The Tiger Teachers of Hong Kong: a warning, not a lesson.

'I can't wear the same thing twice.'- Kelly Mok
I turned down a job teaching in a Hong Kong school a few years back. If I'd seen Tiger Teachers (Unreported World, Channel 4) before I responded, I might have thought twice. The Chinese island has seen such an explosion in after school tutoring that celebrity super tutors have emerged, some of them earning millions of pounds every year.

Tutors like Richard Eng, the founder of the Beacon College, an extra curricular institute that sees 40,000 students walk politely through its doors, sit quietly and say f*ck all as Tutor Kings and Queens like Richard apparently do little other than lecture to them for an hour and a half. The students are prepping for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE), the ultimate arbiter of University entrance. If you thought our exams were high stake, take a look at JJ, the student the program followed through his time at Beacon College. I've seen hydraulics on Tower Bridge under less stress. JJ was wound tighter than a mousetrap as he prepared for the Rubicon of the exams. Access to Uni would open opportunities of salary and occupation that would be closed if his grades didn't cut it. But if you expected his parents to be awful Tiger Tyrants, they were surprisingly low key. Mum was brutal when poor JJ opened his mock results; 'You're not going to pass,' she said, in her best Mum-of-the-year impression. Dad was more sanguine. 'As long as he's happy,' he said. 'I just don't want him to have to drive a cab like me.' And I thought, you didn't do so bad, mate.

The competition for Uni entrance is so intense that it creates a Malthusian pond: 80,000 students compete for 17,000 places, and there are no illusions about the value of coming second in this race. In a culture where certification is a matter of status, failing to get into tertiary education is a badge of caste.

Which is where the Tutor Kings and Queens appear. There's always a profit to be made in any circumstance: in war, munition stocks rise; in peace, mortar. In any market, where there is demand, there is supply. If extra tutoring conveys an advantage, then in order to flourish, that advantage is desired. The problem with advantage, as any giraffe knows, is that once everyone has it, it no longer represents an advantage, and the extra tutoring serves to simply prevent falling behind. And the spring tightens further.

Richard Eng is one of the most famous of the new wave of Tutor Kings. Richard wears Louis Vuitton, and drives a Lamborghini with the number plate RICHARD. Although he's 49, he looks half that; some of the other teachers on his Beacon College website look like they could be heart throbs and pin-ups. The documentary showed us the fruits of his trade: a penthouse apartment and a privately educated daughter with ambitions of Stamford University in the USA. She won't have to sit the HKDSE, of course, as she doesn't attend state school.

What does this show us? Eng himself admitted that the Hong Kong system of examination was a 'factory for creating losers.' His decision not to send his own daughter to state school (a habit, coincidentally, apparently common in Hong Kong educationalists) is a bitter signal of its perceived weaknesses. It's an odd mirror for us in the UK: the Hong Kong system was, until recently fairly closely modelled on the British system. In primary school, many children regularly have two hours of homework every night. Behaviour is famously excellent, although even I have my limits as to how much is too much. It's one thing for pupils to do exactly as a teacher asks. It's another for this to allow the teacher to become little more than someone dictating from a powerpoint. With the little we were shown, I was deeply unmoved by the quality of the cramming sessions: sitting in silence as someone drones at you wouldn't be my preferred activity for remedial learning. Still, maybe we didn't see it all. Compared to this, I felt practically progressive. THAT'S how drilled it looked.
Timetables...taught by Dick

And what about state schools? What do they think? Here's a quote from the Slate:
'Not for nothing do most of this city's rank-and-file teachers despise the tutorial industry. Educators at Hong Kong's heavily subsidized local schools earn about $60,000—roughly half of what a tutor who's just becoming a public figure brings in. Very few tutors have teaching backgrounds; cram chains like Modern Education are more likely to scout out young, charismatic lawyers or former beauty contestants. And in the contest to capture students' attention, plain, hardworking professors simply can't compete with miniskirted billboard personalities. In a strange irony, regular teachers often find that their lack of glamour makes them less credible as educators: Parents and their kids tend to believe that since mainstream schools are free and all teachers paid the same wage, the instructors have no real incentive to adequately prepare pupils for the public exams.
The truth is that formal schools simply don't have the resources to pore over old tests, spot trends, develop shortcuts, and predict questions. Tutors deal in quick tricks proven to boost results. Their extracurricular sessions may not relay much in the way of real knowledge, but they deliver what they promise: high scores. "We're a supplement to day school, like a vitamin," says Eng.'
There is a danger, always, to easy adoption of international examples as evidence for improvements at home. Hong Kong is often lauded as an international jet rocket in the literacy and numeracy rankings, but with such a vast culture of docility in the classroom, and cramming after school (believed to be 85% of the school population), it's little wonder that we should see variations between Jimmy Lau and Jimmy Law. Given that behaviour in the UK is still a significant problem, and that after school tutoring is still a minority sport over here, I can't see parity any time soon. The worry is that we look at other aspects of the Kowloon model and mistakenly assume that aping them will benefit the children of Motherwell and Chester. Ironically, reformers in Hong Kong have looked to Britain for ways of driving improvement, settling on, among other things, project work, creativity and discovery learning, which just goes to show that it's possible to go backwards as well as forwards in educational reform. Give it a decade, and you'll see a Chinese Old Andrew or an Oriental Behaviour Shogun banging on about synthetic phonics, assertive discipline and the good old days.  

I'm a huge fan of hard work; I also love the idea of kids slogging away to learn. But this Hong Kong market model is a beacon all right- it's a lighthouse, warning us from the rocks. The point of school isn't to get kids into university; the point of school is to educate children, because we view education as intrinsically valuable. University is an extrinsic end, and a very noble goal for anyone who wants to work hard enough to get in. But this miserable dystopian world of pass or fail is the death of both education and social mobility, as advantages are only conferred to those already enjoying advantage. Add to that the celebrity world of image-driven after-school tutorials, and it seems to make an educational culture more cruel for those at the bottom, not less.

Actually, maybe I made the right decision after all.

For the whole program.

Slate article by Hillary Brenhouse


  1. Fascinating stuff. I'd read about this recently. I am dying to know what the 'quick tricks proven to boost results' are. Not that I would use them, you understand. I'm all about the deep-level understanding, me.

    1. The 'quick tricks' are basically rote learning. Read and remember (just until the exam is over anyway)...

  2. "Ironically, reformers in Hong Kong have looked to Britain for ways of driving improvement, setting on, among other things, project work, creativity and discovery learning, which just goes to show that it's possible to go backwards as well as forwards in educational reform. Give it a decade, and you'll see a Chinese Old Andrew or an Oriental Behaviour Shogun banging on about getting synthetic phonics, assertive discipline and the good old days."

    That is basically what's happened in Japan.

  3. The problem is the Confucian education system in general right across East Asia. Then the whole idea of "face" drives it. So the education system itself is embedded within a deeper social malaise. The deep issues with education in the West - although quite different - are also embedded within a social and civilisational framework.

  4. I worked in a Hong Kong state primary school as an English teacher, and I fell in love with the place but couldn't stay in a system that clearly does so little for it's children apart from drive them towards exams. SEN children are not recognized, there is no sense of emotional support, and there was a huge tutoring centre next door to the school and children just walked out of one and into the other. 5 year olds had bags bigger than them and their classroom were just small scale models of the Year 6's, all with individual desks. Primary children have to attend interviews in English to attend the best secondary schools, and parents pour huge amounts of money into tuition for these interviews. I had one friend who was asked to tutor a three year old for her English interview to primary school. The culture of education at school and at home bears no comparison to the UK in it's present form, it makes me so furious when Gove just rolls out their results as an example of UK teachers not driving kids hard enough.

  5. I've just come across this article and I strongly object to anyone calling Richard Eng a dick without getting to know him. I've worked with him for a number of years and he is one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. He doesn't meet the criteria of a typical Hong Kong boss because he is actually kind-hearted and genuinely cares about his staff. The writer of this piece did Hong Kong a favour by not coming over.


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