SINGAPORE: Right after the Education Ministry's (MOE) announcement last month that it would be reducing the number of examinations for students in primary and secondary schools, tuition agency Gavin's Tuition quickly surveyed some of its students' parents to find out what they thought of the move.
Over 130 parents responded: While they appreciated the ministry's move to reduce stress on students, an overwhelming majority (90 per cent) said they were concerned this would make it harder for them to assess how their child was doing in school.
The reduction of mid-year examinations would not provide them with "a true gauge" of the child's academic performance in the earlier part of the school year, and they feared that it would lead to a "nasty surprise" at the year-end examinations, said the tuition centre's director Gavin Ng.
He added that parents whom he has spoken to were also largely in favour of keeping the centre's in-house mid-year and end-of-year examinations, which are set by its tutors, even though the schools are removing such examinations for certain levels.
And he has plans to meet the demand: Next year, the tuition centre is officially making available its in-house exams to students who are not enrolled with the centre. Anyone will be able sign up to take the exams for a fee.
He is also piloting a series of classes, known as "stress-free learning programmes" which focus "less on drilling" and more on experiential lessons, such as learning about robotics and coding.
Gavin's Tuition is not the only one which has been quick to react to the recent changes. Other tuition agencies and tutors interviewed said that in the light of reduction in examinations in schools, they planned to introduce new programmes or tweak their existing ones.
Ignite Tuition Centre, for example, is looking to introducing more enrichment classes to supplement its current tuition classes for its primary to secondary school students.
Its operations manager Joy Ng said the centre will expand its enrichment programme to include courses on Chinese creative writing and science enrichment, for example, from next year.
Ignite, which has about 350 students, is also planning to roll out more "individual-learning assessments", in the form of ungraded, bi-monthly tests held during lesson time.
Such assessments focus on a student's non-academic skills, such as public speaking and presentation skills, Ms Ng said.
As part of changes to the education system, announced about two weeks ago by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, mid-year examinations for students in Primary 3, Primary 5, Secondary 1 and Sececondary 3 will be removed in phases from next year.
Primary 2 students will no longer have to sit for the year-end examinations from 2019. Currently, they do not have to take the mid-year examinations, while Primary 1 students do not have mid-year or year-end examinations.
After the announcement, Mr Ong acknowledged concerns that schools or tuition centres will undo the change by introducing other forms of assessments that are similar in nature but "are not called examinations".
Speaking earlier this month on the sidelines of the Singapore International Technical and Vocational Education and Training Conference, Mr Ong noted that some tuition centres had expressed intentions to "simulate examination-like conditions for students to make up for the lost examinations".
"I strongly urge them not to do so," he said, adding:
Doing so would just be preying on the apprehension and anxieties of parents and students.
In their defence, however, some tuition agencies say they are simply meeting a demand.
'GIVING PARENTS, STUDENTS WHAT THEY WANT'
Asked if he felt that the centre's plans were at odds with what the MOE was hoping to achieve, Gavin's Tuition's Mr Ng said that he was responding to "the demands out there".
Stressing that his centre complies with the MOE's requirements in terms of "curriculum and syllabus", Mr Ng said that the feedback he had received from parents and students was that they had always appreciated the assessments.
Assessments aside, some tuition agencies said they have long embraced different teaching approaches in response to changes in the education landscape over the years.
KRTC Kent Ridge Education, which has 20 branches across the island, tweaked its teaching approaches more than a decade ago, moving away from grade-centric tuition.
Its principal Max Wong said that for younger students, for instance, assignments are not given grades. Instead, tutors would turn an assignment into a mini-competition for students during class, with rewards such as snacks given at the end of the assignment to encourage good work. He said:
In our marketing (and advertisements), we have never put in Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) or O-level achievements ... we have never talked about posting the students' results.
Like the other tuition agencies interviewed, KRTC has its own set of monthly assessments — known as "reviews" — but no marks or grades are given, Mr Wong added.
Learning Chapters Education Hub, meanwhile, already has "mindfulness elements" incorporated into class time.
Managing director Benson Lim said that at the start of lessons, students will have a five-minute breathing exercise to improve their "focus and concentration, not just in academics, but in all the things that they do", and ultimately to improve their grades.
Learning Chapters is looking to incorporate more applied learning into its lesson materials, he added. It is already planning to introduce workshops which use coding to teach mathematics.
While some tuition agencies are looking to make the best out of MOE's move, others, especially private tutors, have voiced concerns about its possible impact.
A private tutor, who would only gave his name as Kenneth, said he was worried his existing pool of students might shrink, which might affect his income.
Mr Kenneth, who has 12 students from primary and secondary schools, said that through interactions with his students' parents, some had casually remarked that "there might not be a need for so much tuition" once the exam cuts come into effect.
"(The parents) may not want to have tuition for the first half of the year, and might only start in Term 3," he added.
Ms Eleen Lim, a private tutor who coaches primary school students, added that with the new announcement, "a lot of pressure will fall back on the tuition teacher".
Given that schools are cutting back on examinations, Ms Lim — who has been giving one-to-one tuition for the past 18 years — felt that the "responsibility" will be on the tuition teacher to provide parents with constant progress updates to parents.
"I foresee a lot more stressed-out tutors," Ms Lim said, laughing.
Nevertheless, private tutor Darryl Gay, who teaches mathematics and science, felt that the time freed up following the removal of mid-year examinations would allow him to explore the two subjects more deeply with his students.
He envisages having more time to make use of videos and real-life examples to better explain mathematical and scientific concepts to his students.
WHAT PARENTS SAY
The move to reduce examinations is unlikely to cause many parents rushing to pull their children out of tuition centres, if the interviews with some of them are any indication.
Those interviewed mostly felt that the cutback would do little to curb academic stress, but would instead delay it till the year-end examinations.
Others said the lack of a middle "checkpoint" — as one parent put it — means they would not be able to track their children's academic progress properly. And this is one reason why the parents said they would still rely on tuition classes.
Homemaker Sharon Tan, 46, said:
Whether or not you do away with a mid-year examination, there will be an examination at the end of the year. There will also be national examinations to sit for.
Ms Tan, whose two daughters in primary school have tuition, said that by "placing emphasis on the end-of-year examinations … it will be worse for the child".
"It will not promote healthy learning behaviours … (like) being consistent with your work," she added.
Mr Ian Lum, a 44-year-old digital marketing specialist who has two sons in tuition classes, agreed: "If the school does not track how my children are doing, the only other way to know is through tuition classes."
Homemaker Choon Hui Leng, 39, added that tuition classes give her "an assurance" that her 11-year-old son is able to cope with the rigours of school.
"My son's tutors will update me on his progress regularly, and if there are areas he needs to improve on, at least we can (rely on) the tutors to guide (him)," Ms Choon added.
But there are a few parents who are mulling over reducing tuition for their children.
Said 38-year-old sales manager Sheeren Hoo: "If the schools are already reducing the number of assessments, I don't really see the need to put my daughter in tuition … (at least) until the second term."
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CHANGING MINDSETS NO EASY TASK
Despite the MOE's continuing efforts to reduce students' stress and place less emphasis on grades, the tuition industry — estimated to be worth more than S$1 billion annually — is here to stay, experts say.
There are currently about 600 tuition centres registered with the MOE. "This figure has remained stable over the past three years since 2016," said an MOE spokesperson. Under the Education Act, centres offering tuition with 10 or more students must be registered with the MOE.
When Mr Ong announced the raft of measures to address academic stress, he told the media that the Government had no intention to ban tuition.
Pointing out that "it is not a criminal activity", Mr Ong said parents send their children for tuition "out of care and concern". He added that while there are "do-gooders in the community who conduct free or low-cost tuition to help weaker students cope with their studies", there are also negative tuition stories.
The Education Minister noted that for some students, school was not stressful but tuition was:
They are very tired on weeknights after school, or on weekends, because their day is packed with many tuition classes.
"Worst, they find that learning is not fun as a result and lessons have taken over their days and weekends," Mr Ong said.
He touched on the tuition issue again a week later, at the Singapore International Technical and Vocational Education and Training Conference.
Apart from a reduction in exams, a student’s position in class and at their cohort’s level will also no longer be reflected in their report books, MOE had announced.
Some education experts to agreed that the ministry's latest measures are a step in the right direction, but felt that it would be difficult to do away with tuition completely since it is deeply entrenched in the Singaporean psyche.
Tuition is, after all, the by-product of another perennial national obsession — academic excellence.
Pointing out that "historically, a lot of focus has been on academic (performance)", Dr Timothy Chan, director of SIM Global Education's academic division, said:
As long as the national goal posts are still there (in the form of national examinations) … as long as grades are a key factor, tuition will still be around.
Agreeing, Ms Denise Phua, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said: "Society — students, parents, educators and employers — had been conditioned for decades to rely on academic scores as the main success indicator in the education dashboard."
Associate Professor Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education (NIE) added: "The presence of major examinations that act as gatekeepers to further stages of education serves to fuel parental anxiety about their children's competitiveness relative to their peers in terms of access to preferred schools and courses."
Assoc Prof Tan pointed out that the additional pathways in post-secondary schooling which the MOE had introduced in recent years had not led to a drop in tuition demand either.
"(This is) probably because the question for many parents is not 'whether my child can proceed to post-secondary education' but rather 'which post-secondary place in which post-secondary institution'," he said.
In a highly competitive culture, "each new change in assessment modes or admission criteria triggers parental anxiety about new hurdles to be overcome as part of a competitive race", he reiterated.
"For example, the Direct School Admission exercise was meant to signal the importance of non-academic experiences but some private tutoring agencies have responded by broadening their services to include coaching for both parents and students on how best to prepare for admission," he added.
More than just a policy change, the move to alleviate Singaporeans' fixation with tuition is something that requires all parties to work together and do their part.
Ms Phua cited the need to educate all stakeholders: "Many do not understand that exams are only one form of assessment and being exam-smart alone does not equate learning, and certainly may not cultivate the habit of self-driven lifelong learning."
Dr Chan said that while "all key players (in the education sector) have a role to play", the challenge is to change parents' mindsets — and this is something that requires "constant engagement", he added.
Ms Phua, a Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar GRC, also reiterated her call to deal with the "elephants in the room" — high-stakes examinations, such as the PSLE.
"Doing well for high-stakes exams and the preference for top popular schools are still habits lurking in the back of most minds. We should seriously confront these elephants in the room, and start piloting a few schools where PSLE does not feature," she said.
Mr Ong had laid out his ministry’s position on PSLE, when he spoke in Parliament in July in response to a motion on the future of education that was moved by the Nominated Members of Parliament.
Last month, he reiterated that the PSLE will remain, and described it as a “good feature” in the education system which allows students to take stock of what they have learnt during the six years of primary education. It is also a key mechanism for posting to secondary schools, he said.
Nevertheless, Ms Phua also called on the MOE to have deeper engagement with the tuition industry, to work with its stakeholders and analyse what they are doing, to "come up with even better solutions".
To wean students from tuition, Dr Chan said parents will need to see that tuition does not add value to mainstream education. When parents feel that whatever that has been covered in school is not enough, they may send their children for tuition, he noted.
All said and done, Assoc Prof Tan contends that the tuition fixation will be around for a long while because "it is a personal choice that has proven resistant to official attempts to ban it, for instance, in South Korea".
"International research evidence indicates that once private tutoring has become ingrained in the culture, it cannot easily be scaled back," he added.