Their faces gaze from billboards and the backs of buses everywhere: well-groomed, serious-looking professionals, often with catchy nicknames. The accompanying text spells out their expertise in various school subjects, such as maths and English. They may be sitting serenely in their office suites or surrounded by beaming youngsters holding up handfuls of 'A' result slips. But this highly public face of the celebrity tutors - who make as much as HK$1 million a month from the desperate desire of parents to ensure their children get good grades at all cost - is only part of the publicity machine Hong Kong's frenzied cram-school industry has built up to lure pupils. Schools use a web of incentives including star performances, free gifts and gift-redemption points that have children pressing their parents to send them to tutors who have become as much of a status symbol as a designer handbag, and just as expensive. The stakes will get higher still as uncertainties over the new secondary school curriculum - which Form One pupils will follow for the first time when classes resume this week - and, in due course, the increase in senior secondary pupils it will produce stokes demand for tuition. Fuelled as much by hype as by results, some estimates say it could become a HK$1 billion-a-year industry. Tutors say the promotional frenzy, which has developed in recent years, is unique to the Hong Kong cram school market. 'Tutors found that image-selling worked,' Thomas Yan King-tong, in his early 40s and a tutor since 1995, said. 'Students bought the images tutors sold and went to their classes. I cannot tell whether it was tutors or students who triggered this phenomenon but it has become a psychological game now.' Mr Yan said tutors made money from their clients' assumption that their lessons would improve their academic performance. He admits it is an assumption that is impossible either to prove or to refute. Parents were to blame for handing money to their children to spend on cram schools without asking enough questions, another veteran tutor said. 'It is the students, but not the parents, who decide which tutor [to go to],' said Kevin Ko Sik-ka, 39, who has been a tutor for nearly 20 years. 'These young and immature 'decision makers' focus on tutors' looks rather than teaching. Some tutors in their twenties claim they have been executives of multinational companies ... only kids would have trusted them.' Mr Ko, who owns his own studio and conducts his lessons entirely by DVD, said many tutors were narcissistic. 'They post huge personal photos on advertisements and think students come to lessons because they are handsome or pretty. Some tutors refuse to say if they are married because they are afraid of losing 'fans' in class,' he said. Mr Ko has spent HK$1.2 million this year on advertising, including front-page newspaper advertisements. He said competition was so intense that tutors were stealing each others' ideas. A few years ago he spotted an 'undercover agent' at his school who had been recording his methods. They were then published as 'secret skills' in the pamphlets of other tutors. Cram schools worried that a falling birth rate would ultimately cost them pupils were doing all they could to keep up their numbers, he said. 'They rely on quantity of students, putting quality aside, to ensure the income and support the business.' Some schools run free seminars and workshops to promote their services, with some inviting well-known artists to entertain those attending and others handing out free gifts. King's Glory Education converts students' spending into points for gift redemption. Every HK$1 paid in fees earns a bonus point that can be used in online auctions for trendy items. The more points a pupil gets, the better chance he or she has of placing the winning bid for an Agnes b coin bag or a Bathing Ape key holder. Some tutorial schools put a cash value on an A grade, awarding HK$2,000 even if the student took only one lesson at the school. Herman Yeung, a tutor at Modern Education, offers potential pupils a mobile-phone screen-cleaner bearing his name. Another tutor, Alex Lam, has become an actor in a Web-based soap opera, burnishing his celebrity status. The money that can be earned by a star tutor was illustrated by a recent court case involving Karson Oten Fan Karno, popularly known as K Oten, who was ordered to pay HK$8.8 million in damages for breaching his contract with King's Glory Education. The court heard he had earned an entitlement to a HK$2.65 million share of its profits in just six and a half weeks in the spring of 2006. In contrast, a senior secondary schoolteacher can earn a maximum of HK$68,915 a month, and a primary schoolteacher HK$52,815 a month. Census and Statistics Department figures from 2005 show four in 10 senior secondary pupils used tutorial services. Modern Education, King's Glory Education and Beacon College, three of the biggest tutorial centres, say their pupils spend between HK$450 and HK$2,000 a month on tutorials. The Education Bureau expects the number of senior secondary pupils - those in Form Four and above - to rise from 152,200 in this academic year to 241,800 in 2011-12. Leo Lee Keng-ho, a new entrant to the industry, said going to a tutor had become as trendy as buying a designer bag or a Starbucks coffee. The 25-year-old, who started with Modern Education in July, spent HK$30,000 of his own money on advertising, producing notes and hiring an assistant. He is confident he will quickly earn the money back, and more. 'I want to try to seize the new market under the new senior secondary curriculum,' said Mr Lee, who graduated from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology with a first-class honours degree in economics and finance. He does not mind the advertising hype. 'You need reputation and recognition to be a successful tutor. We are like celebrities. We need the publicity,' he said. Mr Lee considered hiring a pseudo-model for his class videos, but thought better of it after the row over the scantily clad teenagers' appearances at the recent annual book fair to promote sales of their picture books. Meanwhile, parents keep paying out - some spending thousands of dollars a month - for fear that their children will fall behind in their studies if they don't. One mother said she was spending HK$5,000 a month to put her daughter, who starts Primary Six this week, through an English 'Exam Conqueror' course at King's Glory Education and an examination training course at another cram school. 'Most of the pupils in my daughter's class go to tutorial schools, so I feel I also need to send her there to ensure she is competitive,' she said. If it works, she will send her seven-year-old son on a similar course.