No conferring: some Chinese students think there is more to life than just exams © Getty
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In a conference room in Singapore Management University, Alexander Lim, a student studying for an MBA, flicks through slides explaining his fledgling company Cudy which aims to bring together school children with online teachers working out of hours to help them prepare for exams.

It highlights his entrepreneurial spirit, but also the vast and growing market for tutoring to supplement school teaching in the country and across much of the region. “Tutoring is highly competitive,” he says. “This is the mental mindset of Asia.”

Singapore, Korea and Shanghai in China consistently produce some of the top scores as measured by international assessments such as Pisa, which tests 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading.

Many other nations are eager to understand how these good results were achieved.

Teachers are typically not better paid than their counterparts in other parts of the world, class sizes are often larger and the overall proportion of government spending on education is not larger than elsewhere. Indeed in Singapore government spending on education is relatively modest compared to that of other high income countries and some developing nations (see charts).

Some observers believe Asia’s strong performance begins with deep cultural respect for teachers and the value of education. “Singapore was just a piece of rock and into the 1950s, everyone was an immigrant,” says Pak Tee Ng, associate professor at the country’s National Institute of Education. “[They] took the view that if they worked very hard, their children would have a chance in life through good education. It was the only way out of poverty.”

Private tutoring is one response, which reflects parents’ determination to invest in their children’s education. It is also a contributory factor in strong performance as measured by competitive exams.

Yet it can also cause stress instead of helping to foster a more creative approach to study.

From posters advertising online revision services in the subways of Shanghai to shopping malls offering after school classes in Singapore, private tutoring is big business.

According to Technavio, a market research agency, the global online tutoring market alone will increase by 14 per cent a year up till 2022, with still higher growth in Asia. “I’m not academically adept and needed a lot of help, “says Mr Lim. “My teachers weren’t very good. The turning point for me came when my parents spent a lot of money on a private tutor.”

Even as they are feted globally, Asian countries themselves are raising questions about their school systems — in particular whether they are preparing the next generation for a fast-changing world. Many point to the focus on rote learning, with teachers dispensing facts to largely passive pupils who are primarily judged on performance in a final examination such as China’s gaokao. A Qui, a graduate student from Inner Mongolia, recalls: “We were like machines in school, not humans. It was study, study, study. We did nothing else and were not allowed to have boyfriends and girlfriends. Everything was focused on exams.” Prof Li Jin at Peking University, says: “The gaokao kills diversity, innovation and novelty. Students strive for the exam because it determines their fate. It only tests how good you are at absorbing facts.”

The concern of a growing number of teachers, employers and policymakers alike is that schooling focuses too narrowly and intensely on restrictive final exams for school-leavers. That neglects broader skills, and risks crushing creativity and innovation.

Singapore’s education ministry has for several years developed a “framework for 21st century competencies” with a fresh focus on project work, art and culture.

Last month the city-state unveiled its “learn for life” programme, which it described as part of its “efforts to move away from an over-emphasis on academic results”. That included reducing the number of exams and no longer publishing public lists showing the precise position of individual students based on results.

In China, Professor Zhang Minxua, the former president at Shanghai’s Normal University, and deputy director of the city’s education commission, has encouraged the city’s secondary schoolteachers to go on study tours abroad and experiment with practices they have observed, including far greater group work among students. “No matter where the knowledge comes from, if it’s new we’ll consider it,” says Professor Zhang.

Yet many educators argue that deep conservatism among parents, politicians and university admissions officers means that changes will come only slowly. “We focused on science and maths first. Now we are diversifying,” says Prof Ng in Singapore. “We need a celebration of different kinds of success but it takes time to shift the culture.”

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About this Special Report

The World Bank’s new Human Capital Index allows countries to benchmark themselves globally on the health and education investments needed to fulfil their potential. Plus: how brain scans help poor children; Rwanda’s compulsory health system; and what needs fixing in the Asian Tigers’ education system.

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