Reflecting on a tuition scam

The recent case of math tutor Kelvin Ong who cheated with false credentials is disturbing on two counts.

First, in a lucrative and highly unregulated industry that is overly subscribed to by the majority of parents in Singapore, it is all too easy to get away with fake credentials. Perhaps Kelvin Ong carried his boasts too far. He was never a gifted education student himself, never studied in a GEP school and at NUS which he had claimed, and was merely a relief teacher briefly in a school. In fact, it turned out that he was not a university graduate at all, much less a double mathematics major at NUS.

He simply played on parents’ anxiety to get their children into the gifted education progaramme (GEP) and threw up credentials hoping to get away with it. And it seemed he did so for a number of years before MOE, which usually do not intervene in the private tuition market, stepped in to expose his claims. NUS followed suit by verifying that he never attended their programmes. I am glad MOE took the initial step to expose Kelvin or else more unsuspecting public will be tricked.

That begs the question how many had practised this trade with fake claims unexposed, perhaps because they never carried it as loudly and as boldly as Kelvin did. It is hard for parents to verify claims as they usually trust the tutor or the centre to be honest with the credentials. Not all parents are also academically equipped to tell if a tutor is really teaching well or not, and the child may not be able to tell or may not bother to complain to the parents if the tutor does not seem up to the mark.

It is common to see tuition centre advertising themselves as MOE approved or registered centres. Just google “MOE approved tuition centre” and you will easily find many being listed. What does this mean? While MOE does allow learning centres to be registered with it, MOE does not endorse or accredit the quality of their courses. The process to register with MOE is purely an administrative one that most businesses can easily achieve. What it takes to be registered with MOE are the following documents:

    • Approved floor plan by the Fire Safety and Shelter Department (FSSD)
    • Fire Safety Certificate & Notice of Approval
    • Grant of Written Permission from URA / HDB
    • ACRA printout
    • Committee of Management Forms Appointment Note (for sole-proprietor/partnership/LLP) or Directors’ Resolution (for company) to appoint the members of the Committee of Management
    • Course Registration Forms
    • Teacher Registration Forms
    • School Constitution
    • Memorandum & Articles of Association of Company

The process is simple. You will have many MOE-registered centres. I am not sure if ‘MOE-approved’ is even a right phrase to use, but many centres use that phrase nevertheless. It is designed to give parents unacquainted with this registration process a false impression that MOE has approved the quality of the programme and the teachers. Most parents do not know about this registration process nor do they check MOE’s disclaimer that “Registration by MOE does not in any way represent an endorsement or accreditation of the quality of the courses offered.”

Private teachers can also be registered with MOE online. The process and requirements are simple. It does not equate to teachers being National Institute of Education (NIE)-trained. Some tutors will also be advertised as having taught in MOE schools. Aparently, after he was exposed, Kelvin Ong reportedly said he had work as a relief teacher from 2002 – 2003 in a GEP school. There are several schemes nowadays that allow a non-NIE trained person to work in schools as allied educators, as relief teachers or with external service providers running enrichment programmes in schools. They would certainly have taught in schools but they may not have gone through the thorough and stringent training at NIE to be a true MOE qualified teacher.

One can say that tuition is something that is not part of our official education system. It is something parents desire and go into a contract with the tutor or with a tuition centre. However, the number of children having tuition is staggering. There are no official figures because there are many unregistered centres and even registered tuition centres do not report their enrolment to any authorities. A recent survey estimates 2/3 of students have tuition, but I suspect from my observation that this figure could be even higer. Administratively, MOE is not set up to have any resources to verify with every centre and with every tutor on a periodic basis to ensure quality. Hence, it implemented a simple registration process that is in no way a valid measure of the quality of the centre or the tutor.

It is easy for tutors and tuition centres to make false claims and credentials because there is no agency actively monitoring them, unless the claims have become so blatant and eye catching that warrants attention, like in Kelvin Ong’s case.

The second disturbing aspect is why there are so many parents desperate for tuition. In this case, it is tuition to prepare for the gifted education programme test, which technically should not be trained for because the tests are supposed to pick up natural giftedness. Yet parents had spent big time on Kelvin Ong and on other tuition centres advertising for GEP preparatory training. You can search online for “GEP prepatory classes” to see that such courses are common.

I had previously organised a few focus group discussions with parents to understand their mindset about GEP. It seems there are two strong reasons for parents to want their child in GEP.

The first compelling reason seems to be Direct School Admission (DSA) into the most desired independent schools at secondary 1. It seems independent schools roll out the red carpet for GEP students, so that when students are selected based on their GEP results in school, they only need to have a low minimum T-Score (usually 200) in PSLE to enter these top schools. I filed a parliamentary question in July to find out how many from GEP enter secondary school by DSA, and how many into the independent schools. 80% from GEP enter secondary school by DSA and 78% receives the Edusave Entrance Scholarships for Independent Schools (EESIS), which covers their tuition fees in these schools which are priced higher than other schools. That means 80% of the GEP students do not need to worry about their PSLE results. They enter into secondary 1 directly.

On EESIS, MOE’s website states the following:

“The EESIS are awarded up to the top one-third of the total number of Secondary One pupils admitted to all Independent Schools (IS), based on their PSLE results.

The EESIS is also awarded to P6 GEP pupils who are Singapore Citizens and who

  1. meet the P6 GEP promotion criteria, and
  2. are enrolled in the IP in an Independent School at S1.”

78% of GEP students (which is almost the 80% DSA figure) receive EESIS yearly. It does not seem to matter what their PSLE T-Score is, because as long as the GEP student is promoted to secondary 1 in the Integrated Programme (IP) of an Independent School, the GEP student receives the scholarship.

Independent schools comprised the top schools most desired by parents for their children. So entering GEP means an early and near assurance for the child to enter top schools like RI, RGS, Hwa Chong and Nanyang Girls High without having to compete with the rest of the cohort, and to get EESIS regardless of PSLE T-Score. Hence, parents are anxious to have this first shot at enrolling their child in the top secondary schools at primary 3.

A second reason is the programme itself, which comes with a small class size of 25 students, smaller than the typical 40-44 in other schools. Parents with children in both normal schools and in GEP tell me the small class size makes a lot of difference. Why would it not be with better attention that teachers can give to the smaller class. The GEP teachers are also specially handpicked to be in the programme and have gone through special training. Parents would naturally want these advantages for their children. It seems ironical that we can throw lots of resources at this 1% of students who mostly are naturally be able to do well regardless of the teachers but we are not able to commit similar resources at the lowest groups that need the smaller class size to help them catch up.

I think it is time to look at the situation. On the first count of lax regulations governing the industry, more could be done. Perhaps some registration body that verifies the certificates of tutors wishing to be registered tutors. This need not be done by MOE but can be by an association, for a reasonable membership or verification fee to list tutors on the database. Parents can then check the credentials of tutors from the online database without having to embarress the tutor by demanding to see proof of qualifications.

MOE lacks the resources to regulate the tuition industry under its current setup. It already has its hands full regulating the private education industry targetted at certification programmes for older students. While tuition can be said to be a private matter between parents and tution centres / tutors, I think more can be done by MOE to step in to shape the industry. I doubt an association of tutors would form naturally unless MOE intervenes to insist teachers on its registered database must first be on the association’s database. Getting registered centres to report their students enrolment and to keep an updated register of their teachers faithfully is also another step that can provide better data for MOE to monitor the situation.

I also hope MOE can take a review of the GEP programme to see if the DSA and EESIS advantages need to be in the system. If the motivation is to provide good programmes for these specifically identifed 1% of the cohort, there is no need for DSA and EESIS. The GEP students can go through normal DSA and compete for EESIS like all other PSLE students. Perhaps MOE can even critically examine if there is a need for centralised GEP and if they can decentralise the good aspects of GEP into every school, so that students need not be disrupted at primary 4 to be transferred to GEP schools. We should have faith that every school can be a good school and that we can work out programmes for good students in neighbourhood schools without having to signal that ‘good’ students must be uprooted to ‘good’ schools.

I also hope MOE can work more on assuring parents that teachers can sufficiently cover the curriculum without parents feeling that they require tuition to help their children catch up. One major problem is the class size. With 40 and more in a class, it is a challenge especially in some neighbourhood schools to get students to pay attention to the teaching. We should examine how class sizes can be cut across all primary and secondary levels and how MOE’s budget or teachers’ loads can be rebalanced to achieve this.


23 comments on “Reflecting on a tuition scam

  1. Hi Mr Yee, good piece here, but maybe you may want to separate concerns for tuition to get into GEP from those just wanting to do well in the system. I know of lower socio-economic class children whose parents are desperate for tuition because they themselves lack the life skills required to get their kids to sit still and do work on their own. The way to control the tuition syndrome possibly need to come from parents to put more pressure on the mainstream school system to provide for smaller class sizes. I’ve been teaching in my school (with small class sizes) and I agree the small class size helps, right down to the way I mark my students’ work in terms of written feedback and guidance. It is very daunting to write feedback for 40 scripts compared to 25 scripts. Best if it is just 16 scripts! The masses need small class sizes too. Maybe we ought to start with the NA stream actually.

    GE has actually decentralised secondary GEP, we call them SBGEP. I’m hoping the same can be done soon for the primary schools as I believe the quality of the teacher counts A LOT, which makes me understand why parents want kids to be in GEP primary schools even if the kid does not end up in the GEP class. The specially trained GE teacher will also teach some non-GE classes, which means some kids still benefit..

  2. Thanks Madeline. I didn’t want to cover too much about the rest of the tuition system here because this particular case is about how easy centres can deceive parents about qualifications and about the anxiety for GEP as manifested in this case. Tuition for mainstream schools is a big topic by itself and the subject of many forum letters, parliament questions and speeches from time to time. Smaller class sizes can help in reducing the problem, though it is more complex and needs to be attacked from other angles as well.

  3. People need to be reminded that tuition is optional. GEP is also optional. Very often, the motive of parents who are desperate to get their children into GEP are far from healthy. Regulating the industry may provide a peace of mind for people to keep doing the wrong things with their children. I say we let the kiasu get what they deserve. Only then can we learn to be a more discerning people. We will never grow up and exercise good judgement if we keep depending on regulations guide us on the “right” path.

  4. Yeah, but I’m against more govt intervention. You ask for this, next thing they’ll come up with is licenses for tutors. I’d rather it be caveat emptor, got to break away from the nanny state mentality, where we have to depend on the govt to protect us for everything.

  5. Thanks for the comments ,Politicalwritings and Dewdrop Notes. I do find the deep anxiety of some parents to have their children in GEP at all cost disturbing. Hence I had offered some suggestions as to why that is the phemonenal and some twigging that can be done to the system to reduce that anxiety.

    As for regulations, while we can say it is a private industry, we can also say the same thing about preschools and private sector providing higher education courses. In the past, these sectors were left pretty much on their own. Over time as society develops and the demand for such services becomes so large, the government saw it necessary to have tighter monitoring to better protect the public. An association that can work hand-in-hand with MOE will not necessarily add a lot more work to MOE but can offer some checks on this unregulated industry. It would have been better if tuition was not required for students. That would take a very big change to the education system and to society’s mindset.

  6. Hi, this is one parent who rejects this GEP screening test conducted by MOE. No resutls will be released, tested topics similar to syllabus, only 2 subjects english and math. Might as well call it a Gifited language test…….Since the form gave me a choice, I marked “do no want” my child to the take GEP screening test. If my child is gifted I will know. My child is not “gifted in studying”..but a great kid in many other ways.

    I was a bit worried if my child did ot take the screening test, what will the school do with him when many others are taking. I am glad to know that those not taking the screening test will be taken out of the class to go to another class whereby they will be given work.

    In my opinion, the most important that MOE needs to do immediately, for primary school education agree cut down the class size. 40+ students per class is really hard for the teachers to concentrate on each and every child. And at that tender age, if the school teachers cannot provide attention required at their age, parents have to send to tuiton to complete what school cannot provide.

    PS : Now, I need to find a simple explanation to explain to my child, why he is not taking the screening test and most of his classmates are. Any suggestions?

    • Dear Piggy: It is ok if you decided not let your child take the GEP screening. My first child went through the test but my wife and I decided not to send our next two for the screening. So you are not alone. You can tell your son he is special in his own ways and there are many ways to succeed in life.

  7. I come from a family of hard knock. My parents belong the slightly lower than middle income family (non grad parents) and still have to continue to work in the 60s. Yet both of his children has managed to reach masters level in term of education and one is a doctor, consider one of the hardest profession to get in Singapore.

    Did we go through a life of tuition? No. Did our parents force us to study? No. What my dad has did, which I think spur my brother and I the most is to show us the reality of harsh life, and what it mean and what it takes to achieve better life for ourselves and our future generation.

    I went through part time jobs in secondary school at $4/hr, showing us the reality of what it means and the importance of a good education to achieve a certain level standard of living. My brother have to save and skimp through for his degree and later his specilaist master. We have a common goal. To achieve beyond what our parents has not so as to give our future generation a better life and do not have to go through what we have.

    So what does it take to spur a child? Do I want to give my child a bed of rose? Do I want to force her to study? No.

    What we need to do is to instill into our children the reason and need to achieve in school and in future in life. The earlier a child can self actualise and internalise his/her own reason what he/she need to work hard, the earlier they will continue to manage their education and plan for future career. As parents, we have to ensure that they are give every opportunities and resources to excel in school and in life in the future. The resources and opportunities while available, must not be force onto them, but rather provided to them on a trying basic and see how the children react to these resources and form their own dislike and like and personal style.

    I become a parent 16 months ago and finally has an opportunity to try to really bring up a child. Not sure it work or not but one thing I am sure is that with the different ample route available today (poly, U, private U, overseas U), we can be sure there are many opportunites for a child to achieve a certain degree of education and succeed in life. As long as they continue trying and never give up.

  8. Post below is a copy of what I posted on a forum about GEP:

    I agree with the writer’s first point: GEP should not be a passport into secondary schools via DSA, which is then a passport into JCs via IP. Neither should IP be a passport to JCs. This goes against the spirit of meritocracy and advocates unnecessary focus on scoring well in the PSLE as compared to hard work throughout the academic journey. It is very sad to see higher ability students (late bloomers) unable to get a place a top JC because of this.

    However, I disagree with the writer’s second point: GEP kids do not necessarily score well in exams. Being gifted does not mean that they can perform well academically. Resources and special teachers are intended to facilitate a learning environment and encourage GEP kids to learn more, not to actually teach them more.

    I find the writer’s point about committing resources to the lowest group rather communistic in nature. He seems to be advocating to slow down kids who are capable of being fast, in favour of directing more attention and resources to those kids who are unable to cope or unwilling to study. How many hardworking students actually fare poorly in exams because of bad teachers or lack of resources (e.g. no money to go to school)? I reiterate once more: No student without learning disabilities should have difficulty in scoring relatively okay if he/she pays full attention in class, does homework and studies meticulously.

    It’s similar to saying “take from the rich, give to the poor”, without understanding why people are poor – is it because of discrimination that they are unable to excel, or simply because they chose to slack? Besides, the aim of education is to maximise one’s potential, not to ensure that everyone has the same level of education.

    *ForumWriter is an ex-GEP student

  9. QUOTE:
    “It seems independent schools roll out the red carpet for GEP students, so that when students are selected based on their GEP results in school, they only need to have a low minimum T-Score (usually 200) in PSLE to enter these top schools.”

    All academic DSA (Maths, Sci, Eng & Chinese) for mainstreamers also only need to have a low minimum PSLE T-Score (200), not only for GEPers.

    “78% of GEP students (which is almost the 80% DSA figure) receive EESIS yearly. It does not seem to matter what their PSLE T-Score is, because as long as the GEP student is promoted to secondary 1 in the Integrated Programme (IP) of an Independent School, the GEP student receives the scholarship.”

    I remember during the Primary 6 parent talk conducted by school last year that there are several criteria that your child needs to meet for retaining the GEP status (thus eligible for the scholarship). One of the promotion criteria is the PSLE (if I remembered correctly it is above T-Score 250). Therefore, PSLE T-Score does matter!
    For your reference:

    Btw, I agree with ForumWriter’s viewpoint.

    • Dear Forumwriter and Parent

      Thank you for sharing your views. I am not advocating we need to take resources from the ‘rich’. I am advocating that class sizes should be cut down across the board. Many developed countries have significantly smaller class sizes than Singapore. Large class sizes especially at the lower ability classes are not conducive at all, if anyone has been into such classes just to see for themselves how teachers have to struggle to keep the class under control to conduct any teaching at all. Small class size should not be just for GEP.

      On Parent’s post, thanks for sharing the Taonao PPT. Yes I am aware once a child has been accepted through DSA, whether for GEP or otherwise, T-Score of 200 at PSLE would usually suffice (with exceptions in certain schools). I should be clearer to point out from what I have been told, that GEP students don’t compete for DSA into top schools on the same criteria as those of other students. They can be selected based on their results in their GEP schools. It’s a different selection pool.

      On EESIS, it is not clear from any public info if there’s any cutoff criteria on T-Score for GEPers. From my reading of public info, it seems just entry into Independent school would suffice. In any case, I believe non GEPers with 250 T-score will not qualify for EESIS. You need to score much better than that.

      My suggestion is that there need not be any differentiation for GEPers for DSA or to get EESIS. They are welcome to go to top schools based on PSLE like all others. I thank Forumwriter for agreeing on my first point.

      • Dear Sir,

        Thank you for your reply. I’m afraid that you misunderstand my point about the “rich”. I was just drawing an analogy.

        What I meant is this: We all know resources are scarce and prioritisation is crucial. Therefore, allocating more resources to other education sectors implicitly means reducing resources for the GEP. If you are supporting additional resources for the entire education sector, then I fully agree that this investment in our future should be done… but these resources still have to come from somewhere.

        This sentence, “It seems ironical that we can throw lots of resources at this 1% of students who mostly are naturally be able to do well regardless of the teachers but we are not able to commit similar resources at the lowest groups that need the smaller class size to help them catch up” is probably the one which holds the implicit meaning stated above.

        It is necessary to analyse and understand the circumstances before taking any affirmative action. Are the lowest groups unable to cope because of lack of resources, or because they are simply unwilling to study? Are they discriminated (denied education) in any form?

        And I would like to correct you that “they can decentralise the good aspects of GEP into every school”. Even in RI, mainstream students have problem dealing with GEP stuff. Mainstream students in other schools will probably have more problems. Decentralising probably benefits more students as it affects more students, but ultimately the overall standard will have to be lowered since not everyone can handle the curriculum.

        Here, I would like to reiterate that the objective of education is to maximise one’s potential, not to make the standard even across the board.

        Since we are in agreement on the point about DSA and IP, I hope that something can be done about this. Other than these programmes, there is also the intake of foreign scholars in Secondary 3 and discretionary admissions for universities.

        Even though I was from the GEP and can be considered a beneficiary of the above system (yes, I’m not that old), it is really sad to see deserving students lose out on places because of such discrimination, when our education system is supposed to be on a meritocratic basis.

        Thank you.

  10. Hi YJJ, that was what my letter to the ST Forum (19 June) alluded to – the reasons why parents want their kids in the GEP: DSA and EESIS.

    GEP students are grouped differently during the DSA application process – either in the first phase or virtual shoo-ins to the IP school because of their mid-year results (usually >80% guarantees a place). Also, there is no need for these GEPers to sit for any test, unlike mainstream students who have to take the General Ability Test or other academic tests.

    EESIS (worth $14,400.00) is given to GEP students who enrol into an IP school and meet the express stream cut-off which is 200 points in the PSLE. Mainstream students have to get a PSLE score of about 263 (usually this is the cut-off point, varies year-to-year from 260 – 263) to qualify for EESIS. So you see – there is so much disparity and “unfairness” which is why parents want their kids to get into GEP.

    • Thanks KS. That’s the kind of responses I get from parents during my focus group discussion as well. Hence, I share your concern that this is unhealthy. If GEP is to nurture the child, fine. But I fail to see any good reason to give the DSA and EESIS advantages to them. Hence I decided to file a parliament question to get the data out. DSA rate is 80%, but not all to the Independent school. Most will though. 78% make it to Independent schools (where the top schools belong to) and get EESIS.

  11. Sorry, what I meant was that if the GEP students results are more than 80% in their mid-year exam, they would be assured of a place in the IP school.

    • Thanks. Great that ST Janice Heng agrees with us in her piece on Sat 18 Aug page A39. The special advantages into top secondary schools should not be there just because someone is in GEP.

  12. Mark Kitto, You’ll never be Chinese, TODAY 20/8/2012. In this article, I quote a statement from the article “The domestic Chinese lower educationsystem does not educate. It is a test centre. the curriculum is designed to teach children how to pass them.” I thought to myself in Singapore it will be “The domestic lower education system does not educate. It is a test centre. The currriculum is designed to teach less learn more, but it is the tuition centre that teaches children how to pass tests”. Is it just me ?? Just feeling pessimistic (only today).

  13. The truth is that if there is no demand, there will be no supply. No matter how hard the government tries, parents will believe that “standing still is falling behind.” In order words, if every other child is having tuition and my child is not, then he/ she will surely be left behind. Rightly or wrongly, this is the perception. As an education consultant, I believe that there is a role for us to play. The question is how parents use the tutors.

  14. I think everyone played a part. I’m working full time. However I started sending my gal for classes since she is one year old. I belong to lower income group. I worked hard to earn money in order to pay for her courses. I used public transport to send her for classes. People say I’m giving her stress. When I’m home at 10pm after work, I revise with her. When she went bed, I started doing the housework. However, comparing her progress with kids of her age( now 4years old), she was ahead of them. I never regret all the effort I put in. So I understand that parents nowadays cant be slack too. Don’t think that our kids can fly high by just dumping money for tuition. Parents need to put in effort. I might not be very good at teaching but I will make sure she understand and do all her homework properly. There is no lousy schools or tutors, only lazy children and parents. If we follow our children’s progress closely, we will be able to find out that which tutors might not be suitable for our child.

    Above is just my point of views. Correct me if I’m wrong.

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