Parent offers him $20,000 for an A grade
A recent survey done jointly by The Straits Times and research company Nexus Link found that seven in 10 parents here send their children for tuition. It's a $1 billion industry. JUDITH TAN (firstname.lastname@example.org) speaks to super tutors with a long waiting list of students
Want to get into Mr Anthony Fok's economics class this year? Forget it.
The popular time slots for JC 2 Economics classes are usually fully booked by March and teens applying will be asked to join classes taught by other tutors.
There have been many students asking - even begging - to join, but he doesn't put anyone on a waiting list, says Mr Fok.
There is a backlog because the "super tutor" insists on teaching the classes himself at JCEconomic.com's branches at Bukit Timah and Tampines.
"Classes will be cancelled if I am unwell. There is no relief teacher," he explains.
Mr Fok, 31, teaches economics four days a week to more than 200 JC 1 and 2 students annually.
He conducts classes from Thursday to Sunday. Each class comprises 20 to 40 students.
The charge is $380 for four lessons, with each lesson lasting about 90 minutes.
He did not want to reveal the exact number of classes he handles or the total number of classes at his tuition centres. But his centre has to register for GST this year as they have hit the $1m annually mark.
The New Paper on Sunday understands Mr Fok has had to reduce his schedule as he is pursuing his PhD.
Apart from the lessons proper, Mr Fok also gives out his mobile number to his students, who text him queries and questions they find hard to tackle.
He says: "Sometimes I even mark their essays free of charge.
"Being a tutor, and in a way, a student's mentor is a 24/7 job.
"Also, I want to maintain the quality of the lesson that is delivered."
Mr Fok first made the news in June 2008 when he was just 24 and a report named him as one of five "super tutors" in Singapore - defined by how sought after they were.
His achievement of starting Xue Hai Tutorial Centre with only 25 students in 2004 and growing it to 600 students was much-lauded.
Surprisingly, Mr Fok sold all his shares to his business partner in 2007 and taught full-time at Hong Kah Secondary School, covering Principles of Accounts and Mathematics.
After five years of teaching, Mr Fok, who is married with a four-year-old son, felt the business itch again and left to set up JCEconomics.com in 2012.
He says: "Students come to me because they know I teach more than just the basic (things) that the schools cover.
"I use many everyday stories to link the theories they learn to the real world. This way, they will stand out in the exams if they use real-world information."
And it seems to have worked.
Now he gets text messages from the students or parents every day, asking if there is a vacancy.
"Like a stalker," he says jokingly with a rueful smile.
Some parents even try to offer him higher fees to get him to accept their children.
Once, a well-heeled parent offered him $20,000 to guarantee an A grade for her child one month before the A levels. He declined.
"It is not possible to work that kind of miracle at the last minute," he says.
"Achieving distinctions is never a given. Improving their chances is. Many parents are grateful when they see that their child no longer hates or fears economics."
When asked about being one of the top people in his industry, Mr Fok, who still lives in an HDB 5-room flat, demurs.
"The title of super tutor was coined by the media and later by parents after the article appeared seven years ago," he says, adding that he doesn't assume he is one.
"I have always believed that tuition should be a supplement to a child's education, not an integral part.
"It is definitely not a sure way to success, yet many parents continue to view it as a necessary means to scoring distinctions and getting ahead in the rat race," he says.
He does not deny that it has been a lucrative path for him.
"Money is a by-product of the hard work I put in. I am running a business after all and I work hard to deliver the results my students aim for.
"Parents nowadays no longer ask the cost of tuition fees. Instead, they want to know the tutor's proven track record and qualification."
He adds: "This is evident by the wide range of fees charged by tutors in the industry.
"There are many who earn more than five figures a month."
'Tutors do it for love of teaching, not money'
PASSIONATE: Ms Janice Chuah set up Concept Math to give math tuition to primary schoolkids. TNP PHOTO: JEREMY LONG
When she left her job as a primary school teacher in 2009, Ms Janice Chuah was worried she would not be able to contribute enough to her young family.
So the mother of three boys, who were then aged between eight and below one, started giving maths tuition to upper primary schoolkids.
She started out with only five pupils. The business grew and she now heads her own tuition centre, Concept Math, with 600 students.
There are 70 classes, with each class having an average of six to seven kids.
Sessions are an average of $32 an hour. The classes last 90 minutes, except for those for Primary 6, which go up to two hours each. Kids generally attend one or two classes a week. She is reluctant to say how much she earns but acknowledges hers is a lucrative business. She says it is not her business acumen - "because I have none" - but her passion which has taken Concept Math to where it is today.
Her centre became popular through word of mouth because pupils have been doing well and today, the waiting period for Primary 1 pupils is about a year.
"Our Primary 1 programme focuses on teaching concepts the fun way. We use ... snap cubes, counters, fraction disks and include games and stories.
"This helps young children acquire a strong foundation in mathematics concepts and in turn builds their confidence in the subject," she explains.
Ms Chuah says that in the past, some parents tried to circumvent the waiting list by calling or turning up at the centre every week.
"Some even told us that they were willing to pay the whole year's fees just to secure a slot of their choice for their children," she says.
Throughout the interview, Ms Chuah, whose husband is an engineer, insists many teachers who left the profession to become tutors "are doing it for the love of teaching" and not for the money.
"Numerous reports in recent years put tutors in a bad light. They gave the public the impression that private tutors capitalise on the fear of parents and the 'kiasu' culture to have a bite of the billion-dollar pie."
She adds: "No doubt, there are black sheep in the industry who have resorted to falsifying qualifications, giving parents false hopes and charging exorbitantly high fees.
"But many just want to equip our students with content knowledge and at the same time, impart correct values and prepare them for the world tomorrow."
She says that if a child desperately needs help but there is no slot at Concept Math, "we refer him to our worthy competitors".
She adds: "We would rather lose the business than leave a child stranded.
"There was this new student who did not turn up for the first lesson and when we learnt of the reason - that her mother, who was the sole breadwinner of the family, had died, we refunded the fees paid to help the family out over the difficult period.
"We also offered her free tuition and supported her till she completed her PSLE last year."
As for the "super tutors" tag, Ms Chuah says: "There is no need for (that). You don't need to earn big bucks. You will know you are one when a student walks up to you and says 'thank you'."
"No doubt, there are black sheep in the industry who have resorted to falsifying qualifications, giving parents false hopes and charging exorbitantly high fees."
- Ms Janice Chuah