Ken Ng Is the King of Cram Schools and Celebrity Tutors
Known as “Ken Sir,” he founded lucrative franchise Modern Education—but he stepped down as chairman three years ago.
I went to Canada for university. I studied at the University of Alberta, majoring in fine arts. When I got back to Hong Kong, I started teaching English in a school. I also tutored on the side, and it made me a lot more money than my day job. But it wasn’t just about the money— I wanted to help the students. There was a great demand for tutors, as at that time many school teachers weren’t good at teaching English.
Hong Kong’s education system is still exam-oriented. If people say that’s not true, they are lying. If you’re one point below the threshold, you won’t be able to get into university. Of course, I do appreciate and respect teachers in schools, as they need to handle many more duties, including moral education and other all-round development of students. But the most important thing for a student under this system is still getting good grades.
I really appreciate how they teach in international schools. They have a more holistic approach. Grades are important, but they’re not everything. Being a surgeon or being a postman: Both are still respected occupations in society.
Teaching English exam skills is different from teaching English, and I think it’s easier to teach exam skills. You can’t really learn to speak good English at a cram school. We can teach you the skills for exams, but for good English you need interactions with native speakers.
I wanted to be innovative, to be the forerunner. That’s always been what drives me. I wasn’t trying to be the “King of Cram Schools.” I think I could succeed even if I were selling wonton noodles. The most important thing is to be creative in solving big problems. Being hard-working is not enough.
I think my biggest breakthrough is that I broke the segregation between good schools and bad schools. For students who got sorted into not-so-good schools, there wouldn’t be any great teachers to train them to take exams. And the student’s fate, of whether they could get into university, relied on that. So I hired the best teachers from the best schools like Queen’s College and La Salle College, and now you could be taught by them, no matter what school you went to.
“As long as the system remains unchanged with grades determining so much of a student’s future, there will still be a need for cram schools.”
The whole trend of packaging tutors into “stars” or “kings” was actually started by me. I was the first to come up with this idea, and of course it made a lot of money. I liberated the very feudal education system. You might not be able to learn the great culture of those elite schools, but you can learn their exam skills.
I helped many of those from the grassroots who originally couldn’t get into universities. In this industry, it’s very easy to quantify your success—it’s how many As you can help your students get. And the school I established had the most students with 10 As [in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination]. You could say I’m showing off, but it’s really not that easy to achieve and I am quite proud of it. Of course they needed good teachers at school, but we were able to help with the subjects that their school couldn’t.
I think my proudest moment was when my niece got accepted into Harvard Business School. I think nothing’s better than the people closest to you getting good grades.
I think another success in my life was when Modern Education had its IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. It was all about good timing and capturing the right business opportunities. There was a chance to grab it and so I did. It would be a lot more difficult now, with the new Diploma of Secondary Education system and skyrocketing rent.
I stepped down at the height of my career. I think it was a very wise decision. I have been in this industry for more than 20 years, and I really wanted to do something else and see more of the world. I studied fine arts but I’d never been to an art auction before. So these few years I’ve been very active in art auctions and collecting—devoting more time to myself.
I think the Hong Kong market is quite stable already, so I want to explore the mainland market. I can’t reveal too much but in half a year’s time, this project in China will be a major breakthrough. I saw that the potential for the tutorial business had capped, so I moved on.
But my passion is still there and I think I can still pursue a few more goals. As long as the system remains unchanged with grades determining so much of a student’s future, there will still be a need for cram schools.