SINGAPORE: Behind the closed doors of a grey, nondescript facility at the sprawling one-north business park, groups of teenagers gather every day with one goal in mind: to get the necessary knowledge to score a top grade in the International Baccalaureate (IB).
Their sense of commitment is clear. The students, who come from schools across Singapore, spend hours at Ideas Ink School with their heads buried in laptops and papers, or getting advice and guidance from the tuition staff.
“I’m here to be ahead of my class. I like to go to school already knowing what’s going on, because it’s really competitive with my friends. They all want to be top of the class and I want that too.”
Lianne Chia is an IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) Year 1 student at Saint Joseph’s Institution International School (SJII), who said she's been in tuition all her life. "I like tuition," said the 17-year-old, who added that letting her hair down after school would be “a waste of time”.
“If I studied on my own, I think I’d be fine … But I want to be ahead of my class. It’s what I do. It’s different for everyone. Some come here for help because they’re struggling.”
According to Ideas Ink founder Pek Kim Beng, up to three-quarters of each batch of ACS (I) IBDP students seeks out tuition, and he claimed that his centre alone caters for 20 per cent of the school's IB's chemistry cohort, and 30 per cent of its physics cohort. Asked if he had collated student results since Ideas Ink started offering IB tuition in 2008, the 30-year-old said: “We stopped after a while - because almost everyone gets a seven (full marks for a subject)”.
The success claimed by Ideas Ink for their students has been reflected at the national level. Since ACS (I) became the first wholly local school to pioneer the two-year, pre-university IBDP in 2005, Singapore has dominated results on the global stage.
Last year, Singapore produced 48 out of 81 perfect scores worldwide, along with a national average of 38.5 set against the global average of 30.98. Out of a global total of over 160,000 candidates, less than one per cent achieved the perfect score of 45 points.
About five per cent globally scored more than 40 points. For ACS (I), this is an average score - one that it has kept for at least four years running. In 2015, SJII and Hwa Chong International School (HCIS) produced average scores of 37.6 and 36.8, respectively. When SJI, Singapore’s only other entirely local mainstream school offering the IB, debuted its first batch in 2014, it garnered an average of 39.4 versus the global average of 29.94 then.
Reasons for Singapore’s performance as put forth by academics, teachers, tutors and students alike have run the gamut from an unflinching streaming system to a culture of excellence in schools, to the invariable tuition factor.
But of greater interest is why - in Singapore at least - tuition has invaded the landscape of a curriculum often billed as unburdened by the more rigid learning methods behind traditional qualifications like the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced (A) Levels.
SJI International School student Lianne Chia attending IB tuition.
IB AS TUITION-PROOF?
“The IB is sort of the ‘Holy Grail’ of education, or the closest thing you have to one, even though it has its flaws,” said Dr Alistair Chew, director of educational institution Findings. “Whereas for the A Levels in general, if you don’t have an iron backside, you cannot do well,” he quipped, referencing the need to “mug enormous amounts of material” for the pre-tertiary examination.
Said Linda Lee, an IBDP teacher at HCIS: “I see IB as more holistic, with a lot more application of practical skills that would be needed in the real world. But for A Levels, it’s studying and cramming everything for a written paper at the end.”
The whole idea of IB is about being willing to push the envelope and test the frontiers of learning, said HCIS principal Koh Chin Nguang.
“Because of IB’s scale and size of its coursework, it’s not possible or easy to drill through rote learning. But in pen-and-paper assessments like the A Levels, drilling is possible, with for example the 10-year series,” he added, referring to the infamous compilation books of previous examination papers often used by Singapore students for practice.
Hwa Chong International School students attending a Theory of Knowledge class as part of their IB curriculum.
TEACHERS – UP TO THE TASK?
Looking deeper into the coaching that IB students go through, a question emerges: could they be seeking out tuition due to concerns over the quality of their school teachers, most of whom did not go through the IB programme themselves?
Dr Chew said that most teachers are “somewhat adequately equipped”, owing to mandatory, frequent training sessions conducted by the IB Organisation (IBO).
However, HCIS IB teacher Kenneth Low acknowledged that “as products of the O (Ordinary) and A Level system, it’s quite a major switch from a more traditional educational background to something like the IB. It requires a lot of training and re-training and a lot of reflection on the job.”
HCIS teacher Kenneth Low conducting a Theory of Knowledge class.
Joel Tan, an ex-IB student from ACS (I), graduated in 2013 with 42 points. He now tutors part-time at Ideas Ink, and said that he would not have done as well had he relied solely on his school teachers, and not had tuition.
“I had a math teacher who asked how many of us had tuition. When only half the class raised their hands, she asked the other half to get tuition and started laughing,” related Tan, 21, who is awaiting the start of his undergraduate study at the National University of Singapore’s law faculty.
“I chose to come to Ideas Ink and teach, because I faced a problem in IB, and now I want to help solve this problem. I strive to be the sort of teacher I needed when I was a student,” he added.
Tutor Joel Tan coaching ACS (I) students at Ideas Ink tuition centre.
Current ACS (I) IBDP Year 2 student Theodore Chia, however, had a different take. “I honestly think my schoolteachers are good. I wanted to take physics tuition myself because my physics is weak, but the teachers do take time out to teach me when I seek them out.”
What else, then, could be fueling the demand for IB tuition in Singapore? For Sebastien Barnard, the IBO’s regional communications and marketing manager in Asia-Pacific, the answer lies in a population which “treats education extremely seriously”.
“Education is at the forefront and centre of the Singapore story. Singaporeans work extremely hard,” he said. “There is this Asian drive and mentality that lends itself to students absorbing and absorbing.”
Admitting that this was a “tricky” issue, Mr Barnard said: “This kind of society is one that drives to better; to excel. It’s not going to go away.”
Dr Jason Tan of the National Institute of Education, meanwhile, spoke of the “curricular innovation” of the IB being “subtly co-opted into the broader Singapore social context surrounding the school system”.
“It's easier to introduce a curricular innovation such as the IB, than it is to successfully change the broader culture within which schools operate. The schools are under a great deal of pressure to make sure students do extremely well,” he commented. “Schools are also competing for students, especially at the upper echelons of the whole school system, so of course stellar exam results are one proven method of boosting a school’s public reputation.”
IB students Channel NewsAsia spoke to provided mixed responses to the competitive culture in their schools, but HCIS alumnus Yap Pui Min pointed out that the absence of a bell curve for grading in the IB system means it is “not about scoring higher than your classmates”.
“Your fellow students doing better doesn’t mean you’re doing worse. So the environment is not as competitive as the A Levels,” she said.
Pek Kim Beng, founder of tuition centre Ideas Ink, conducting a tuition class.
KIASU PARENTING AT WORK?
But the key reason why some IB students are being pushed into tuition when there may be no need could be traced to “kiasu” parenting, according to both Pek and Dr Tan.
“We’ve got some parents out there, thinking: ‘My child has to do well regardless of what qualification it is. My child needs that competitive edge and private tutoring is one way to use my own private resources to get my child a step ahead of the competition. Everybody else seems to have a tutor, if I don’t get one, my child could be in dire straits’,” said Dr Tan. “This overriding need to get their children into a good course; a good university - that has not changed much at all, as doing well in school is still viewed as a key means of maintaining or enhancing socio-economic mobility.”
He continued: “Otherwise, why would people spend thousands of dollars of their hard-earned money? Because they believe the investment will likely pay off. The belief has always been that having extra hours of help with schoolwork can’t go wrong, that you’ll do better from sitting down with a tutor one-to-one or five-to-one compared to 30-to-one. More hours of explanation, practice and revision can’t be bad for you. That kind of thinking won't necessarily change overnight with the advent of the IB.”
“The IB curriculum, in and of itself, isn’t structured in such a manner as to make private tutoring necessary,” said Dr Tan. “This phenomenon we’re seeing is in a very large part due to the fact that parents find themselves needing to respond to the wider social context within which they are situated.”
A QUESTION OF ACCESS
Dr Tan also noted that with the IB being unwittingly perceived as an “elite good”, it was inevitable that private tutoring would stick its “finger into the pie”.
“If you look at the 21 schools in Singapore offering the IBDP, they are all either totally for expatriates, semi-local - ACS (International); HCIS; SJII - or among the top-end mainstream schools - for example ACS (I); SJI,” he said.
IBDP students remain the minority in Singapore, with 1,640 taking the exam in 2015 compared to 13,582 sitting for the A Levels then. Singaporean students at ACS (I) and SJI pay up to S$6,600 a year to read the IBDP, while the international schools charge upwards of S$20,000 per annum. This is in contrast to junior college fees for Singapore citizens costing under S$400 yearly.
“So, it’s not surprising to me at all that private tutoring has become such a widespread phenomenon,” said Dr Tan. “Why wouldn’t it? The private tutors know there’s always going to be a great deal of parental anxiety over their children's academic success.”
“For the large part, these are parents who are middle or upper-middle class. Many of them are willing to go to great lengths to help their children do well in school.”
Students from ACS (I) attending a tuition class at Ideas Ink School.
CAN TUITION BE GOOD?
Nonetheless, tuition for the IB is not without its merits, said ACS (I) IB alumnus Julia Craggs, who now tutors on the side at Ideas Ink. For her, the difference lies in what is being tutored, and what happens at centres such as hers.
“IB students go for tuition not like how A Level students go for tuition,” she argued. “The latter group do it because they don’t understand concepts or answers given, but IB students go for tuition because they need perspectives and to hear more people comment on their ideas.”
Mr Koh agreed. “I know students who seek tuition to help give perspective of their quality of work. This kind of student has clear purpose in mind - to value-add, and push learning to another level. This is ok and to me a good thing,” he said.
And Mr Low revealed that he has advised parents to get tutors for their kids - but not to replace his job. “I would only recommend tuition for students who lack self-discipline after school hours to revise. Then they need a tutor as a babysitter to get them to do work,” he said.
“The motive and intention behind tuition is not wrong or flawed,” noted Mr Koh. “It’s a fundamental part of learning to take steps to improve what you seem to be lacking. If a parent or child do not see the need to improve, that’s not a good mindset as well.”
“But when getting extra help becomes something that happens across every area, then maybe it’s not the best thing. It’s all a question of extent and how far you carry it out,” he said. “There are differing objectives people have and it’s difficult to generalise.”
HCIS IB students undergoing tuition under the eye of centre founder Pek Kim Beng.
"TUITION BREEDS A DIFFERENT TYPE OF STUDENT"
Asked for the IBO’s take on tuition, Mr Barnard said: “Philosophically, the IB would say that students need time to reflect and rest; that they are already burdened with enough on their plates - but then there are students who simply do need that bit more, to grasp the concepts. The IB is never going to say ‘Don’t do that, it’s not right’ but we would ask ‘Is this truly beneficial to students?’”
“It does also pose a larger educational question: What sort of students do you breed by dumping them with hours and hours of tuition? Probably very successful ones, but also utterly exhausted when they get to university - or maybe not,” he laughed.
Regardless of its merits or demerits, Dr Tan concluded that private tutoring will “never go away” and is most probably set to “become even more widespread”.
“International academic authorities on private tutoring such as Professor Mark Bray of The University of Hong Kong point out that private tutoring is widespread in many regions of the world,” he added. “The tuition industry just morphs and adapts and changes its offerings in line with whatever the mainstream schools are doing.”
That may be what has happened with IB tuition in Singapore. And with the results bar having been set consistently high here in recent years, it seems unlikely that some students embarking on their IB studies will want to turn away from what is seen as a tried and tested method of boosting their chances through tuition – even if that approach could run against the ethos of the qualification.