HKDSE - Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education

Beware of celebrity tutors, the masters of marketing

Amy Lai says whatever their area and level of expertise, star tutors are, above all, salespeople

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 9:08am

The strange phenomenon of celebrity tutors in Hong Kong, developed over the past decade or two, has not declined with the recent adoption of the 3-3-4 system of six years in secondary school and four years in university.

In the past, whether students could enter university hinged on their performances in two public exams; now, one diploma exam seals their fate.

Yet, as "tutor kings and queens" continue to dominate billboards, one suspects that this is more than a result of a flawed educational system and that the tutoring centres are not simply responding to market demand but also creating it.

While some tutors are well qualified, knowledgeable and honest, a sizeable number exaggerate their achievements as they guarantee top grades for their clients.

In glamorous ads, female tutors commonly play up their looks by dressing up, with some carefully revealing a bit of their calves in full-body shots, to draw the drooling eyes of coming-of-age students. A male tutor openly belittled school teachers. Many flaunt their new wealth in the media.

Anxious students flock after them for exam tips and predicted questions. Happy students come back crying, "I owe my 5*/5** to the King/Queen!"

Revering and deifying these tutors, they are dying to follow their quick path to wealth, glamour and almightiness.

Recently, I stumbled upon a new book by one such "Queen of English" as part of the "Great Tutor Series" by a well-known educational publisher. I was shocked by the grammar and vocabulary mistakes just in the short biography on the back cover, not to mention the awkward sentence structures. It certainly didn't inspire confidence in the actual content.

To be fair, one need not be a native speaker of English to become an excellent English teacher. Even well-educated native English speakers sometimes make grammatical slips and minor flaws in sentence structure. Language is an art and, in many instances, there are no hard-and-fast rules on what is correct and what is not.

I was lucky. I graduated from high school at a time when such tutoring centres did not exist, which spared me the trouble of deciding whether to sign up for those classes.

No less exam-oriented than today's youngsters, I struggled my way towards my goals. In the end, I learned much more than if I had relied on private tuition and felt proud to have accomplished what I wanted on my own.

I personally would never send my children to any of these tutoring centres; I'd rather encourage them to read English newspapers and, occasionally, an English story book or two.

Amy Lai, a lawyer who was educated in Cambridge and Boston, has written extensively on literature, culture and law