A GOOD break is such a rare treat for Frieda Wong that she has a hard time recalling when she last had fun.
“It was probably the one week during the school holidays last December when I stayed at my cousin’s house in Penang. We did nothing but talk, watch movies and eat,” remembers the 17-year old wistfully.
While talking, watching movies and eating aren’t exactly memorable events, for Frieda, having some time to goof off is rare.
“I have tuition six days a week, from 3pm to 6.30 pm. On Sundays, I have my piano and drama classes instead. I even have tuition classes during the term holidays which makes it difficult for me to plan anything with my friends,” says the Form Five Science student.
However, despite her hectic schedule, Frieda feels the tuition classes she attends – for Physics, Chemistry, Additional Mathematics, Accounting and Bahasa Melayu – are a must.
“All my friends go for tuition. We just want to make sure we do well in the SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia),” she says.
Frieda, her friends and just about every other school kid are the reason why tuition is a thriving business today and a lifestyle choice.
It is certainly alarming that huge numbers of students are becoming increasingly dependent on tuition to supplement the instruction they get at school.
Although tuition is essentially a means for weaker students to get extra coaching and guidance, in the last two decades, tuition classes have morphed into a staple for many schoolchildren.
Regardless of their age or even academic ability, students are flocking to tuition classes like their lives, or grades, depended on them. Whether urban or rural, primary or secondary, tuition has become a necessity — an extension of school in more ways than one.
Closing illegal centres
For the business-minded, the tuition industry is a lucrative business opportunity. Cashing in on the “tuition craze”, tuition centres and “tuition chains” have sprouted everywhere.
To check the overnight mushrooming of tuition centres, especially after the implementation of the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English, the Education Ministry recently took action to weed out unregistered tuition centres.
The ministry's enforcement exercise was conducted on Jan 18 when Deputy Director-General of Education (Private Education) Datuk Hassan Hashim announced that tuition centre operators must register with the Private Education Department (JPS) “as soon as possible” or run the risk of being shut down for illegal operations.
''We have already shut down Pusat Akademik Ilmiah in Bandar Sri Permaisuri for illegal operation. This is to serve as a warning to other operators who will suffer the same fate unless they register with us,'' he said at a press conference last month. There are currently 1,190 registered tuition centres in the country with 122,766 students and 4,271 teachers. However, the number of unregistered centres is certainly higher than the number of registered ones.
''Under our definition, tuition centres that have specific premises, teachers and a fixed timetable must register with us. Those teaching from their homes need not do so.”
Hassan said the registration process was simple as all the operators had to do was submit an application to the JPS. ''It is likely that the application will be approved. I do not understand why not all are doing it.''
National Union of the Teaching Profession secretary-general Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam urged the ministry however not to arbitrarily close down tuition centres.
''Yes, by all means take action against those who have flouted the law but if students are benefiting from the extra attention, then teachers should be allowed to continue,'' he says.
For concerned parents however, the ministry's decision to act on errant tuition centre operators is not just timely but necessary.
“Class sizes in some tuition centres are almost comparable to the size of classrooms at school – 40 or more students in one class. These tuition centres have become just another form of schooling – another class with 30 to 40 students facing a blackboard or whiteboard! How effective can these classes be?” questions parent M. Ramamoorthy who forks out about RM250 a month for his son's tuition fees.
Frenzy or necessity?
The increasing demand for tuition inevitably raises questions about the school system we have in place. Is instruction at schools lacking? Are schools unable to complete the given syllabus thus prompting students to seek private tuition after school hours? Or are students, and their parents, obsessed with securing a string of As?
Siva Subramaniam says the fixation with tuition is due to the intense competition.
“Parents therefore see tuition as a necessary avenue that will help their children to do even better. Every year, you will find newspaper reports highlighting how well students have done. There is nothing about those who don't do as well. Parents will definitely want the best for the children so tuition becomes an attractive option,'' he adds.
Secondary school teacher Fatimah (not her real name) says tuition classes are popular not because of the schools’ failure to teach but because of overzealous parents and students.
“We cover all the syllabus in school and are even willing to correct exercises students may have done on their own. But some students are lured by tips and spotted questions that some tuition centres hand out,” shares Fatimah.
Her claims are legitimate and are backed up by many news reports on tuition centres allegedly leaking out trial and actual public examination questions.
Last year, The Star reported on several tuition centres in Kuala Lumpur that lured students by selling trial exam papers – called ujian selaras or diagnostic test – that are conducted by the Federal Territory Education Department for students sitting for the PMR and SPM examinations.
The tests were introduced last year to familiarise students with exam-style questions. However, parents and teachers were shocked to discover tuition centres distributing papers for the test, complete with answers.
The scam was exposed when a headmistress from a KL school caught a Form Five student sneaking in a photocopy of the trial exam paper into the exam hall. She traced it to a tuition centre which had provided the students with the questions a day before the exam.
''What is shocking is that the tuition teachers telephoned the students the night before the exam and gave them 'tips' on what to expect. They even had the audacity to suggest to the students that they tell their friends about it or call the centre for more information,'' says the headmistress, who declined to be named.
Petaling Jaya student Farah admits that the promise of examination “tips” was the reason she enrolled in a tuition centre located outside Petaling Jaya.
“My seniors told me the teachers there give accurate tips. These tips are not just on the subjects we should focus on but the questions that will appear in the actual examination. They (seniors) told me that 90% of the tips are accurate. That is the reason a few of us decided to go to the tuition centre even though it is quite far from where we live,” says the Form Five student.
Another cause for concern is that some school teachers who double up as tuition teachers after school hours lure students by promising “tips and advice” on exam preparation.
“As awful as this sounds, it actually happens. My daughter was begging me to let her go for tuition at her class teacher’s home in Ampang. We live in Subang Jaya and there was no way I could ferry them (my daughter and friend) to and from class every week. When I refused, she explained why it was so important that she go there -- her teacher promised her “extra help” in facing the examination!
“Being a teacher, I am appalled that some teachers are this unethical. It is okay to teach tuition, but not to your own class students. As a teacher, you have to help all the students in your class and not just those who are willing to pay for tips,” berates Alice Wong.
A question of ethics
While there is no written law against teachers giving tuition after school hours, it is against the professional code of ethics for teachers to give tuition to their own students, says a senior Education Ministry official. “This (teachers giving tuition to their own students) is definitely against the professional ethics of teachers. Obviously, they (teachers) will not give their best in class in order to lure students to attend private tuition with them. This should not happen.”
He adds, however, that it is fine for teachers to give tuition to students from other classes and schools as long as it does not interfere with their primary duty as school teachers. However, they must first get written permission from their respective state education department heads.
To maintain the credibility of tuition centres and their teachers, Siva Subramaniam feels firm action needs to be taken against those who flout the law.
''Action must be taken against teachers caught setting similar questions for both school and tuition. I have come across teachers who were caught and they were disciplined in various ways including being warned, reprimanded or even transferred to another school,'' he says.
Parent Jessica Lee feels tuition is a necessity to “fill in the gaps” in the instruction at school. “The classroom sizes are so big in school that students do not get much personal attention from their teachers. In a 30 or 40-minute period, students have perhaps enough time to ask one or two questions. At least at tuition, we pay for two hours of the teacher's time every week and can expect better guidance,” she says.
Lee's sentiments are shared by a large number of parents who are not satisfied with the quality of instruction at schools.
“My son is in Year Five and although I never intended to send him for tuition until he was in secondary school, I felt I had no choice because of the poor quality of teaching. His class teacher could not speak English fluently and did not seem to be able to communicate with them, let alone inspire them,” says parent P. Vanitha.
This issue, says Siva Subramaniam, is to be expected, given the conditions at school.
''You have to face facts as schools in general are overcrowded. Teachers will be unable to give individual attention to each student. There is also time constraint, as the teacher has to finish the syllabus within the stipulated time periods allocated.
''They (teachers) will not be able to spend more time on the subject even if they want to,'' he says.
For working parents, tuition is a “godsend”. After a busy day at the office, most working parents simply don't have the time nor energy to coach their children in their work.
A fine example is Amy Wee who admits to being too tired after a busy working day to tutor her children. As a result, Wee's two children, David, in Year Four and Janet, in Form Four, attend tuition.
''I find that regular coaching helps my children to do better. I have tested this out, particularly with David. He does better when he has help in preparing for his spelling and dictation tests but when he doesn't, his grades drop.
''I am not a strict disciplinarian so I don't force them to study but at the same time, I want them to do well so I send them to tuition,'' she shares.
Wee says both she and her husband are working so money is not a problem when it comes to tuition fees. She spends RM75 a month on tuition and RM35 in transportation costs for David and RM155 for tuition and another RM60 for Janet's transport.
More than just the acquisition of knowledge, the reading of books and learning of facts, education is giving children a desire and curiosity to learn, teaching them to use their minds for more than just merely facing examinations.
“The pre-occupation with tuition is really very unhealthy and should not be encouraged. I think it is a social problem that is no less worrying then the lepak problem, for instance. We must do something about it as it is fast becoming part of the student culture here,” opines Ramamoorthy.
In total agreement is Wong who believes that going for tuition classes hampers students from thinking up solutions to problems for themselves.
“Students need to develop an enquiring mind and schooling is supposed to encourage students to do so — to ask questions and also take the initiative to seek out answers.
“Schools are supposed to equip students with the tools to be able to do all this. To some extent, I think schools are doing this but more can be done.
“However, if we were to send our children from school to tuition and back, when will they have time to think and research on their own, to figure out and rationalise things on their own? They will become dullards,” says Wong.
A rarity among his peers is Choo Dee Lern, 17, a student at SM Raja Mahadi in Klang, who does not attend any tuition at all.
Although he will sit for his SPM examination at the end of the year, Dee Lern does not see the need to take tuition.
“The lessons at school are enough. I basically do my own studying at home and I think that is enough. And should my teacher not complete the syllabus by year end, my parents who are both teachers will help me,” he says, adding that he has never in his life taken tuition.
Dee Lern's peers, on the other hand, have all enrolled in tuition classes. “They say it's because they do not trust the school teachers to do a good job in preparing them to score in the exam,” he reveals.
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