My father is a smart man. He was sent to universities overseas, including an Ivy League institution. There are few things he can’t reason, few concepts he can’t grasp, few ideas he can’t debate. But here’s a little secret: my father may be a smart man, but he also received Cs for a few subjects in SPM. Granted, that was in 1962. These days you can’t even guarantee entry into a local university with 10 A1s.

What’s going on? Something must have happened between my parents’ generation and this one. The government is trying their best to revamp the education system, but has sent it into a tailspin. Students are barely coping with changing syllabi and languages of instruction. Parents are frantically making sure their children get ahead in every single way – more sports, more co-curricular activities, and yes, more tuition classes.

I’ve witnessed these tuition classes first hand, because I teach them. Like many other people, tutoring provides me a much-needed side income, so I spend a few hours each week teaching literacy and music to kids in my neighbourhood. As it turns out, starting up a tuition business yourself is easy. Make flyers, stuff them in mailboxes, and pray hard that someone calls your number. If they do, the pay isn’t bad: you can earn between RM100 and RM300 per class.

Since I started teaching private classes, I’ve met a whole range of kids and parents. Some families have been hard to handle, but others have been lovely. Suri and Ahmad, for example, are sweet people who dote on their 10-year-old son Muiz. He appears a relatively smart kid, but Muiz humbly thinks he “could be a lot smarter. There are 37 people in my class and the teacher only comes in for half an hour or an hour. Teachers in school don’t have much time for us.”

Suri echoes her son. “The syllabus these days is different. It’s more advanced than my time. I’m afraid he might not get the concepts in school.” A quick flip through a Standard 6 Mathematics textbook will tell you exactly that – 15 years ago, we were learning how to calculate areas in Form 1. Now they’re being tested on just that for UPSR.

It’s advances like this that get to most parents. The ones I meet more these days are white-collar professionals like Zulaika, who is gung-ho about getting her kids ahead. She states that “almost all” of her friends send their children to tuition classes, especially those sitting for major exams like UPSR, PMR, and SPM. Her daughter Nadira is sent to almost every single class imaginable. There’s swimming, art, religious classes, with barely enough time in between to get homework done.

It’s a full schedule that Nadira takes into stride. But she occasionally has sleepy tears in her eyes during my lessons, and spends every free moment watching cartoons and music videos to relax. While her mother means well, I can’t help but wonder if there is a deeper reason as to why parents like Zulaika are working their children so hard. Is it fear that their kids will grow up without the necessary life skills? Or are the parents themselves under social stress to make sure their kids get those straight As?

Shireen, principal of MasterMind Training Academy, notes that parents usually send their children to school after a drop in performance. “But the definition of ‘bad’ is relative,” she comments. “A lot of students in the city seem to be taking tuition now. Some parents define getting a ‘B’ as bad and poor. Some define a fail as simply a bad grade.”

When more and more students are scoring straight As, these perfect grades become the baseline for achievement, rather than the peak. But it really isn’t a surprise that so many students do well on paper. Emphasis on critical thinking was already poor when I was in school 15 years ago, and there seems to be almost none now. With bell curves being adjusted every year during exams, there seems to be little importance placed on learning beyond tests.

Wardina, who has been teaching in secondary schools for the past 20 years, attests to this observation. “The attitude of students today is very different compared to when I first started out,” She tells me. When asked about why the teachers themselves are not tackling this problem, she notes wryly, “A lot of younger teachers today have different attitudes themselves! They are products of an exam-oriented system.” The education approach is therefore part of a vicious cycle.

I see this for myself when I tutor children. Most of my students can hardly think laterally when they come to me, or draw their own conclusions from texts or math problems. When I ask them to teach concepts back to me, or to think about how different grammar rules or mathematical formulas link to each other, they blink at me surprised. “You want me to… what?” they ask. They clearly struggle to respond to a question that doesn’t have a formulaic answer. Meanwhile, some sceptical parents will stop my tuition classes if they don’t see immediate, quantifiable results.

Priscilla, a lecturer at a local college, says this grade driven approach doesn’t help kids later in life. “Many students come into college with a poor grasp of basic concepts in maths and science, and we would have to spend time teaching the fundamentals again. They have good SPM results, but end up struggling in college.” Poor command of English and regard for general knowledge, along with lack of critical thinking, affect their performance. This in turn, influences employability once they graduate.

I’m not a parent yet myself. However, I can’t help but feel that whatever reasons these kids are being sent to tuition are the wrong ones. Tuition classes only treat the symptoms, not the cause of this educational and parental problem. Responsibility to educate children gets passed to tutors like me, the last buck in a long chain of things that don’t work. Parents need to accept that their kids have different methods of learning and skill strengths. At the end of the day, real learning is about more than getting an A.

The names of the interviewees have been changed.