Friday, October 14, 2011

Problems and Solutions to Singapore’s Education System – Part 3

This is the 3rd post out of four part discussion on education, interested readers can read from the first post.

The phenomenon of having more private tuition to supplement school education is a very Eastern phenomenon. We see it in almost all East Asian countries like China, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. We might argue that this is a cultural issue. Parents in Asian countries going through this phase of development see the importance of being ahead of the crowd in education and hence are willing to pay through their noses to let their child have this head start.

This is also the argument used by MOE. The Govt cannot stop parents from sending their kids to private tutors. Blame the kiasu parents. They are not called kiasu for nothing. No matter the changes put to the system, since kaisu parents want their kids to be one-up, private tuition will continue, and prices for the best private tutors will keep on rising.

Well, let’s see if this argument really stands.

Putting on the economics hat again, I can again identify a fundamental economics problem here. Yes, the supply and demand issue again that we discussed. In short, the whole elitist system drives demand for private tuition. If the system is made less competitive (well at least in the primary school level), more holistic, with more qualitative assessment, less high stakes exams, it would become irrelevant to game the system with more tuition. In Finland, lower primary is just about learning and how to make it fun. There are no numerical grades, no high stakes exams. Yet their students do as well in international competitions.

It might be a good idea to completely do away with PSLE and replace it with qualitative assessment and simple grades with no numbers or granularities ie just A, B, C, D. Then you might ask how to differentiate between the good and the bad students? Now, by asking that question, you just missed the big idea. The idea is: there is no need to differentiate them at such a young age. The education mission is to allow the child to learn about our world in their first 9-10 school years. Each child should be given the same opportunity at this stage. It is not about differentiating and just bringing up our best children.

Of course, at the big picture level, when we achieve the grand goal of having so many good schools that eliminates the scarcity premium of the top schools, there is no longer any need to compete for the limited spaces.

On the supply side, there is a lack of good teachers and a system to retain the best teachers in schools that resulted in Singapore’s phenomenon. We all hear anecdotal stories of how some of our teacher friends started noble wanting to teach, only to be discouraged by low pay and poor working environment and they move into private tuition. Now if we can change that, put these best teachers into the schools again and at the same time further increase the quantity of good teachers, can we address part of this issue?

We might.

I say might bcos we have not tackled the other part. The kiasu part.

Parents are inherently kiasu, even if you put the best teachers back in schools, or you revamp to whole system, since they want their kids to be one-up, they will still go for private tuition. There is no solution to this problem.

Is that really so?

The kiasu conundrum is an interesting one. I see it as somewhat similar to the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma in Game Theory. If you confess, you get a light sentence and the other guy suffers. But if both confess, both are worse off. The parents are in exactly the same situation. They think that by going to private tuition, they gain one-up. But in reality, since everyone is doing that, we are all worse off. Only the private tuition agencies gain.

The issue here is one of information. If all the prisoners know that the other parties are not going to confess, they will all keep mum and all stand to benefit. This is how most Singapore oligopolies play the game. Look at the telcos, or the petrol kiosks, or the transport co.s. Nobody ever cut prices. Nobody ever confesses and every player benefits, except the consumers.

Twisting the situation around, the policemen also have the full information picture. They know whether the other prisoners have confessed. In fact, at the start, they could have engineered the results they wanted. They could have tell the prisoners no one is confessing, if you do, you sabo everyone. But if everyone doesn’t confess, everyone is better off.

MOE is the police here. The official stance is always that they should not meddle with the private tuition industry. But the fact of the matter is that private tuition is now mainstream education! And by the way, private tuition is now a multi-billion dollar industry in Singapore, bigger than the budget of some Ministries. In time it WILL be bigger than the budget of MOE.

There is a need to educate the parents, to show that everyone is worse off with tuition in a relative sense. Yes the child do improve on absolute terms, maybe they learn fractions faster or can read Shakespeare earlier. But since everyone can, we are all the same in a relative sense. Just that the parents’ wallets are thinner. I believe some parents figured this out, but their response is: no choice, bcos everyone is doing it, we cannot lose out. So if it can be shown that there something can be done, the parents would bite. Information is the key here. Inform the parents that tuition does not help.

Perhaps MOE or other relevant bodies can commission a study to show that the stress level of students are much higher, or they have less sleep time, less play time and hence affecting their development as a result of tuition. And bcos everyone is going for private tuition, nobody actually gains. The media can definitely publish more articles on these issues. The media can also highlight how some tuition agencies are not adding value at all and how some private tutors are irresponsible and are there just for the money.

On a more hardline tone, MOE can regulate the industry since it is becoming such a big part of education. In Korea, they outlawed private tuition some time back ie anyone caught giving tuition goes to JAIL, and the tutee pays a FINE! That’s a bold move! That might not go down well in Singapore. But MOE can still have some measures.

All primary school classes have form teachers who know their students well, they can discourage parents from sending kids for tuition, not encourage them by telling parents they MUST send their kids for tuition. Of course this works better when the class size gets down from current 40 plus to 20 or less. They can give exact instructions to parents on how to help their kids improve in weak areas like focus on spelling, or multiplication etc. Or where the child show world-class potential and can really develop a REAL “one-up” against others. The idea here is to curb demand.

To regulate supply, MOE should ensure that all private tutors are qualified and licensed and have fee guidelines, protection against scam tutors etc. These measures also discourage some of the bad practices.

Again the solutions proposed here involve a destruction of the billion dollar private tuition industry and is definitely a bitter pill for many, many people. However for the sake of our children, I believe it is a worthwhile effort.

Next post, we talk about being a teacher!

See all posts!
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4


  1. As I see it, the education industry (worldwide) itself is ripe for disruption itself once people realize that the hundreds of thousands of dollars they invested in their schooling will not be able to obtain the desired results - a good job and the life they want from it.

    While usually I stand on the progressive left spectrum, on this issue, I actually vehemently disagree with any attempt to reign in private tuition via government regulation.

    In fact, I want the situation to become so bad that it shines a light into the dark pits that is Singapore's education system and how poor it is in preparing our children for their future and that the whole thing is just an expensive exercise in elitism and artificial scarcity.

    Once people start realizing how pathetic public education systems around the world are and the well-off have long abandoned it to search for real education in the open market, then the impetuous for true reform will be generated.

  2. I don't think teachers are paid lowly in Spore. It was reported in TST two teachers (husband & wife)aged 29 & 32 with a monthly combined income of S$9,000. Even a US professor wished that their country can pay their teachers as well as us.