To the top? Here's another school of thought

TEMI Oludare may be only nine but he has already read Macbeth and is five years ahead of his grade level in maths.

The year 5 student, who won a scholarship to Ivanhoe Grammar, has been enrolled in Kumon - a private maths and English tutoring program - since he was four.

''You get to learn at your own pace, it's not just what you're doing at school,'' he says.

Temi is one of more than 38,000 Australian students studying Kumon, a back-to-basics method of instruction originating in Japan in 1954, which has become a world phenomenon.

The egg-shell blue centres, with their distinctive emoticon logo, are popping up across Australia, with enrolments climbing by more than 5000 in the past five years.

Kumon instructor Val Tang, who has 738 students at her Mill Park centre, said when she started 20 years ago the program was used mainly for remedial purposes, with teachers and educational psychologists referring struggling children.

Today the pendulum has swung towards students seeking accelerated studies, including those keen to gain entry to select-entry schools or win scholarships for private schools.

Although Kumon has traditionally been associated with Asians, who come from countries where after-school tutoring is the norm, Ms Tang says her students are from a mix of backgrounds. ''Some of my best parents are the true-blue Australians,'' she says.

''[They see] a lot of Asians doing well and are now becoming copycats. It's a good thing; we want to promote education so they've caught on.''

Students doing Kumon do not work together as a class but progress through a series of worksheets at their own pace regardless of their age or school grade. Tuition fees are $110 a month for each subject after an initial enrolment fee of $70. Students are encouraged to visit centres twice a week, where they receive instruction and are provided with the worksheets.

The focus is on independent learning - once students have mastered a concept based on speed and accuracy, they progress to the next level.

The Mathematical Association of Victoria, which represents the state's maths teachers, advises parents considering after-school tutoring to first discuss it with their child's school.

''If, for instance, one or two kids really want to get scholarships or do better in maths than their peers, there is more than likely a group of students in a similar position and it may be something the school needs to be addressing,'' executive officer Simon Pryor said.

He said if parents did decide to pay for tutoring outside school, they needed to consider whether individual tutoring, group tutoring or computer-based programs best suited their child.

''One of the things we all know about children is they all learn differently,'' Mr Pryor said.

Victorian Principals Association president Gabrielle Leigh said programs such as Kumon were advantageous if that was the interest of the child. ''It becomes another leisure activity, a bit like ballet and gymnastics,'' she said.

''The problem is when children are made to go and do additional work and they don't want to, and then they become reluctant learners.''

jtopsfield@theage.com.au

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