According to General Tips On ASLUE Speaking, written by my new English tutor Sze Wai-chun, time management is extremely important in the AS Level Use of English oral examination. 'You will lose a chance to express your ability of oral if the presentation is too short,' it advises. Had I been reading his notes at home or on the MTR, I would have laughed out loud. But since I am sitting in a class with 20 eager 19-year-old students, I bite my lip and keep my head down. Then comes the next bombshell. Sze - better known as Sze Sir or the 'tutor emperor' because of his popularity among students - begins to read out the same tips that made my jaw drop with disbelief. 'On your note card, you should jog [sic] down you [sic] notes in point form, not a complete set of script,' he says. Realising the misspelling, Sze Sir quickly corrects himself: 'This should read 'jog down your notes'. OK?' It is almost 10 pm and my first tutorial class on Form 7 Use of English at the A1 Institute of Education has been anything but fine. The only item I jot down on my note pad for this exercise is the word 'pathetic'. Since the class started 90 minutes ago, Sze Sir has been making all kinds of mistakes - most notably in his mispronunciation of English. It is ironic that he should be taking the language at all. For instance, 'a boom' becomes 'a bone' and 'fateful threshold' turns into 'fateful free shower', and more alarmingly, 'the shift in diet' became 'the s**t in diet'. His mistakes have not gone unnoticed. Several students at the back of the room start to snigger halfway through the comprehension exercise. But Sze Sir continues with his teaching, oblivious to the laughter and criticism. Why? Because the 34-year-old is not in the same classroom. He is in a smaller room equipped with closed-circuit cameras. Sze Sir is being 'broadcast' on to a big screen placed at the front of the classroom via real-time video relay. (It is not until later in the lesson that I notice he is actually teaching two classes simultaneously.) Perhaps this unconventional school setting is one of the many novel features that have continued to attract hundreds of secondary school students to these tutorial colleges - even though some are said to have operated illegally recently. In fact, the high-flying and popular Sze Sir was arrested in front of 300 students last month after police raided the A1 Institute of Education's Wan Chai branch. The premises had not been licensed as a school. Sze Sir later admitted operating a private college illegally for two months. But its Wan Chai branch has since obtained the relevant licence from the Education Department. My bizarre experience as an A1 Institute of Education student begins from the day I register. My assignment is to enrol in several Form 7 English courses run by different tutorial colleges to observe their teaching methods. However, many of these institutions - including the A1 Institute of Education's rival Intell Education - are careful when screening applicants and I am rejected by some on the grounds that I am too old or they do not admit mature students. All checked my identity card, except the A1 Institute of Education. Its admission policy is less strict. Having filled in a couple of application forms, I am told I have to take at least eight lessons in two months. The fee for a two-month F7 English course is $780. I enrol in two English courses (run by different tutors) and pay a total of $1,580 (including a $20 'annual fee') into the college's bank account. I also walk away with 'students must know' notes (if I fail to produce my student card before the lesson, I have to pay a $5 penalty which will go to 'a good cause') and a CD-ROM about the college and its teaching staff. Real confusion, however, begins on the night I turn up for my first lesson in Wan Chai at 7.45 pm. The office is shut. I call up the college's hotline and am told: 'What are you doing in Wan Chai? Your lesson is in Causeway Bay.' Yet, no one has informed me (or my classmates) of a change in the teaching venue, or the new timetable. My class now begins at 8.30 pm instead of 7.55 pm as previously scheduled. Having eventually sorted out our new timetable, we are then given three sets of lecture notes before taking our seats in the classroom, which is bright, air-conditioned and modern. This is no formal place with a stuffy atmosphere. But this is no ordinary classroom either. I am fascinated by the two big screens at the front of the room, one of which shows Sze Sir preparing for his lesson in a separate room. Another young tutor, Miss Fan (who we are told is a Hong Kong University graduate with a certificate in education) is inside the packed classroom to help students with their enquiries. Our lesson begins promptly and Sze Sir, sporting a blue T-shirt and a headset, starts talking to his students via the closed-circuit camera. The first exercise is comprehension. We are asked to read five paragraphs from an old examination paper and then answer eight multiple-choice questions in a given time. When the exercise is over, Sze Sir explains that there are ways to tackle comprehension efficiently. For instance, instead of reading the entire article, we are advised to seek out the 'clues' in the first and last sentences of each paragraph, which will help us answer the questions. This skimming technique is called 'Flying Over Grass' - a reference to a Chinese martial art skill - and has proved to work for Form 5 students, Sze Sir says. 'However, as you are Form 7 students, you also need to read what is in between to get the logic of the article.' Thanks for the tip, but I knew that already. However, Sze Sir's next instructions leave me completely baffled. By labelling adjectives as 'positive' and adverbs 'negative', I am supposed to see the logic behind the article. And I am not the only confused student. Three others, having laughed at Sze Sir's pronunciation (or rather mispronunciation), get up and leave the class 45 minutes after it starts. Then in a bizarre twist of events (towards the end of our comprehension exercise), Sze Sir launches a sudden attack on the Hong Kong Government. The SAR is a free market, he says. Tutorial colleges should be allowed to operate without official interference. 'By attending my classes, you get a chance to promote in school. This is market incentive and should not be tempered [by the Government],' he tells us. Here is where this story stops being funny. The issue is not whether these colleges should be allowed to operate. Rather, as I look around me, I see students who have paid thousands of dollars not to learn English but to find out how to pass exams. This highlights a flaw in our local education system, which its critics believe is examination-driven. And an increasing number of tutorial colleges have been set up to meet this exact need. Whether students learn to speak better English in Sze Sir's classes is questionable. The standard of teaching among local tutors is also open to question. One former employee of a big tutorial college says she was hired as an editor to edit study aids published by a tutor. She ended up writing the books herself. 'I was employed for the job as an editor, that is, to edit someone else's writings. But eventually [the tutor] had me doing all the writing . . . he does not have a lot to do with the writing but just writing the introductions,' she says. 'But all the books are published under his name. There are mistakes in these books, but he does not know because he did not even look at what I had written.' As for his ability to speak English: 'He cannot string together a sentence correctly,' she says. 'These tutorial classes have nothing to do with teaching English, but the means to pass exams.' So, what have I learned at the end of my first English class apart from 'Flying Over Grass'? According to Sze Sir: 1. 'Don't just copy down what I am teaching you now, OK? At the end of the day it is you who sit these examinations, not me. You should be able to apply what you learn in the future.' 2. 'Do not learn your answers [for the oral examination] by heart. Your answer will not sound natural. Learn to improvise and show the examiner you are not just memorising your answer.' I also learned that Sze Sir may not speak very good English, but the number of students lining up outside his classroom shows that his exam tips must be worth the money. Before we leave, Sze Sir reminds us: 'Tell your friends there are still vacancies in my classes. We are here to help you all.'