The founder of SmileTutor Tuition Agency Rum Tan got a call from a parent living in Sentosa Cove, requesting Primary 1 English and mathematics tuition for his child.
It seemed like a regular request until the parent revealed an important detail – his child was just three years old.
The father insisted that his child was a prodigy. Mr Tan, 23, assigned a few tutors to the kid, but none of them could stick it out.
“The child was just too young to be grappling with such advanced- level information,” he says. He ended up turning away the parent.
Tuition almost three years in advance of a child’s age might seem like academic kiasu-ism gone mad, but it is not that outlandish in Singapore.
ADVANCED CLASSES ARE HOT
A check with eight tuition agencies and private tutors show that more primary and secondary school kids are taking tuition two or more years in advance of the grade they are in at school, to stay ahead of the curve.
Mr Tan says he receives one or two calls a week requesting advanced tuition.
Private tutor Lilian Leong, 41, has already taken on five new Secondary 1 and 2 students this year, all of whom are studying Secondary 3- level physics concepts in preparation for a junior Olympiad competition.
At tuition school Future Academy, founding tutor Yvonne Chen, 32, says 30 per cent of her students are being tutored between one and three years above their grade in school.
The phenomenon reflects how tuition culture and parental involvement have changed in the past two decades, says Dr Jason Tan, 53, associate professor at the National Institute of Education.
Parents are more well-educated and want to play a hands-on role in their children’s education.
He adds: “They see schooling as competitive and will do what they can for their child to excel in a high-stakes environment.”
In primary school, there is a direct reason parents want their children to swot well ahead of schedule: the Direct School Admissions (DSA) selection tests.
The scheme, which was introduced in 2004 to broaden the admission criteria beyond Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scores, allows pupils to secure a Secondary 1 place before they sit the PSLE, based on talent in sport or arts or on academic strength.
The last factor is what many parents are banking on. To gauge academic strength, Primary 6 pupils sit DSA selection tests in July. Set individually by each school, the tests are said to be tougher than the PSLE and stress cognitive and analytical skills rather than just textbook knowledge.
DSA is a way into Integrated Programme (IP) schools, where children can go directly to junior college without having to take the O levels.
Given that IP schools in practice admit almost half their students through the DSA scheme , the preparation to excel in the competitive DSA papers is now starting earlier than ever.
Last year, 126 secondary schools admitted 2,700 students through the DSA scheme. In a previous report by The Straits Times, the Ministry of Education declined to give the percentage of students who entered schools under the academic category.
Housewife Angie Leong, 39, pays $500 a month for her daughter – who is in Primary 4 at a top primary school – to get four hours of private tuition a week. The girl is starting on advanced topics in mathematics and science that will be taught in school only one or two years later.
She thinks the tuition will give her daughter an edge if she chooses to apply for a school through an academic DSA channel when she enters Primary 6.
Her older daughter, she believes, did not clear the DSA selection tests because she had not taken any tuition.
She says she is not giving her younger child, who is “already doing very well for her level in school”, unnecessary pressure. “The rigour from her tuition keeps her challenged. I don’t think intellectual stimulation should be stifled.”
Although tutors such as Future Academy’s Ms Chen agree that some advanced coaching may be necessary for students attempting DSA examinations or mathematics and science competitions, she admits that a child needs to have the aptitude to cope and overly pressuring a weak child can end up being detrimental to his overall development.
“Each child is different and parents who stress their child or compare them with their siblings at such a young age may kill their joy for learning,” she says.
SmileTutor’s Mr Tan, who has also dealt with his fair share of pushy parents – particularly those with children in top schools – says that in most cases, it is the parents who demand advanced tuition, not the children.
“The MOE syllabus is already very challenging and only a select group of bright children can cope with the extra stress of advanced tuition,” he says. “In most cases, students are not as gifted as their parents assume, so the additional stress ends up stifling them and affecting their self-esteem.”
Ms Katherine Law, 44, chief trainer at Guru Kids Pro, says the onus is on tutors to be honest with parents and manage expectations.
Related: How to choose a tutor
“At the end of the day, the student needs to be willing to learn and not feel overly pressured by additional tuition.
“More importantly, the workload shouldn’t be imposed by the parents,” she says. “If the child struggles too much, this can adversely affect their day-to-day work and self-esteem, which can be detrimental in the long run.”
A housewife in her 40s, who wishes to be known only as Mrs Au Yong, sends her Secondary 1 son for tuition in Secondary 2 mathematics. At his request, he is having extra mathematics tuition to help him prepare for competitions.
She says of his workload: “The only reason I allowed him to take extra mathematics tuition is because he enjoys the subject and requested it himself. I don’t want to put additional pressure on him. It is time and money well spent only if the child is being intellectually stimulated.”
(Photo: Desmond Foo/ST)
A version of this story first appeared in The Straits Times.