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A Tuition-Free Childhood is Possible

Back in the 70s when I was born, my parents were already acquainted with the idea of early childhood education. They had read Glenn Doman's 1964 publication entitled "How to Teach your Baby to Read", and eagerly made their own flash cards to experiment on me.

Decades later, when I learnt of my pregnancies, early childhood education had advanced to a prenatal form. I bought a set of BabyPlus and dutifully strapped it around my burgeoning belly several times a day.

My dad had retired by the time the girls came along, and he enthusiastically made them his early childhood education projects. When the girls were barely a few days old, he started flashing his self-made dot cards at them, and as they got a little older, picture and word cards too. I custom-made a padded crawling track, as my dad was convinced that encouraging an infant to crawl ahead of time would have positive impact on the child physically and mentally. He bravely immersed the babies when they were 3 months old into the pool, letting them "swim" underwater. He brought them to the nearby playground so they could brachiate across the monkey bars, stimulating their brains further.

At my dad's behest, when the girls reached the minimum age required for external educators to accept them into their programmes, I signed them up for courses one by one, starting from as early as 6 months old. There was Shichida Method, lessons on English phonics, Chinese language, swimming, ballet, piano, violin, art, ski camps etc.

The classes cost a fortune, but I told myself that, if there was anything I could afford to do to open their eyes to the world and help them get ahead in life, I should not deprive them of it. Such desire of parents for their children to succeed has propelled the tuition and enrichment class industry to a S$1.5 billion industry in Singapore.

We witnessed the positive effects of early childhood education on the girls early on. When they were a few months old and unable to utter words yet, they were able to identify printed words and objects, using their eyes and hands to signal the correct answers to us. On my older girl's first birthday, she read aloud sentences from a book. My younger daughter was able to recite by heart all 7 chapters of Di Zi Gui at age 5, and her then photographic memory enabled her to write an entire year's Chinese spelling on the whiteboard in her kindergarten class without error.

Early childhood was a happy one for the girls, as they were free to explore their interests without inhibitions, and we frequently made overseas trips filled with fun adventures with them.

When primary one started, things made a sudden about-turn. Although parents are not mandated by law to send their young to kindergarten and compulsory education only starts from primary one in Singapore, the enrollment form for the girls' primary school required us to fill up the name of their kindergarten as well as whether they knew hanyu pinyin.

Shortly after the primary one orientation programme ended, the following week's English and Chinese spelling lists were handed out. The girls would be tested on words as well as hanyu pinyin. It was clear that students were expected to know all that well before compulsory education even started. The early childhood education the girls received was not a boost but a mere necessity.

As the girls navigated the rigours of the Singapore education system, after-school hours were no longer fun-filled ones like in kindergarten but stress-filled ones with piles of homework and assessments to complete. Performance markers like tests and exams were always looming in the horizon, and even school vacations were eaten away by compulsory CCA practices or camps, projects, holiday homework and book reviews. We prioritised and gradually dropped their enrichment classes like art and music one by one.

Whilst most parents turned to tutors for help with their children's school work, I strongly resisted. I watched as other kids piled into their parents' car after school, wolfed down their lunch in the car as they made their way to tuition class, and stayed up late to complete their school homework as well as tutors' homework. It was a life I wanted to avoid, as far as possible, for my kids.

I reminded the girls to pay closer attention to their teachers in school because they were unlike their classmates who had tutors to turn to. I made it a point to help the girls with their school work, by going through the syllabus, making notes and doing assessment papers together with them. I discovered from the process that, whilst the method of teaching math had changed from my time, the syllabus had not shifted vastly for the rest of the subjects. The model method of teaching math wasn't as difficult to grasp as some parents had made it out to be.

By learning along with the girls, I understood what they were going through and could empathise with them. I also saw how certain exam questions were simply tricky and designed to trip students up instead of testing their grasp of concepts, and how certain questions were downright cruel as they served no purpose other than to crush a student's morale. I was thus able to regulate my expectations of the girls accordingly.

I came to realise that it was pointless to sacrifice one's childhood in the pursuit of perfection in exam results, when the system was designed for perfection to be unattainable. Instead of spending every waking hour on school work, I thought time would be better spent on imparting values which were important in life but not emphasised enough in school, and in giving them a happier childhood which they could look back on. I would much rather they had average grades and a more rounded life, than fantastic scores but not much else.

Teachers were often surprised when I told them at Parent-Meet-Teacher sessions that the girls did not attend any tuition class. In fact, all of them told me that my kids were the only students in class who didn't have external tutors. The teachers kindly extended a helping hand and said my kids could approach them either before or after school if they needed to clarify on any subject.

Time saved on tuition classes were spent on activities which I deemed more worthwhile like exploring the various park connectors in Singapore, riding a bicycle or kick scooter on Car Free Sunday, meeting friends, and of course more sleep.

Telok Ayer on Car Free Sunday
Going Trick or Treating with my Helper on a School Day

The girls survived primary school without a single day of tuition, and are now in secondary school. The syllabus is definitely much more demanding than in primary school, but they persevered, asking to meet with the teachers for consultations when they faced difficulties, watching free online tutorials on YouTube, downloading free notes from the internet, and reading guides which I bought from Popular.

Earlier this year, my older girl in Secondary 4 told me that she felt she would benefit from some help from a tutor. She was mature enough to know she was no longer efficient in studying on her own, as she was spending much more time trying to make sense of complex topics on her own and having very little sleep. Finally, after going through her primary education and 3/4 way of her secondary education, she now has a tutor and has been attending lessons via Zoom. The tutor has helped her untangle her doubts, and I see a happier, more confident girl who no longer falls asleep at the dinner table.

A childhood without tuition in Singapore is possible. It does come at the cost of not scoring anywhere near the top of the class, but with a more balanced lifestyle and substantial cost savings for the household as a trade-off. Looking back at the memories we had as a family and how the girls have grown, I've no regrets in taking a different path from the norm and giving them a tuition-free childhood.


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