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Learning Mentors: Singapore's New Class of Private Educators

How can learning mentors be an asset to your child?

Families tend to approach private tuition either by informal means such as hiring a private tutor that cater to a student’s individual schooling needs or with customized remedial lessons. Often, they hire a private tutor by word of mouth or by ads pasted on internet message boards. For a more former approach, they may enroll their child in one of the large numbers of tutoring centers in Singapore.

In most western countries, sending a child for private tuition used to be traditionally associated with a student in danger of failing a subject. However, in Singapore, it is now the norm to begin from Primary School tuition usually from Primary-Level third or fourth (around age 9-10) for additional tutoring to build literacy and math skills.

The low age level at which children begin private tuition in Singapore and the anecdotal evidence that most children receive private tuition till the GCE O’ Levels likely indicates two different trends: first, that parents themselves feel that there is increasing competitiveness in Singapore’s education system and second, parents may be experiencing dissatisfaction with the way their children are taught in school.

The role of the private tutor

Private tuition can be seen as a way of allowing a trained professional to focus on students by approaching them as individuals, in contrast to the approach taken by schools, which has more focus on the aims and objectives of working to enhance the skills and capacity of students as a group. Personalized learning offer an opportunity for private tutors to open up a dialogue with both the parents and students and to see how they may better accommodate their clients’ needs.

But just exactly does this work? The typical aim and process undertaken by a private tutor will be to identify the exact kind of extra help required to overcome barriers to learning and building on existing arrangements (usually by the school) already in place. This allows private tutors to devote the majority of their time with the student to providing the extra support to realize their full potential.

The problems of using an outcome-oriented process

It is fairly safe to say that examination grades are the de-facto “KPI” targets by which to judge the cost-effectiveness of tuition agencies and individuals; in a country where much of our life revolves around earning and spending money, parents would try to maximize the most output from their hard-earned dollars. For example, the publication of their student’s results is a common approach that private tutors and agencies have recently been using to rationalize the effectiveness of the extra education that they provide. For international students, there is another aspect in the IB diploma that puts community service as a compulsory subject, shifting the focus away from academic success.

There are significant problems associated with this outcome-oriented approach to private tuition - other key aspects of the private tuition process gets ignored and downplayed, such as engaging the child to develop self-confidence and individual esteem. The “soft’ aspects of the educational encounters cannot be captured within a focus of solely on exam grades - Shy children may learn to speak up and develop their self-confidence through engaging with an effective and encouraging tuition teacher, as they would have opportunities to engage in conversation and dialogue in a setting that otherwise may be unavailable to them in school.  

This is even more particularly important with the recent shift in focus to place more emphasis on “deep skills”, with a clear approach by manpower planning and education authorities to prepare and transform young Singaporeans into knowledge workers that can be plugged into a globalized economy.

The concentration on achieving the particular outcome of attaining good grades can easily encourage students and tuitions teachers alike being assessed on a narrow range - rather than on any contribution made to the quality of personal flourishing or social-skills development that arise out of the process of informal private tuition.

Given the relatively recent changes in our nation’s university education of taking on a more multi-disciplinary approach, where university students of all disciplines are expected to have more exposure to “soft subjects” such as the humanities or social sciences, maintaining a purely outcome-oriented approach to academic excellence may not be a viable option for young students in Singapore.

Unfortunately, while some enlightened parents may be open to some sort of alternative outcomes, given my own personal experiences and from stories from friends elsewhere, it is still likely the focus will be on matters like attendance, qualification and upon other indicators, most notably formal attainment of improving grades.

Does private tuition really make a difference?

As such, there is a question here to ponder upon: Can private tuition really make a difference? How much does tuition cost these days?

Social pressures being what it is in an ultra-competitive economic landscape such as Singapore, and with the additional pressures of the ever-changing nature of a knowledge economy, where certain jobs and occupations are phased out and lost forever due to advances in technology, there is a tendency within not just our society but world-wide, for individuals and families with the extra cash, to spend it on accumulating additional resources and resources for their offspring, and adapt it to fit their particular needs.

Educational equality (or rather, the inequality of it) is an important issue for our contemporary Singaporean society. If we are to have a constantly-developing and sustainable society, it is important to ensure that all children have equal access to education. It can happen in various ways and it can occur without at the expense of the public educational system.

This might sound obvious and reasonable to anyone involved in the educational system, be it parents, teachers, private tutors or students themselves. However, in reality, due to a series of problems, on many levels, it is far harder to achieve in practice than we might expect. Thus, private tuition is a symptom of market forces trying to address the perceived aspects of this over the years through providing alternative pipelines of access and equality.

However, the really big question for us today is whether private education itself is a reflection of the inequalities, if any, of our society, and whether it is possible to question the assumptions of (and if need be, to challenge) such inequalities, reducing the impact of social pressure on educational outcomes overall. If this could be achieved, then it would lead to a more sustainable private tuition industry.

The relationship between streaming and tuition

If the average Singaporean student wants to do well in our current education system, it is probably best to be born not just in the middle-class, but to have one or more parent that is a degree or diploma holder. The fact that streaming in our educational system can happen early on in a child’s school career, often on the basis of examination grades, indicate that children that are school focused have already been receiving prior and better levels of educational support from their families than other groups of children.

This is because their parents, having gone through the processes of the educational system themselves, already have a good understanding of what is required of their offspring at school and in the PSLE and GCE ‘O” Level examination process. They tend to have access to greater amounts of disposable income, which allows them to pay for outside education, tutoring or private coaching if necessary.  Such children are far more likely to do well in Singapore’s education system than any other group and are also likely to be encouraged to take part in a greater number of extra-curricular activities. Such parents also tend to be more skilled navigators of Primary and Secondary Schools’ admissions processes, which means that they have a higher probability of attaining highly-coveted slots for their children at the popular schools.

Another issue to consider is whether such differences in education performances will result in a situation where the student’s educational outcomes is already pre-determined (statistically speaking), by the education stream they are in and if this will also affect their choice of jobs and careers.

Interestingly, while the educational system gradually and systematically classify pupils via relying on information such as the student’s grades, it is far from clear if there are any effects at all on how these students subsequently perform later on in the upper levels of the educational system.

Turning from Tuition Teachers to Learning Mentors

Given that most adults in the modern Singaporeans households tend to be working and holding jobs, parents are far less able to be as “hands-on” as those of early generations, and would have to transfer or “offload” part of their educational oversight in the hands of trained professionals for their children’s early education, especially in mathematics and literacy skills. Since tutoring centers and private tutors are seen as the supplementary provider of knowledge for students to passing exams, (whether these are PSLE or GCE “O” Level Exams), especially for getting into prestigious institutions, parents will always employ the services of private tutors.

In this sense, private tutors and tutoring centers do contribute to the educational success of Singaporean students.

Private tutors, are in this sense, can be seen as “Learning Mentors”, and they can attain certain outcomes, such as the following: 

1.    Raise standards and to help parents and students alike to make accelerated progress in achieving their targets;
2.    Provide a complementary service to existing schools teachers;
3.    Ensure, through the provision of professionally trained tutors, that every student will have access to a new resource focused on removing barriers to the student’s individual learning both in school and outside;
4.    Focus targeted and selective help on those who need it most in the weakest areas

It is important that we urgently develop a solid basis for understanding the hidden processes underpinning all this, in order to build up our society’s cultural and intellectual capital.  

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About Author

Tutor City's blog focuses on balancing informative and relevant content, never at the expense of providing an enriching read. 

We want our readers to expand their horizons by learning more and find meaning to what they learn.

Resident author - Mr Wee Ben Sen, has a wealth of experience in crafting articles to provide valuable insights in the field of private education.

Ben Sen has also been running Tutor City, a leading home tuition agency in Singapore since 2010.