Cram schools capitalise on flaws in system

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 1997, 12:00am

The success of private tuition schools have made a mockery of Hong Kong's traditional education system. Tutors who have excelled in the trade appear to personify the antithesis of values that school teachers have been trying to instil in students.

They are glamorous and hedonistic. They look for shortcuts and treasure monetary returns. They do not mind trashing their counterparts in the conventional schools to promote businesses. And they are shrewd in exploiting the mass media to publicise themselves.

The two free-to-air stations' so-called info-tainment programmes have recently aired several features on these tutors. The stories have focused on the way they dress, the cars they drive and how much money they make. The popular press has also carried headlines about the millionaire tutors.

Some of these star tutors are proud that they offer cash to students who give the right answers, and that they compete among themselves for accuracy in predicting questions for public examinations.

Students may have been told in school to be modest, diligent and persistent, and not to attach too much emphasis on money. However, students seem to have cast a vote of confidence in private tutors who can hardly be associated with such virtues. Such operations, boasting quick-fix solutions to youngsters eager to snatch at any straw to get better marks, are becoming increasingly popular.

Last Tuesday, two days before this year's school certificate examination results were released, a young tutor - making more than $100,000 a month and owning an expensive house and a deluxe race car - was portrayed as a role model in TVB Jade's Focus on Focus.

The ultimate insult to our education system came, when the English-language tutor denounced teachers in grammar schools as 'incompetent'. In a subsequent press interview, one of his colleagues asserted that: 'They are merely making use of the flaws in the education system to make money.' Many in the education field apparently felt offended by such contemptuous remarks. A columnist from the profession protested in the Chinese-language press yesterday, challenging the station on why it had chosen to advertise these instructors at the expense of the schoolteachers.

'Real learning cannot be achieved through dozens of concert-style lectures,' he said. 'Most of the students who have paid substantial fees to these tuition schools did not get better scores in return.' The controversy has also prompted several concerned callers to admonish the media's role in condoning these tuition schools. Two complaints were lodged with the Broadcasting Authority the day after the television feature was aired. The Education Department and the Examination Authority, on the other hand, have kept a relatively low profile in the controversy.

Officials have made it clear the tuition schools are legitimate, though they do not encourage students making frantic last-ditch efforts to prepare for examinations. As consumers, they added, students should be cautious in picking private tuition classes.

In March, the Education Department issued a memorandum asking schools to urge their students not to waste their time on tuition classes, especially those emphasising examination skills.

Irrespective of teachers and officials' reservations, the tuition business has continued to thrive.

Like it or not, many parents are keen to pay a few thousand dollars extra, just to set their hearts at ease that they have done their best to prepare their children for examinations. Peer pressure among students also contributes to the boom in tuition schools.

While educators may have valid reasons to scowl at these tutors, they should also listen carefully to students attracted to this alternative schooling service.

It might be hard to gauge whether those enrolled in tuition classes have improved in their academic performance. Yet, those interviewed invariably note that their private tutors are more accessible and friendly than their teachers in school.

The tuition schools are much better equipped in terms of multimedia and other teaching aids. According to the student consumers, their tutors also have better presentation skills and are good at clarifying what students are expected to know from the syllabus.

Perhaps, more significantly, the tuition schools have adopted what has been tagged as a 'night club' management system.

The customers are allowed to try out which tutor they prefer, before committing themselves to a certain class. Only those perceived by the clients as the best can survive in the business. Students at school, of course, do not have the luxury of choice of teachers.

In the last financial year, the Government committed almost $40 billion to education, which amounted to 21 per cent of the total public recurrent expenditure. Nevertheless, a sizeable portion of those admitted to the 400-odd secondary grammar schools still find it necessary to seek supplementary instruction from outsiders.

Much has been said about the decline in the academic performance of students. Little, however, has been discussed about their dissatisfaction with what they have been offered in school.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has singled out improvement in the school system as a 'very important' item on his agenda. He also appointed Executive Councillor Antony Leung Kam-chung to take charge of a comprehensive review of the state of affairs in the arena.

Mr Leung has so far suggested more resources would be allocated for, among other things, teacher training, education in information technology, as well as upgrading all primary schools into full-day operations. A fund would also be made available to finance projects that teachers are eager to try out in their schools.

These are all positive steps towards rejuvenating Hong Kong's somewhat stagnant education sector. If educators could keep an open mind, they might even learn a lesson from the private tutors.