Has Singapore’s Meritocracy System Given Rise to Private Tuition?

Singapore is known for its meritocracy system. As Emeritus Minister Goh Chok Tong puts it “at its core, meritocracy is a value system by which advancement in society is based on an individual’s ability, performance and achievement, and not on the basis of connections, wealth or family background.” Reflected in our education system, our school teachers and parents focus very much on the students’ academic excellence. This has given rise to the booming private tuition in Singapore.

Some Facts on Private Tuition:

  1. 7 in 10 parents enroll their children in private tuition
  2. $260Local families spend a total of $1.1 billion a year on private tuition
  3. Median amount spent on tuition every month:
  • Pre-school – $155
  • Primary school – $205
  • Secondary school

The above points 1 and 2 are based on the Straits Times Poll among 500 parents in 2015 and point 3 on a Housing Expenditure Survey in 2014. I am sure the numbers are even higher 2 / 3 years after the survey.

There is no doubt that Singapore’s meritocracy system has given rise to the billion-dollar private tuition phenomenon. The following is to share some insights on why:

A Viable Path to Success

A meritocracy system based on individual’s ability, performance and achievement offers an opportunity for students from less well-to-do families to succeed. Despite their limited resources, many parents have managed to fork out hundreds of dollars, a significant proportion of their family income on private tuitions to improve their children’s grades. It is heartening to note that some economics tuition teachers offer discount off their tuition fees to students from financially needy families, out of good will. Some economics tuition teachers in Bishan even waive the fees to ensure that these students stand an equal chance to academic success as compared with their peers.

Culture to Compare

Singapore’s highly competitive education environment can be attributed to the kiasu culture here, in particular, kiasu parents who fear to lose out to other parents. This is evidenced by a culture to compare, not just among parents, but also among the students. It is typical for parents and students themselves to compare their grades and tuition classes they have. Within their financial means, parents tend to send their children to tuition for all the school subjects, such as English tuition, mathematics tuition, science tuition and once they move on to higher levels, economics tuition. Some parents have even gone to the extent to borrow from family members to pay for their children’s tuition fees.

Examination-based Assessment System

School teachers tend to focus more on imparting the necessary knowledge pertaining to the respective subjects they teach. With Singapore’s examination-based assessment system, private tutors like economics tutors serve to bridge the gap by teaching not just the relevant knowledge, but also the examination skills, which are proved to be effective in improving the students’ academic performance and ultimately, their grades. This is especially true for subjects that require analytical skills. For example, an economics tutor will share with the students in economics tuition the techniques to answer the essay questions and how to structure their answers properly to score the highest marks.

Customised Teaching

Each individual is different. In terms of learning, students have different weaknesses. The fact that our school teachers are overwhelmed with teaching of various subjects and lots of administrative works makes it impossible for them to zoom in to each individual’s weaknesses. Again, this is where private tutors can fill the gap. For example, students can enjoy undivided attention from their economics tutor in one to one economics tuition, where the economics tutor can spend more time explaining the concepts that the students have difficulty in understanding.

In summary, private tuitions like economics tuition have its merits and will most likely continue to prosper in Singapore.

Linda Geng

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