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
- meet the P6 GEP promotion criteria, and
- 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.