Friday, July 30, 2010

Past exam papers hot items

Private tuition is a booming industry, albeit one that is outside the tax system, and allows many retrenched professionals and executives to survive unemployment.

AMID shops selling things like designer bread and wristwatches is a little stall that hawks an unlikely item in most countries except Singapore – school test papers.

These bound documents, covering English, Maths, Science and Chinese in the 2009 exam, are sold at between S$30 and $40 per set. There are scores of such vendors all over the city.

In two nearby blocks of three-storey buildings in a suburban town centre, I counted no less than 15 tuition centres that offer almost every subject a child faces in the city’s stressful exams.

Others teach Life Sciences, Creative Writing or “Preparation for Primary 1”. Two are music centres, one teaches art and another provides Japanese lessons – mostly supplementary subjects.

At another suburb a kilometre away, 12 or more tuition centres are flourishing. Private tuition – together with the trade in test papers – has become a booming industry, probably raking in hundreds of millions of dollars and providing jobs for thousands of people.

These figures may be too conservative, if one takes into account what Singaporean parents spend on tuition to give their kids a head start.

A reporter who did a random interview with 12 students found that their parents spent an average S$500 a month on their tuition fees. In another case, a Chinese-language newspaper reported a father spent almost half his monthly salary, or S$960, to pay for his son’s English lessons.

In other countries, old test papers are generally used to wrap fish, but here it provides a living. Why are they so marketable?

Just as in societies like China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, Singaporeans worship academic achievement, maybe a little too excessively, some believe.

They have seen success often going to graduates with distinctions. They are picked for high office. It is exam results that often decide how well people are to live.

This is making test papers of top schools a hot commodity. Designed by individual primary and secondary schools to test their own pupils annually, they have long been packaged and sold. The higher ranked the school, the greater the demand.

In this small city of 700sq km, there are at least 500 tuition centres, each with a database of home tutors for parents to select from. The teachers charge hourly rates: S$15-S$20 for Primary 1-6, and S$20-S$28 for secondary 1-4.

Some tuition even takes place online, where test papers can be downloaded more cheaply. Some top junior college graduates have taken it further by selling their study notes on the web.

The exact size of the trade is not officially known because the thousands of people involved – especially freelance tutors or test paper vendors – work outside the tax system.

With the weak employment market for graduates, this is useful. It has allowed many retrenched professionals and executives to survive the crisis of unemployment.

More importantly, the role of the home tutor appears greater than the government is ready to admit. It touches the life of almost every Singaporean.

The Sunday Times conducted a poll in 2008 of 100 primary, secondary and junior college students and found that only three students did not have any tuition at all.

Even some university students have sought special tuition, but the starting age is getting lower. Two in every 10 involve kindergarten kids.

Contrary to belief, not all who seek help are students of average or poorer grades. They include straight-A students, too.

Predictably, the world crisis has pushed up the number of private tutors, many settling into it because it is recession-proof. This has allowed some jobless to survive.

A few with flair have actually done well enough to make it a career. For example, a physics tutor to 80 students reportedly earns about S$20,000 a month. Even students – undergraduates and Junior College students – are earning good pocket money this way.

The term “private tuition” is generally disliked by fun-loving teens and, one suspects, by the government, too, for two reasons.

First, the vast number of Singaporeans who rely on outside tuition is interpreted by critics as indicating that the school system is far from adequate.

Second, a lot of this thriving revenue is going to individuals, rather than the Treasury – unreported and untaxed. It is part of the underground economy that no finance minister wants to have.

Does tuition help to improve grades? The answer cannot be “no” when 97% of students have done it.

It provides a crucial help to children who are weak in certain subjects, be it English, Maths or Chinese. Singapore schools supply a general education that is quite modern and diverse.

It is winning accolades from some countries which have adopted its methods of teaching. However, it also faces criticisms for not producing creative workers good at solving problems.

A retired school principal commented: “Our children are very good at Science and Maths, but they are not groomed to be independent thinkers.”

Saturday July 10, 2010
Insight Down South by SEAH CHIANG NEE