A perennial issue in Singapore education has been highlighted again by news that families spent a substantial $1.4 billion last year on extra lessons for their children, even as expenditure on such private education services continues to grow. According to the latest government survey on household expenditure, the higher spending on private tuition was a key contributor to an increase in educational expenses last year. Reliance on tuition is very much a trend: The amount spent on it grew steadily from $650 million 15 years ago to $820 million a decade ago. Six years ago, the figure went up to $1.1 billion. This includes both home-based and centre-based tuition. Given the nature of this growth sector, it is natural that more tuition centres and enrichment centres should open. Thus, there are more than 950 such centres registered with the Ministry of Education now, up from about 700 in 2012.
This degree of expenditure on private tuition has an impact on the educational scene. Naturally, higher-income families are capable of spending more on tuition than those at the bottom end. Indeed, the top 20 per cent of households by income spent on average nearly four times the amount forked out by the lowest 20 per cent. This divergence works against the social purpose of education as a levelling-up process in which merit, which determines a child’s prospects in life, is constrained as little as possible by family circumstances. Of course, parents are free to invest what they can and will, on trying to ensure what they believe to be in the best interests of their children. However, their choices have a cumulative effect on what this means for a meritocratic society. That is a national issue.