Controversy fails to take shine off star tutors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 June, 2010, 12:00am

Dressed in a slick suit and sporting well-coiffed hair, English tutor Alan Chan Cheuk-lun reeled off a list of English expressions students could use for writing essays. About 30 students in the Kowloon Bay classroom of King's Glory Education paid rapt attention to what he said.

The fact that it was 9.30pm, after a long day of classes and commuting, did not keep students from hanging on his every word, with nary a suppressed yawn or drooping eyelid among them.

Commanding several thousand students, the 30-year-old is one of a rising number of star tutors in the burgeoning cram-school industry that has been estimated to be worth as much as HK$1 billion a year.

In a highly competitive industry, where tens of millions of dollars are spent on advertising blitzes to promote star tutors, Chan said he had to work extra hard to keep his student base growing.

'I give my mobile number to all my students,' he said. 'My students can SMS me their English queries. The personal touch can make students feel that you care about their learning progress.

'When exam season approaches, I provide extra lessons, which are free of charge, to give them an additional boost in academic help.'

In addition to free extra lessons, a sharp image and lively presentation skills that appeal to young students are the stock-in-trade of tutors.

Chris Chiu Lui, a sociology graduate and liberal studies tutor at Modern Education, said he wanted to project an energetic image to appeal to his students.

Having recently grown a goatee to make himself look more 'laid back' and 'philosophical', the 25-year-old said liberal studies required a solid grasp of sociological concepts and current affairs.

'You have to make the subject down to earth by using real-life examples that have relevance to students,' he said. 'Otherwise they might find issues such as globalisation boring.'

The youthfulness and smart-casual image of tutors are the main attractions for Ng Sin-ting, a Form Four student at King Ling College who has attended the English tutorials of a young female tutor at Modern Education since Form Three.

'The teachers at my school are very serious when they teach. It's much easier to communicate with a young tutor in a relaxing setting. I treat my tutor as my friend and sometimes chat with her via MSN and Xanga,' she said.

The 16-year-old is one of countless students feeding the booming tutorial industry in a city where academic performance is the main, or even only, yardstick against which to measure a student's success.

Blown-up images of smartly attired tutors adorn billboards, double-decker buses and flat-screen televisions on building facades across the city. With their trendy hairdos and sharp suits, they often beat formal schoolteachers hands down in their race to compete for students' ever-shrinking attention span.

Form Six student Yo Fung is attracted by the humorous delivery of Alan Chan.

'He is funny, which boosts my motivation to learn English. I read his notes during English lessons at school,' she said.

Leticia But, 17, also in Form Six, described the endless drills at her school as drudgery. 'We just do exercises at school and can't learn any skills in how to answer exam questions. It's also difficult to use English to learn English. English lessons at school are conducted in English, but here we have English notes accompanied by Chinese translations, and it's much easier to understand the tutor's Cantonese delivery,' she said.

The superstar-like lifestyle of certain top but controversial tutors also makes students swoon.

One of the most controversial celebrity tutors, Karson Oten Fan Karno (also known as K. Oten), who was arrested for suspected infringement of copyright of public exam papers last month, commands a huge fan base.

Since the Modern Education tutorial chain terminated his contract and sued him for more than HK$26 million for breach of contract in January, Oten has struck deals to work with 14 tutorial companies, with his student fans following him en masse to wherever he conducts his lessons.

'The majority of my around 10,000 students left Modern Education with me and enrolled in other tutorial centres.'

He said the 60-odd students affected by the alleged copyright infringement case enrolled in another tutorial centre where he now teaches.

'They just switched to another tutorial centre in Yau Ma Tei immediately after the class suspension. Their lessons were not disrupted at all.'

That many of his lessons are conducted via video with his students not even seeing him in person has not put off those signing up for his lessons.

In addition to copyright and contract disputes, some tutors are embroiled in controversies over the leaking of public exam questions.

One of them is Siu Yuen, better known as Siu Sir, the celebrity Chinese tutor at King's Glory Education. Among his teaching materials for written Chinese were notes spelling out how to write an essay on the scenario of a cinema on fire, which bore an uncanny resemblance to a written question in this year's Form Five Chinese public exam. The public exam question asked students to describe the scene during a school fire drill.

A firestorm broke out on internet forums after the Chinese exam was over, with internet users accusing Siu of 'having contacts inside the exams authority', as he had been embroiled in a similar controversy in 2002.

Despite the scandals, David Leung Tin-ho, president of the Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations of Central and Western District, said attending tutorials did help to boost students' academic performance.

'As parents, we don't expect the tutors to teach them life philosophy or morals. We just want them to prepare our kids for exams. Tutorials and school lessons complement each other. Tutors remind students what to pay special attention to when doing revision. For some kids, if they don't attend tutorials they will just muck around.'

The father of two said his Primary Three daughter's English improved after attending tutorials.

'I send my daughter to tutorials, rather than her asking for it. My elder son, in Form Two, asked me to send him to maths tutorials. He just wants to learn more. He tells me the tutorials are useful.

'The most important thing is to maintain communication with your kids to see whether the tutorials are helping. If the kids just go to tutorials to follow what their peers do, it will only backfire.'

Following the launch of the new senior secondary curriculum last September, the two crucial public exams that are the lifeline of tutorial schools will be scrapped and replaced by a single exam, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education, in 2012. With past education reforms having failed to dampen the city's thriving tutorial culture, Ho Hon-kuen, vice-chairman of the teachers' group Education Convergence, said the new reform would only further boost growth of the sector. 'Parents still believe what matters most is university admission,' he said.

'Publicly funded university places are capped at 18 per cent of the school-age population. The education system is still elitist and exam-oriented, even after the launch of the new education reform.

'As two exams will be replaced by one exam, the performance in this single exam will be of utmost importance.

'Under the old system, a batch of students were winnowed out of the pool by the Form Five public exam. Now, a much bigger number of students will fight for the limited university places after Form Six. The need for exam boosters will only be greater, further worsening the tutorial and cram culture.'

Janet Chan is marketing manager at King's Glory Education, where tutorials span 20 subjects and are priced from HK$360 to HK$560 for four lessons a month. The chain was set up in 1986 and has grown to 16 centres.

Chan said the company expected more people to sign up for lessons as parents and students were at a loss over the requirements of the new senior secondary system.

'The demand has been growing over the past years. We opened four to five centres last year,' she said.

With the sector blossoming and new star tutors cropping up every year, Ho reminded parents and students to exercise caution when choosing a centre.

'Parents should make sure their kids have good time-management. Otherwise the tutorial sessions, coupled with a long day at school, will only tire the students, and the money and time spent attending tutorials might turn out to be futile.

'They should compare the prices and syllabuses of different centres before making a decision. Checking the reputation of the centre and seeking word of mouth are also necessary.

'As the new exam puts more emphasis on critical learning and its scope is much wider than before, students should spend more time reading other books and not just see tutorials as a panacea.'