Singapore's endless love affair with private tuition just got deeper with Covid-19

Published date15 August 2021
Publication titleMalay Mail Online

Housewife Santi Choo's two children briefly had Chinese tuition but by and large, she never believed in sending them for private tuition - not even when her older daughter sat for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) some years ago.

COVID-19, however, changed all that.

Despite the pandemic causing her husband to lose his job as a project manager in the middle of last year, they decided to spend about S$700 a month from January to hire two home tutors for their younger son, who is taking the PSLE this year, after seeing his maths and science grades plummet last year.

Choo, 46, blamed her son's poor performance partly on home-based learning (HBL), which was first introduced when Singapore entered a two-month circuit breaker in April last year amid a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases.

'He thought of it as holidaying at home and took schooling too lightly,' she said.

She was further compelled to seek tuition for the 12-year-old boy after finding it increasingly hard to reach his school teachers.

'Normally, within a day or the following day, the teachers will reply, but nowadays, the replies are a bit slow,' she added.

With her 16-year-old daughter also requesting to have maths tuition, the family's expenditure on tuition goes up to S$1,500 a month.

This is by no means a small sum for Choo, who is working part-time at a food stall, while her husband does a mix of odd and contract jobs while searching for permanent work.

Despite their initial lukewarm attitude towards tuition, they believe that it is necessary now as their children just need 'some pushing' to excel.

Likewise, even though their household income took a slight hit due to the pandemic, housewife Iris Sim, 40, and her husband spend just over S$2,000 a month on tuition and enrichment classes for his three children - aged eight, nine and 11 - who attend 'brand name' primary schools.

Sim, who will soon return to the workforce after a five-year hiatus to help pay off the children's tuition expenses, considers the fees a modest sum. The higher-end tuition centres can charge around S$2,000 per child, she pointed out.

'If your child is in a good class in a good school, then most, if not all, of their classmates have tuition in each subject. That is why they got into that class in the first place. That is how they are going to keep up with the pace that the teacher goes in that class,' she added.

Even as teachers are now required to seek approval to give tuition outside of school, following a review of guidelines by the Public Service Division, the pandemic has not only prompted some parents in Singapore such as Choo to reconsider their stance on tuition, it also seems to have made tuition as indispensable as ever.

Meanwhile, some tuition centres had moved even faster than the schools in coming up with innovative platforms to adapt to the disruptions to school-based learning.

For instance, at SLC School of Language and Communication, the centre which specialises in English and Chinese tuition wasted no time in offering auxiliary 'top-up classes' for students who might require additional support on specific areas such as oral or comprehension over teleconferencing app Zoom.

As a result, student enrolment over the past 18 months had grown by 50 per cent, with principal Ben Lee attributing it to the implementation of HBL - particularly in the initial stages when schools and teachers were still new to it.

Between March last year and now, some 15 per cent more students had enrolled with Making Sense, a chemistry and science tuition centre, as it fills the need to 'support and hand-hold' pupils who have found it difficult adjusting to online or self-directed learning, said its managing director William Lin.

Dr Gavin Ng, director of Gavin's Tuition, said enrolment at his centre, which mostly operates over online platforms now following the closure of two of his five outlets, went up from around 450 students to 600.

'There is no point spending on rent now. The definition of space has changed,' said Dr Ng, whose reimagination of online tuition involved working with a logistics firm to bring science experiments to homes and making use of machine learning to track his students' weaknesses.

Billion-dollar industry that's still growing

The neverending debate over the pros and cons of private tuition has resurfaced following China's drastic move recently to ban tutoring for profit in core school subjects, as well as foreign investment in the sector, in an attempt to make raising children and education more affordable for parents. The high cost of raising a child in China has contributed to its low birth rates.

The harsh curbs - which threaten to decimate China's US$100 billion (S$136 billion) private tutoring and online education sector - have led some parents and educators here to question whether Singapore, too, should do more to rein in its own 'shadow education industry'. The sector here was worth S$1.4 billion, according...

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