Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 26, 2013

A case for school teachers to teach tuition as a means to promote public good

A decades-old policy that allows school teachers to teach tuition for no more than six hours a week has recently come under scrutiny, and become a hot topic for debate even in the parliament. As in most debates, there are often two sides of arguments: for and against the policy. I shall examine the reasons put forth on both sides and recommend an alternative solution: to tweak the policy to allow school teachers to teach tuition as a means to promote public good.

One position that has emerged strongly from the debate is that such a policy ought to be totally scrapped. Critics say this is an obsolete policy that is clearly at odds with MOE’s recent assertion that the education system in Singapore is not dependent on tuition. Rather than having teachers give tuition to students after school-hours, it is argued that MOE should invest even more in teachers to teach students better during school-hours. Simply said, if students need tuition after school to cope with their studies, shouldn’t school teachers take the extra time and effort to provide the tuition to students in school instead of leaving them to seek help from private tutors? Such a view suggests that the policy may actually help to breed demand for private tuition and even corrode the professional integrity of teachers. Therefore, allowing public school teachers to give private tuition is tantamount to a slap on MOE’s own face with regard to their stand that the educational success of students must not be dependent on tuition. Adding to this criticism, others have also raised practical concerns about teachers giving private tuition such as a potential conflict of interest, possible leakage of school teaching resources and distraction to teachers’ professional responsibility in school. Taking also into account that school teachers in Singapore are presumably overly-burdened with work in a demanding education system, and do not need supplemental income to make a decent living, it seems that doing away with the policy will have little ramifications to teachers but could send a strong signal that the Ministry only wants “committed teachers.”

But not everyone agrees with scrapping the policy totally. One objection is that stopping teachers from giving tuition completely may lead to an exodus of competent teachers to the private sector if teachers are forced to choose between teaching in public or private schools. Not only will the public and private sectors be affected, even the non-profit organizations such as community self-help groups like Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), Mendaki and Sinda that are providing tuition schemes for students will not be spared if the policy is removed. The reason is these organizations rely on many existing school teachers who are well-versed in the school curriculum to help students in need. Even within the schools, the views towards the issue are mixed. Principals and HODs are likely to explain the impossibility of policing teachers’ activities in their private time even if the policy is changed to disallow teachers to teach private tuition. They may also tell you that there are already existing MOE guidelines in place to guide teachers and address the concerns such as conflict of interest that was raised earlier. These guidelines stipulate that teachers are not allowed to: (1) give paid tuition to students from their schools or (2) work for tuition centres; (3) let any work affect or conflict with their responsibilities in school; (4) use resources and materials obtained in the course of their duties; but they are allowed (5) to volunteer for part-time teaching in community self-help groups. Teachers, who are giving tuition part-time, agree that the supplemental income may be attractive, but disagree that that they are solely driven by the monetary incentive. Many new teachers are part-time tutors before becoming teachers, and therefore they feel morally responsible to continue giving tuition to their students even after they have become school teachers. While there may be teachers who are attracted by the additional income from tuition, there are those who are giving tuition part-time out of a genuine wish to help students. Therefore, some have cautioned MOE not to take a drastic step to disallow teachers to give private tuition, but rather the recommendation is to allow teachers to exercise their professional judgment within the present guidelines, or come out with more effective measures to monitor and keep the situation in check.

Drawing from the above arguments on both sides, there are three options to consider:

(1) Disallow teachers to give private tuition completely.
(2) Allow teachers to make their own professional judgment within present guidelines.
(3) Limit teachers to give private tuition to non-profit organizations.

Underlying the three options are competing values that each option seeks to promote or protect: “equity,” “autonomy” and “social justice.” Equity refers to the societal value of ensuring equal educational opportunities for students. Concerned with the widening income gap that affords children from better-off families with an unfair head start in schools through tuition, prohibiting school teachers to give private tuition is deemed as the right thing to do. Autonomy, which means empowerment of teachers to make and take responsibility for their decisions, is a cornerstone of teachers’ professionalism. For example, doctors in public hospitals have the autonomy to work part-time as stand-in for doctors in private clinics. Also, accolades are given to doctors who do pro brono work in welfare organizations or take time from work to contribute their expertise in medical expeditions. The question is whether the same autonomy could be given to teachers without adding to the concerns over widening the disparity of learning opportunities. Promoting social justice through education is another important societal value that we seek. Education is an important avenue for social mobility of children in poor families, which is why community self-help groups have invested a lot of their resources in tuition schemes and school teachers are engaged to support as tutors for the children from needy families. Each of the option focuses on promoting or protecting one particular value, which is of consequence and no less important than the other. This presents difficulty in choosing one option over another.

Fortunately, these values namely equity of learning opportunity, teachers’ autonomy and social justice are not incompatible. That is to say, it may be possible to coordinate these competing values. Rather than choosing anyone of these three options over the other, I propose an alternative solution: tweak the policy to encourage teachers to teach tuition as a means to promote societal good.

To explain my proposed change to the policy, there is first a need to clarify what is “tuition,” a central concept in this policy which is surprisingly not discussed in the debate. Generally speaking, “tuition” refers to “instruction provided to an individual or a small group of individuals”, and it also refers to the “payment for instruction.” When the two meanings are taken together, tuition may be simply casted as education provided for a fee. But the word “tuition” originates from an old French word “tuicion,” which simply means “looking over.” This is the meaning of tuition that I seek to adopt. The usage of the word “tuition” should not be exclusive to only private tutors or private tuition centers. In schools, the learning support programs and remedial lessons that teachers provide for weaker students are in essence tuition given by schools to take care of weaker students who do not cope well in regular classes. In community self-help groups, trained teachers and experienced tutors are employed part-time to provide tuition to children from needy families who may otherwise not able to afford quality private tuition. Even for private tuition centers and tutors, the successful ones are not those who are solely driven by profits but those who can generate positive words-of- mouth among parents for the quality of their tuition. My point is tuition should be taken as a means to provide educational support to individuals or small groups of students.
Indeed, children from low-income families are not the only ones that need educational support in the form of tuition. Children with special needs who need individualized support for studies may also benefit from one-to-one tuition afforded by a school teacher who provides part-time tuition at home. This will help to ease the anxiety of parents of children with special needs who often have to make the difficult choice between enrolling their children in a special needs school or in a mainstream school. Tuition can also be a form of help to children from single-parent families or dysfunctional families where parents struggle to provide adequate family support at home. That is to say, tuition can be provided by school teachers as a means to promote public good in their private time by giving educational support to the disadvantaged ones in the society.

Therefore, I propose the current MOE guidelines can be revised into the following rules to promote teachers giving tuition as a means to promote public good:

(1) School teachers may provide tuition to children from needy families, disadvantaged families and those with special needs, including those from the same school strictly on pro bono basis.
(2) School teachers may volunteer for part-time teaching in community self-help groups and other non-profit organizations
(3) School teachers may use resources and materials obtained in the course of their duties solely for pro bono work.
(4) School teachers are allowed to do pro bono work in their private time outside school hours within the current six hours per week rule.
(5) School teachers may receive compensation for their service at stipulated rates determined by community self-help groups and non-profit associations.
(6) School teachers are not allowed to charge tuition fees to parents or be employed by another tuition center.
(7) School teachers must not let any work affect or conflict with their responsibilities in school.

For teachers who are currently giving paid tuition, they should be given ample time to make a decision to go full-time private tutor or stay as a full-time school teacher to avoid any conflict of interest and minimize disruption to the students they are helping. School teachers who are willing to do pro bono work should provide information to the Admin Office in schools. MOE may consider encouraging teachers to provide such service by providing a monthly gratuity allowance to cover their extra expenses. School leaders may also be supportive by commending teachers who identify students in need and go the extra mile for children. Parents who need such tuition support from school teachers may contact schools, MOE or non-profit associations for referrals, or engage a private tutor at their own expense from tuition centers. I believe this amendment to the current policy will also help to elevate the social standing of teachers even further, and help brandish the professional image of good teachers doing good for the public.

Posted by William W.K. Tan


  1. I agree that for teachers in public schools, tuition should be given for free to help the students from disadvantaged backgrounds or students who are especially weak in their subjects and that teachers should make a choice, whether to work in the public or the private sector. I have personally heard of instances where teachers were not doing their part to help the weaker students in their schools as they had “private” commitments. The only reason why these teachers are still staying in the public sector is because they want to have a higher market value and to keep in touch with the latest trends in education through the public training given since private training courses are very expensive.

    There are several advantages to the author’s proposal on tuition. As mentioned, the income gap and inequality issues can be better addressed. Secondly, teachers’ workload can be seen more objectively as it is baffling to note how these teachers can afford to give tuition when they may also be the ones raising their concerns about the workload. If the teaching workload in the public sector, in their view, is so heavy, and yet they can still squeeze out the extra time to give tuition in return for a fee on top of the competitive public sector salary, they should really make a stand and move to the private sector totally. Thirdly, tuition will be seen in a different light by the society and the real test of our school system will come. However, with our nation already becoming a “tuition” nation where many parents, even educators themselves, view tuition as a necessity, the proposal will meet with great odds, unless there is really concrete data to indicate the impact of tuition on students’ learning, which is what NIE is researching on now.

  2. After I have written this article, I have been thinking how to strengthen the case for teachers to teach tuition for public good. After all, the policy is now under going review in MOE, it would be a waste if the proposal is treated merely as an academic exercise to be discussed and then be discarded. I think something good can come out from more rigorous discussion and debate on this issue.

    I think Serene is spot on to say that the proposal is likely to face many odds despite its obvious advantages. One objection is against the idea of “tuition” itself. This objection, as I have pointed out in my article, arises from a mistaken perception about tuition, which in turn leads to a flawed definition of tuition. I am reluctant to speculate the reasons why some people continue to hold a mistaken view about tuition and are adamant that tuition is the problem. The way I see it, the problem is not in the nature of tuition itself, rather the real problem is who is getting the additional educational support, who can afford and who should be giving such support.

    I can understand why Serene ask for more research done to see if tuition is effective for students. But looking at the many researches done on the effect of teaching to students’ learning, the findings are likely to be inconclusive, if not totally contradictory.

    From listening to people who have rationally accepted my arguments and yet do not support my proposed policy change, I suspect that the greatest two obstacles to counter against are arrogance and interest-conflict. Arrogance in the sense that there is a prevailing view that tuition is less “honourable”and possibly “less effective” than school teaching. Interest conflict because the proposed change are likely to adversely affect those who are economically benefiting from putting their feet on two boats.

    I am not advocating to coerce teachers to do pro bono work through policy. Pro bono work must come from personal values. It is ironic to make volunteerism mandatory. What I am proposing is to change the way people frame the problem about teachers giving tuition and focus on what is good for students. If policy makers and school leaders take a different view at the problem, I am sure they can come out with even better suggestions to support teachers in helping the weaker students, the students with special needs and those from disadvantaged families in their own schools.

    Thank you, Serene, your support for the proposal is most encouraging. I hope to strengthen the argument for the case further, and see if we can garner more support from fellow colleages and friends and even critics to make a stronger case to MOE. Hope to hear from more people, including or I should say especially from those who object strongly to this proposal.

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