Where childhood education begins, childhood ends

Previously, I wrote about the breakdown of the Singapore education system, and how divisive it was to the population’s children.

When you have schools that are seen as “elite” and schools that are seen as “neighbourhood” (regular), you have a nation of parents desperate and eager to send their offspring into these “elite” schools. As with demand and supply, seats are limited at these prestigious places and thus school children have to work ever so harder to outdo each other.

This means cram schools, or as they are called in Singapore, tuition centres.

After-school tutoring has become a thing where previously students who were slightly weaker went to to catch up, to a thing today where it is necessary to send one’s child to or else lose out to the other children, whom themselves are taking after-school tutoring and enrichment classes. It is reported that 97 percent of students in elementary and middle school in Singapore today are enrolled in tuition and enrichment centres, double from that of twenty years ago.

Children as young as in first and second grade are having to spend time after school going to these tuition centres, where they spend hours practising math drills.

Children in the Western world don’t even have proper homework until much later; perhaps some light reading exercises in the lower grades, but nothing in the likes of worksheets and homework assignment books.

There were many times in first and second grade where I have been punished (a smack on the palm with a wooden ruler) by the teacher for not having completed my homework.

And not even just homework, students begin taking year-end examinations as early as in first grade.

And so, going to tuition centres in Singapore to just keep up has become endemic, to the point that bringing a child up in such a competitive environment seems almost an affront the kid’s childhood. A Singaporean blogger Ian Tan notes:

For many parents, enrolling their children for tuition is not about the desire for top grades, but because of the fear that their children cannot catch up enough to get a decent passing grade.

Then, any free time the child has is sucked up by travelling to tuition classes or doing tuition homework. Where do they get the time to enjoy outdoor activities, learn new hobbies or other things that make them well-rounded individuals?

This is coupled by increasingly difficult standards of homework (actually only math, really) and exams that students receive, of which the same blogger notes:

…school teachers sometimes do not have the opportunity to reinforce the basics of simple arithmetic, and are forced to make their students do sums that are more useful in weeding out mathematical geniuses than genuinely impart knowledge. Within the cramped periods of each school day, it is simply impossible for teachers to cover all the bases in today’s punishing curriculum.

So if students have to resort to after-school tutoring to even maintain a level playing field, guess who loses out?

That’s right, those who can’t afford to send their kids to these tuition centres.

This situation of constantly having to bolster a child’s “education” with supplementary classes is socio-economically divisive — the rich can afford to keep their children at the top of cohort, who will end up being able to go to elite schools, and appear more attractive to employers when their educational resume boasts of top schools and top grades. Poorer families, where sometimes even the children might have to chip in at their parents’ stalls at the market or hawker centres, are just unable to keep chucking money at external agencies to help with their children’s education, locking them in a cycle that they currently are. Thankfully, given the level of subsidies and assistance available to students in the country, most students are able to go to high school (junior college, Centralised Institutes and polytechnics) and the local public universities (National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, and Singapore Management University), should they work hard enough, but most families will be locked into their socio-economic grouping and upward-mobility, of which education plays an important role, is incredibly hard.

I end by quoting an observation by (yet again) the same blogger I’ve quoted twice before:

If a brilliant student comes from a disadvantaged background and goes to a school where most of the kids have no access to expensive tuition or sometimes even have to help out at their parent’s hawker stalls, what are his chances of reaching his real potential?

I see parents spend thousands of dollars sending their kids to swanky tuition centres (which themselves show off their wealthy clientele by displaying iPads and cute pets at the window dressing area). Yet I am fully aware that these are the top 10-20% of society.

Of course, these kids would have a far better chance of doing well at PSLE compared to equally bright kids who have never stepped into these tuition centres. To make things worse, the primary school exams and assessments of today are ridiculously hard even by adult standards. Without the aid of tutors or full-time mothers, most kids would be quickly “filtered” out by these trick questions.