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«HONG KONG’S SHADOW EDUCATION Private Tutoring in Hong Kong Ho Nga Hon1 Research on private tutoring have defined different modes of private ...»

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The Hong Kong Anthropologist, Volume 4, 2010


Private Tutoring in Hong Kong

Ho Nga Hon1

Research on private tutoring have defined different modes of private tutoring and explained

the uprising of private tutoring in different cultural contexts (e.g., Bray 1999, 2005; Kwok

2004; Foondun 2002; Chew & Leong 1995). Due to such efforts, the shady nature of private

tutoring has stepped out of the shadows and been put into new light. Yet, the relationships among private tutors, students and parents have been neglected. So to better understand this, my paper looks at the relationship formation and role construction among these three actors.

This paper will focus only on one-to-one private tutoring relationships held in either a private tutoring agency or in a student‟s home. It will also reveal the tutors‟ purposes, ideologies and behaviors in terms of role performance and identity construction.

I conducted structured interviews and participant observation in order to obtain first-hand information and experiences from private tutors, students and parents. Interviewees include 15 private tutors, 10 secondary students, 5 primary students and 5 parents. Out of the 35 informants, four were conducted through telephone interviews and the rest through face-to-face interviews. Besides conducting structured interviews, I visited three homes. All informants in this paper are from working or middle class families. Therefore, the inter-social class comparison only includes working and middle classes, which is the bulk of mainstream Hong Kong society.

The Shadow Education System: Private Tutoring Private tutoring has been described as a „shadow education system‟ which is supplementary to formal school education (Bray 1999; Stevenson & Baker 1992). Bray describes private supplementary tutoring using the metaphor of a „shadow‟ - it only exists because the mainstream system exists. While our society pays much more attention to the mainstream, which is more distinct than the shadow system (1999:17), the size and structure of the tutoring system changes in relation to the mainstream system.

Supplementary private tutoring is a global trend following capitalism. In almost every developed and developing country, private tutoring is a shadow education system of the formal education system. During the Oxford International Conference on Education and Development: „Learning and Livelihood‟, private tutoring was found and indicated in a list of countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cyprus, Canada, Egypt, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea etc. (Bray 2005:3). In Hong Kong, an international city that has intimate Hong Kong's Shadow Education Ho Nga Hon 63 cultural connection with mainland China and the world, supplementary private tutoring is a crucial form of education.

Hong Kong Education Context The basis of Hong Kong education system is meritocracy and competition. As stated on the Education Bureau official website2, in Hong Kong formal school education, the government provides nine years of free primary and junior secondary education to all children attending public schools. Starting from the 2008/09 school year, senior secondary education is also provided free of charge to public school students. Every student in Hong Kong thus has a more or less equal opportunity to receive a basic level of education, but for higher education, each student has to undergo fierce competition (Fung 2003:181). For example, in 2009, around 120,000 students sat the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE)3, and more than 38,000 students participated in the Advanced Level Examination (HKAL)4, but there were only 14,500 first-year first-degree places (FYFD) available to cater for about 18% of the 17 to 20 age group5. This quota implies that the intense competition of matriculating, requires a top 32% performance in HKCEE and then a top 38% in the HKALE. Starting from September 2009, a new education system of three-year senior secondary has been implemented and all students are required to sit for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) Examination6 to qualify for enrollment into university. However, with the same quotas for FYFD places, competition for university spaces is still tight. With a growing number of international students being admitted each year, this system creates an exceedingly intense competition culture in Hong Kong‟s meritocratic education system.

Long-standing Confucian cultural values have also influenced the culture of education in Hong Kong. All parties participating in the education system value learning and diligence (Salili 2005:92) echoing Confucianism ideology, “effort for self-improvement rather than acceptance of in-born abilities and existing circumstances” (Bray and Kwok 2003:618).

Therefore, Hong Kong students are acculturated with the value of hardworking and continuous improvement. As examinations are the most commanding indicator of learning outcomes, it is not surprising that the whole education system has skewed to being examination-oriented.

Establishing a Private Tutoring Relationship Private Tutoring – from the perspective of Students and Parents Bray and Kwok (2003:615) found that around 35% Form 1-3, 47% Form 4-5 and 70% Form 6-7 students had received private tutoring. Kwok (2004:5 Table 1) pointed out the emergence of nuclear families contributed to the increase of private tutoring in Hong Kong. Parents also hire private tutors to enhance their children‟s cultural capital (i.e. knowledge and examination skills) which can be eventually transformed into economic capital (Bourdieu 2002:280-289).

This cultural capital can increase students‟ competitiveness and help succeed in societal Hong Kong's Shadow Education Ho Nga Hon 64 credentialism and the meritocratic system (Kwok 2004:8). It fulfills the „desire of betterment‟ as stated in capitalism ideology (Rich & DeVitis 1992:48).

Both working class and middle class families employ private tutors as an educational investment. The working class families regard private tutoring as a way to attain upward social mobility, while the middle class families wish to remain as social elites. In Bray and Kwok‟s quantitative research (2003:616), it was found that more than 50% of both low-income and middle-income households in Hong Kong spent 1.1-5.0% of their monthly household income on tutoring fees. However, only 3.6% low-income households spent 15.1-20.0% of their monthly household income on the fees, compared to 12.5% of middle-income households that did so. These numbers reflect that middle class families are more willing to spend money on private tutoring. Moreover, it has been proven that there is a consistent and direct relationship between parents‟ educational levels and consumption of private tutoring. That is, the higher the parents‟ education levels, the higher the investment in private tutoring (Bray and Kwok 2002:617 Table 4).

Apart from economic considerations, parents and students also hire private tutors to take care of the individual needs of students. Special care should be provided to students with emotional, behavioral, physical and mental problems. Students with successful academic results should also be given particular attention, so to obtain even higher levels of achievement. Meanwhile students with general levels of accomplishments have some catch-up work to do. Therefore, it is legitimate for most families to hire private tutors to suit “their needs”.

Private Tutoring – from the perspective of Tutors Generated from interviews with private tutors, the reasons for private tutoring are many and are not merely based on economics, that is, to earn money. All informants suggested that money is the initial intention of being private tutors. It is a common characteristic in a capitalist society that almost everything can be commercialized; talent, love, experience, skills and patience can be included into private tutoring service that is sold and bought. Another economic reason for private tutoring is the accumulation of cultural capital (experience, knowledge and interpersonal skills) and social capital (social connections) through private tutoring, which can be converted into economic capital (Bourdieu 2002:281).

Apart from economic consideration, some private tutors regard private tutoring as a means of self-realization. Through educating students, private tutors can realize their potentials and abilities and in turn gain satisfaction and a sense of significance. A private tutor remarked that there was a huge sense of satisfaction in correcting his student's bad behavior and attitude. Being respected, needed, appreciated, thanked and cared for by both parents and students, allowed private tutors to find a sense of significance in their work. For instance, a male private tutor felt very touched when his student‟s parents cooked for him after his tutorial lessons. Another way of self-realization is by viewing the students as past selves, Hong Kong's Shadow Education Ho Nga Hon 65 whereby private tutors can compensate their own past mistakes through helping students. This is important as some private tutors view some parts of their past as failures, and through their work, tutors can actually help their past selves to become who they wanted to be.

Self-growth and advancement is also a reason for private tutoring. Private tutoring enables tutors to observe different layers of the society, experience various family cultures, explore diverse living styles, and hear stories from different families. They experience spiritual growth and become more mature and confident in the face of parents and students.

This attitude reflected how a private tutor felt as she transformed from being merely a university student to a teacher through private tutoring.

Self-search is another purpose of private tutoring. During private tutoring, one‟s lost memories can be re-traced. It is a chance to re-taste the feeling of being at school and relive these times. Another tutor revealed that by understanding a student‟s needs and ways of thinking, which were different from the tutor‟s own, due to a generation gap for example, one can understand oneself better. Private tutoring can also help private tutors experience the career of teaching.

The term „rite of passage‟ can be used to describe private tutoring among university students‟ stages of growth. Private tutoring is one of the five must-dos in a university student‟s life. The others four include, skipping lessons, joining student clubs and societies, dating and living away from home in university dormitories. The significant symbolic connotations of private tutoring exist under the veil, highlighting the transformation of someone being taken care of (student), to someone who takes care of others (private tutor). In other words, it also marks the transformation from a teenager into an adult.

However, this signature phase into adulthood is not formally recognized by corporations and organizations in the „outside‟ business world as working experience. Instead, it is valued only among students, parents and online businesses. The Education Bureau does not recognize private tutoring nor does it provide subsidies for working class family. Moreover, the income generated through private tutoring is not taxed by the government. So, it seems that private tutoring will continue to remain as the shadow of formal education system in the foreseeable future.

Operation of Private Tutoring in Hong Kong In Hong Kong, the most common and efficient way to match students with private tutors is via the internet, while other ways include advertising on notice-boards in major supermarkets and making personal recommendations. There are numerous online websites that act as channels between students and private tutors. The usual operation starts with the registration of private tutors through completing online forms. The forms require the information of private tutors, such as personal details, academic achievement, skills, available time slots and expected hourly rate.

Parents or students who want to find private tutors are also required to fill in a form to Hong Kong's Shadow Education Ho Nga Hon 66 indicate their preferences. Then it is the agents, who play the role of the middlemen. They match parents or students with private tutors. When a match is successful, most agents charge a commission fee from the private tutors, the rate usually being two weeks of tuition fee, with parents and students using this service for free.

Parents or students will not meet their private tutors until they begin their private tutoring sessions. Thus the two parties only knowledge of each other is through the descriptions provided by the agents. Parents or students can choose from a wide range of services to suit their needs, for example, academic disciplines including accounting, English, history, mathematics, and physics; non-academic disciplines consisting of sports, music, languages and other hobbies. Usually, what parents and students look for in making their selection are the experiences of instructors and the professions of related fields, although individual qualities such as patience, activeness and gender are usually not considered.

The private tutors‟ qualifications are displayed online, so that parents and students can easily access the information. All of the tutors‟ profiles can be easily browsed and parents and students are then able to pick whoever they prefer, as if they were shopping in a supermarket.

This exemplifies the objectification and commodification of teaching service, or even to private tutors themselves. In a meritocratic society, private tutors are valued not because of whom they are, but because of what credentials they hold.

The whole private tutoring relationship actually starts with a mutual bluff relationship (Baumeister 1991:361) as the core product sold in private tutoring is the dream and hope of being future „elites‟ in society. It is a given that the middlemen do not fully know the private tutors‟ qualifications due to a lack of certificate verification with the online system.

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