Thoughts on coaching

16 Dec

Consumer Guide to Coaching

I was coached–by my grandfather, a retired teacher, in Mathematics. It was only that and former SBHS Principal Bob Outterside’s teaching that enabled me to get through a subject in which I was far from gifted or talented!

It was a good deal, mind you; rather than me paying the coach, he paid me pocket money to do various chores for him. And it was one-to-one; he was also a very good teacher.

There is nothing surprising about parents seeking to have their children coached. Many of the SBHS parents come from cultural backgrounds where such help is the norm, even if (as we see in the hagwon story below) it may be argued that this is over-the-top. China’s determination to reduce the burden on students and to seek a broader view of education (see below) is interesting too.

Xiao Wu (Year 12 2001), a very successful HSC student, now counsels parents and students to realise that the pressure to get into a selective school ought not to be so strong; it is not like China where getting into the right school is the only way to ensure a first-rate career or choice of university. (It should be added that coaching is not so common in China as it is in Korea or Japan.) Xiao also sees the importance of participating fully in any cocurricular activities the school offers, citing the burn-out factor as being a significant reason for being somewhat less academically single-minded. In his case he had little choice, but does have regrets that he could not participate as much as he would have liked.

One can understand parents seeking coaching when the system confronts them with high stakes tests such as the Selective Schools Entrance Test–especially when parents feel they cannot help their children themselves in this new environment. Their feeling–not entirely wrong–is that their sons and daughters are starting behind the line compared to native speakers. To try to correct that by whatever means is not in itself reprehensible. However, the ethics and activities of some coaching colleges are quite clearly reprehensible.

The argument that coached students are hot-house specimens does, however, deserve rebuttal. If it were so, they would wilt once the initial purpose of coaching had been achieved. Actually being in a competitive selective school environment would show their weakness. It is fair to say that in the majority of cases this is simply not apparent. The students in general thrive, and were probably deserving of entry anyway. Nor are all coached students nonparticipants in cocurricular activities; if that were so the situation at Sydney Boys High in music, debating and sports would be far worse than some fear it is. Indeed, to judge from the 2006 edition of The Record (which did come out on time this year!) all the above are very healthy indeed, even if participation rather than absolute success characterises a few sports.

What follows does not so much refer to Selective Schools Test coaching. I am often asked about subject-area coaching further down the track. Here are a few pointers.

Only engage in tuition if it supports school learning. There is no value in “extra” work that is irrelevant or confusing. Any coach who is incurious about what the student is currently studying is not worth his or her fees. The tutor should not load the student with even more homework. Above all, the tutor should not give the impression that his or her homework has priority over school work. This is self-defeating for the student, who has probably sought tuition because he is falling behind.

Avoid any tuition where the classes exceed five students. What is the point of sitting in a poorly graded class of twenty or so in conditions far worse than any school? All you are doing is lining the pockets of the College proprietor. One-to-one is ideal but not economical from the College’s viewpoint. So unless you are simply wanting your child to meet some new people and extend their social contacts, avoid any College with large classes, no matter what they promise or who they are.

Consider that tuition may just be an expensive luxury. Is there a good reason for the tuition? Could the school have addressed the issue anyway? Always consult your child’s teacher first to see what the problem is and what may be done about it at school level.

More is not always better. If tuition prevents your child from doing set work or having an adequate time-management plan of his own, then it is hindering the child, not helping him. If tuition prevents your child from developing socially, causes rebelliousness and resentment. leads to a negative attitude towards learning, and reduces his chances of benefiting from all the school has to offer, then you have not only wasted your money, but you have possibly damaged your child.

Smart coaching for the right reasons can be OK; most coaching is neither smart nor for the right reasons. Please think about this very carefully.

Neil Whitfield
June 3 2002. (Revised)

Some interesting items

1. Australian college accused of stealing test paper

(The Straits Times [Malaysia] May 12 2002)

SYDNEY – Illegally obtained examination papers may have given students at Sydney’s largest coaching college an unfair advantage in getting into the selective schools of New South Wales (NSW). Entry into these schools, which provide a rich learning environment for high-achieving and academically talented students, is through examinations which test students in English, mathematics and general ability. A position in the 28 selective schools in NSW is highly prized –15,000 students will sit the examination this year but only 3,300 will gain entry.

[A certain] College, at Homebush, has been accused by a former teacher of obtaining or stealing the highly confidential test papers, The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday. The revelation was made in the NSW Parliament on Friday by opposition education spokesman Patricia Forsythe, who referred to a parcel of documents from the teacher to Education Minister John Watkins.

Mr Watkins sent it to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The documents included what is said to be a trial test in mathematics prepared by the college in 1998. It was almost identical to a sample test placed on the Department of Education’s website two months ago, the Herald said.

2. Education-Obsessed South Korea

by Radio Netherlands Seoul correspondent Hyun-Sung Khang, 8 June 2001

Asian countries have long been noted for the importance, which they attach to education. But in South Korea, the competition for a good education has become even more intense in recent years. One reason why South Koreans take education so seriously is because it dictates future opportunities and even the marriageability of a person. And the pursuit of a good education has meant big business for the private sector.

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and 17-year-old Chong Min San has just finished a full day at school. He gets on a bus but he’s not heading home.For him and his friends their day is far from over. “I have to get up at 7 in the morning, I have to be at school by 8 and lessons finish at four. Then you go to a hagwon and when you arrive home, it’s around 1 o’clock in the morning.”

A hagwon is a private educational institute, which many Koreans attend to supplement their studies. Chong Min San says the nightly cramming classes are pretty exhausting.

“If you have assignments from school or hagwon you have to work through the night. If you go to hagwon everyday, that happens about three times a week. It’s quite tiring; you have to sit for hours. That’s why most people have bad backs and mentally it’s even more tiring, it’s stressful, but you have to do that.”

Ambitious Parents

Lenny Erikson, an American who teaches at the BCM language institute in Seoul, says hagwons are targeted by ambitious parents.

“The sole purpose is to put you ahead of those people who don’t go to those schools. Especially with kids, parents want their kids to excel, they want their kids to be number one in the school, so they put them through as many language schools or hagwons to get them up there.”

So fierce has the competition become that parents are now sending children as young as two to attend 20-minute lessons where they are taught basic maths and English-language skills. In 1990, it was estimated that over 8 billion dollars was spent on private education in South Korea. Now that figure has more than tripled, often at great personal expense. Some Korean parents spend one-third or half of their income on their children’s education.

Education All-Important

The amount of money, but also the amount of time that is spent on education in South Korea reflects the importance attached to education in this country. This is because a place at one of the top universities is probably the single most important factor determining a South Korean’s opportunities in life, right down to their marriage prospects. But 24-year-old student Son Yong Boo says the huge success of private education is also a reflection of the lower quality of education found in the public schools.

“It’s a really big problem. Many of the teachers are not good enough to teach and classes are overcrowded. And for example, physics. What do you think is the most important thing to teach about physics? It’s experiments, right? But only accept formulas from books; they do not think about it just memorise it. So, how can it be interesting to students?”


The government is responding. From this year, it says less importance will be attached to the university national entrance exam. Colleges will be able to assess students according to their total academic performance and Korea’s heavily regulated universities will get more discretionary power in admission procedures. But critics say these reforms don’t go far enough. They want a total overhaul of the education system, and until that happens, they say, South Korea’s school children will be spending most of their waking hours in the country’s hagwons.

3. Advice to UK Parents: Good Schools Guide UK

First of all, you are thinking along the right lines. However bright [Jessica, a hypothetical Year 6 student] she is, she will need, at the least, some practice in managing the examinations. It is, in fact, often the brightest children who are most disadvantaged if they have had no practice prior to the exams. These children often write long, wonderful stories if left to themselves but are totally thrown when given half an hour to produce a finished piece. These children often see complexities in comprehension questions way beyond what is required and need to learn the technique of containing their ideas – again, bearing in mind the time limits. However good at Maths these children may be, it may well be the case that the pace in their classroom has simply not allowed them to cover some of the skills and techniques that the senior school will expect them to understand. It may also be that you simply don’t have a clue as to how Jessica would measure up against fellow candidates for an academically selective school. So – what is the answer? You need to have an independent assessment.

Ideally this will be done by an experienced teacher at Year 6 level in an academically selective junior school – someone who knows exactly what the senior school is looking for. It may well be that this is someone who also coaches local children for the exams at the school of your choice. Frequently, this is a retired specialist at this level who should be prepared to see Jessica once, try out her English and her maths and give you an honest appraisal of her general aptitude, some idea of her chances of success and what it will take to prepare her thoroughly. You must not expect such a teacher to make promises! Even the brightest and best pupils can have off-days – though we hope not! An honest assessment is a useful tool and can save much heartache and disappointment later on.

Coaching for the examinations

An experienced teacher will have heaps of past papers, have all the techniques at her command and will make Jessica feel confident very quickly. However, it may be that you will need to find separate teachers for English and Maths. This has the disadvantage of being more expensive and inconvenient – two weekly lessons after school as well as Jessica’s music lessons, Brownies, ballet class and so on puts strains on you all. But, if you cannot find a teacher who will do both English and Maths, it will probably be necessary and will be worth it!

But – how do you find the teachers? The best way is word of mouth. A good teacher seldom advertises or has to register with an agency. In any case, agencies are very expensive. Ask around among parents – especially those whose child is a year ahead of Jessica and who have been through the same process. Don’t be shy of asking around or assume that everyone else’s child gets into the the school you like without extra help. It is far more likely that local eyebrows would be raised at any child who attempted the exams without coaching and you will find parents only too eager to discuss the relative merits – and costs! – of this or that teacher. You may hear of teachers who prepare children in groups. This is usually cheaper but is less satisfactory. The benefits of one-to-one teaching, especially if Jessica has major gaps or difficulties, – spelling, story-construction , fractions etc. – cannot be over-emphasised. She will progress much faster with individual attention and a good teacher will also be able to do wonders for her confidence – not so easy if she is in a tutor’s group with Shireen and Anna who are both, of course, ‘brilliant’.

It may be that Jessica’s school can recommend teachers or it may be worth asking the school you hope she will go to, though it is not unheard of for this to be remembered and held against a candidate if she is borderline! However, there is a tendency for these schools to tell you that no coaching is necessary. This ignores the disadvantage that state school children are under.

When should you start? Ideally you should telephone the teacher a year or so before the examination and book a place. The best teachers usually have a waiting list. The teacher may well suggest an assessment. This should enable her to tell whether Jessica needs only, say, a term’s lessons – starting the September before the examination – in order to plug minor gaps and give her timed practice – or, if there are more significant gaps or deficiencies, whether it would be advisable to start straight away.

4. Beijing Schools’ Education Reform to Cultivate Creativity

Quality education, a new method of learning designed to make students excel in studies and other areas of the lives, is being implemented in Beijing’s primary and middle schools. “Quality education means I can do it,” Wang Xing, a student in Guangming Primary School said confidently.

The school adopted the “I can do it” slogan in 1996 calling on students, parents and teachers to strengthen students’ confidence by allowing them to participate in everything that interests them.

Many students in Guangming are part-time journalists at China Children’s News. Wang, with a camera in her hands, said: “I like photography very much, and I want to be a journalist in the future.” These young journalists arrange their classroom lessons along with their part-time job of contributing campus stories to the newspaper, because the school has been easing up with homework, said the schoolmaster Liu Yongsheng.

Other schools such as Beijing No 2 and No 11 middle schools are also implementing quality education programmes. “To reduce students’ heavy homework and relieve their psychological burdens, primary schools in Beijing will abandon the ‘100 mark evaluating system’ for students starting this autumn,” said the capital’s education committee director Xu Xi’an.

Meanwhile, primary and middle schools will eliminate 70 textbooks which are either outdated or too difficult for students, said Xu.

A heavy homework load, frequent examinations and the 100 mark system have caused great anxieties among students, sources from the Ministry of Education said. Consequently, many students had little time to play or relax. The ministry has introduced the concept of lightening students’ loads to encourage creativity. Beijing has spearheaded the effort.

Starting this year, junior middle schools will end the city’s unified entrance exams to senior middle schools. Instead, the schools will hold exams that will test students’ abilities to solve social and daily life problems, rather than simply memorizing textbooks, said Xu.

See also

What do parents and students expect from a tutor? (PDF)

New guidelines proposed for tutoring industry 2005 from Standards Australia.

PDF File: Tutoring by Keith Topping, from UNESCO International Academy of Education. Distinguishes good tutoring from bad tutoring. Well worth reading. Keith Topping is Professor of Educational & Social Research at the University of Dundee. “He is known for developing and researching the effectiveness of methods for non-professionals (such as peers, parents, or adult volunteers) to tutor others – in core skills (e.g. reading, spelling, writing, thinking skills, science, mathematics, information technology) and across subject boundaries, in all sectors and contexts of education and lifelong learning.”

Mark Bray, “Adverse Effects of Private Supplementary Tutoring”, UNESCO pdf file (83 pages).

Big market for tutoring by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, The Christian Science Monitor (Boston) May 13, 2003. Also in America… not just a Sydney phenomenon after all.

Tutoring / Tuition for Children – just cause or impediment? from Families Online (UK). Here is an extract:

Make sure that the tutor is familiar with the syllabus which your child is studying and, in the case of Maths, for example, that the tutor is not confusing your child by teaching a method which conflicts with the method used at school. While alternative methods may well be appropriate as a means to developing understanding, the tutor should always end up with the school method.

Tuition should not be a chore, it should be a positive, enjoyable experience, because your child will be developing confidence and seeing that he/she can do it…

Tuition should complement school work and you should liaise with your child’s teacher to ensure that the tuition is effective. A sympathetic and experienced tutor will help your child to realise that he/she has ability and that the subject being studied can be fun and is no longer a no-go area…

To find samples of NSW selective schools tests, CLICK HERE.

There is an American site called which offers extremely valuable fact sheets on various aspects of testing.


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