Business

'Back to school' for parents in Singapore

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionSome parents are willing to pay to keep pace with their children.

It's early on a Sunday morning but "students" in Singapore are buckling down to solve mathematical problems as they prepare for primary school exams.

"There is a total of 5,421 cows and goats on the farm. If three quarters of the cows and 60% of the goats are sold, there will be an equal number of cows and goats left," the teacher says.

"How many cows and how many goats are there on the farm?"

A dozen pupils diligently work on the problem. But these are not children cramming. They're adults.

Image caption Sample of a mathematical problem in Singapore's school syllabus for 11 year-olds

Many parents in Singapore find it difficult to keep up as their children are inundated with homework and exams in a highly demanding and competitive state-school system.

To help their children, some parents go back to school themselves, attending workshops offered by schools and private tuition centres.

'All about understanding'

Teachers say these sessions are not for parents who are bad at mathematics or English.


More stories from the BBC's Knowledge economy series looking at education from a global perspective and how to get in touch


"It's all about understanding what students do at school and how to solve complicated problems using the latest methods," said Nur Hidayah Ismail, the principal at Genius Young Minds tutorial centre.

"As a previous school teacher in a state school, parents kept asking me for help to coach them. I saw there was an urgency because they don't know how to coach their child at home," she added.

"When I resigned I thought I needed to help as parents were out of touch with the syllabus."

Image caption Nur Hidayah Ismail set up her own learning centre due to demand from parents

The private tutorial centre - one of many in Singapore - is not just for parents. Their children also come here for tuition.

Parents get four full-day workshops for the equivalent of $500 (£318), which also includes four boot camps for their children in mathematics.

The adults are split into groups according to ability and knowledge of maths. Some start right back at the beginning because the style of teaching has changed dramatically over the years.

On a small island with a vibrant economy and a population of just over 5.5 million people, education is seen as vital to success.

Tough goals?

Singapore ranked first in the world for maths and science in the latest OECD tests. That academic excellence is a great source of pride - and also anxiety.

Many parents feel they need to invest in tuition to give their children a head start.

A government survey shows that families here now spend $1.1bn Singapore dollars ($827m; £526m) a year on tuition. That's nearly double the amount from a decade ago.

Many parents flock to state schools for the refresher courses. But the private tuition centres - even those with high fees - are popular because they offer frequent sessions catered to the varying abilities of the parents.

Image caption 11 year-old Adawiyah says her parents gained a better understanding of her homework

With so much on the line academically, parents in Singapore can be very competitive and set exceedingly high goals for their children.

But Anita Saleh, who signed up for the classes for parents, credits the course for helping her to be more realistic. The work was much harder than she initially thought and gave her an appreciation of the pressure her daughter faces in preparing for the demanding Primary School Leaving Exams (PSLEs) at the age of 11.

"It's beyond my expectation," Ms Saleh said. "It's totally difficult because I myself didn't go beyond O- level so many years back and then my daughter is sitting for only her PSLEs (Primary 6 level) and I am not able to answer the questions."

Positive effect

Her daughter, Adawiyah Shamsudin, said she gets so much work that it can be stressful and difficult to handle. Before her parents went on the course, she said, they always questioned her about her grades.

"But now they understand that pupils are having difficulties improving their studies, especially when they already get low grades," Adawiyah said.

Whatever one might say about the workload and expectations in Singapore, Adawiyah and other young students are feeling the positive effects of the workshops for parents.

"Since they went there I can see improvement. Before that I always approached my siblings, but now they are improving and trying their best to help my studies and also my homework," she said.

Back in the classroom on a Sunday morning, many of the parents are weary after a long day of questions and equations.

They have been put to the test. But they hope the time and money will be worth it, if it can give them more confidence to help their children with homework and exams.

So what about that farm with the cows and the goats?

The solution: There are 3,336 cows and 2,085 goats.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites