The tuition industry in Singapore is worth a whopping S$1.1 billion. We calculate the financial costs of sending your child to tuition, and the social costs if you decide to leave your child to the vagaries of the school system.
Words by Lum Yin Peng
The school year has just begun in Singapore but for eager parents, the scramble for places at popular tuition centres or slots with “star” private tutors probably started way before this.
According to the Household Expenditure Survey released last year, two out of every three households with school-going children opt for tuition. On private tuition alone, Singaporeans forked out a whopping S$1.1 billion a year. To get an idea of how amazing this is, consider that the amount of money set aside in the FY2014 national budget for education was S$11.49 billion. Simply put, Singaporeans’ consumption of private tuition amounts to around one-tenth of what the entire nation spends on education. The latter includes expenses on all levels of education from pre-school to university, ITE and polytechnics.
The Costs of Tuition
Here’s a quick rundown of private tutor rates (S$ rate per hour) depending on the level of your child and the qualifications of the tutor:
|Student level (below) / Tutor’s academic qualification (right)||A-level||University undergraduate||Full-time tutors (degree holders)||NIE-trained current or ex-teachers|
Sources: Various tuition services websites
As for tuition centres, they are also free to set their own prices, just like private tutors. This means rates can vary widely. Furthermore, these centres like to come up with fancy branding for their classes as a marketing tool. Take a stroll through any neighbourhood shopping centre that specialises in tuition and you’ll see phrases such as Gifted Education Programme and Direct School Admission preparation courses or study materials. This helps the centre to “differentiate” their products, and can make price comparison a little tricky.
In general though, tuition centres tend to charge lower than private tutors as they conduct classes in groups while the latter gives one-on-one coaching. According to private tutor Javier Pang, group tuition fees for secondary students can range from S$150 to S$300 per month for each subject, while private tutor fees can range from S$250 to S$400, depending on the tutor you hire.
Other factors also determine a centre’s pricing: class size, teachers’ experience, subject specialisation, and “elite-ness”. Some centres such as The Learning Lab screen students before admission – children have to be of a certain academic standard – and charges about 50% more than other centres. Recently, private equity firm Advent International bought a significant stake worth S$300 million in The Learning Lab.
Bear in mind miscellaneous costs as well, such as:
- One-time registration fees
- Materials, e.g. assessment books or past year exam papers, which are bought separately
- Transport costs, e.g. top-up fees for private tutors who travel to your home
- Additional help to complete homework set by tuition centres, as practiced by really kiasu parents
Tuition has become such a common expenditure nowadays that Singaporeans tend to view it as a fixed expense, or money that one has to spend. This has given rise to a phenomenon known as parentocracy, a warped version of meritocracy. In a “parentocratic” society, a child relies on his parent’s social connections, status and money to get ahead in life, rather than through sheer hard work and effort. It’s a term often used by National Institute of Education Associate Professor Jason Tan to describe the state of Singapore’s academic environment.
After a study on perceptions on tuition, he concluded that Singaporean parents with better financial means and the right social connections have the upper hand in ensuring their children go to the right schools. “It’s becoming clear that that the playing field is not level for all children, that the start line is not straight, and this is worrying on the grounds of fairness and efficiency,” Tan voices his concerns.
In fact, private tuition has even begun to take on a snob appeal, where tutors who charge higher are viewed more favourably than those who don’t. Few parents bargain for lower rates or source for the lowest rates, believing that higher prices equal better quality.
Typical Tuition Expenditure for One Family
Let us take a look at a real-life example. Mr and Mrs Soh have a 12-year old daughter, Kim, and 15-year old son, Keith. Both children have been relying on private tuition since Primary 3 when streaming began.
As Kim is preparing for PSLE this year, she receives tuition in all four subjects at a nearby tuition centre, going for a one-time composition writing course during the school holidays. Keith’s busy secondary school life does not allow him to commit to centre-based tuition and his parents have to hire two private tutors who come to the home to teach. These are for his weaker subjects – Chinese and Math. Let’s take a look at the costs involved:
|Kim||S$150 per subject.
For 4 subjects, S$600
|S$600 X 10 months = S$6000
Holiday writing course = S$250
|Keith||S$40 per hour for each subject, 2 hours per subject.
Total 16 hours per month = S$640
|S$640 X 10 months = S$6,400|
The couple also hired a helper who would, among other chores, ferry their daughter to and from tuition. Mr Soh is reluctant to reveal how much he has spent in total for private tuition but says it is in the five-figure range, adding that it is a “necessary investment” and that he was already keeping costs down by not going for the extremely popular teachers. He cannot imagine how he and his wife, both holding full-time jobs, are able to cope without tuition help.
Mr Soh’s case is a classic example. According to a survey by market research consultancy Blackbox Research, half of Singaporeans with kids enrolled in tuition spend an average of S$500 monthly per child. Of that group, one per cent can spend up to S$3,000 a month for one child!
The “Costs” of Skipping Tuition
The social and academic costs of not hiring a tutor for your child cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Such “costs” are hard to ascertain because they are based largely on a series of hypothetical “what ifs” that run in your mind.
- “What if my child cannot get into a good school?”
- “What if he goes into the wrong stream?”
- “What if he cannot get into university or a good job?”
So, even if tuition may not lead to desired results, many parents would rather take the safe way out and hire help anyway.
With that being said, today’s school curriculums have become a lot tougher and teachers are hard-strapped for time to adequately nurture every single child. That’s why more and more tuition centres and tutors are coming into the market, acting as the supporting arm for mainstream education. As private tutor Javier Pang puts it, “the tutor acts (more) as a motivator than an educator, much like a boxing trainer toughening the fighter, getting him ready for the big fight.”
In the past, demand for private tuition was fuelled by fears that the child was struggling in school and needed help. Now, tuition is seen as a safety net for busy parents to ensure that their child, who might already be doing well in school, stays at the top or at least not fall too far behind. Good grades are important not just for the child but for the parents as well, who view it as a record card of sorts to gauge their own parenting skills. So, the stakes have gotten a lot higher.
Making Tuition worth Your Money
As a parent, if you think that it is necessary to spend the money, then it’s important to make it cost-effective. The first thing you can do is to have a talk with your child. Set goals e.g. to improve by one grade for the next common test If your child is old enough, you should mention the monthly and annual costs involved so that he understands that this is something to be taken seriously.
Depending on your child’s learning style, be clear about the type of tuition he needs and the time commitment involved. Go for experienced teachers if you wish, but be clear about the specific subject areas you wish to tackle.
Do not leave everything to the tutor or tuition centre. Look through assignments given and see if they are marked thoroughly with useful comments. In turn, ask your child for his thoughts on the tutor’s teaching style. Regularly check with the tutor or agency regarding your child’s progress. As your child gains confidence in the subject, motivate him to learn independently and if possible, wean off tuition completely one day.
Remember, two-way communication between you and your child goes a long way to making the tuition-hiring an effective one. Plus, your wallet will thank you for it!