to teach, but the time remains the same. To be fair, this is not the school teachers’ fault. They are saddled with so many administrative duties that it is simply not humanly possible to deliver the curriculum and impart the necessary skills in English in the limited time they have with the students; I am not here to play the blame game. However, no matter how we look at it, students end up being the biggest losers when we take off tuition and expect them to perform.

The most alarming thing I’ve heard in recent months from my students was that they’ve been copying model responses projected on screens during English and worse yet, are marking each other’s compositions without a clue of the marking rubric. While the students are in one of the top schools in the nation, they can have a mischievous streak to them as well. Suspecting it was just adolescents’ propensity for hyperbole, I sought clarification with their parents (and a few others). Imagine my utter surprise when the parents themselves confirmed what the kids told me!


English is a discipline that requires careful guidance from the teacher and the student’s tenacity and audacity to keep experimenting and working at the subject. A 1 hour lesson comprising a mixed bag of unstructured reading and mindless copying and marking of peers’ scripts will not cut it. We used to scoff at the concept of “Teach Less, Learn More” but it’s not even funny anymore. Before we discuss changes to the curriculum, or the grading system, or the supposedly greedy tuition industry rapaciously seizing from the pockets of anxious parents to line their coffers, can we please have a discussion about what, and more importantly, how our children are learning in today’s educational climate?


About The Author

TheWriter teaches Lower and Upper Primary English at a premier enrichment centre in the West/Central area, and develops the curriculum for Upper Primary, Secondary and General Paper at the centre as well. He can be reached at .