Are private tutors just the latest educational ‘arms race’?

October 4th, 2015, 1 Comment

observer tuition story image

Below is the long version of a recent comment piece I wrote for for The Observer:

If I were to create a word cloud based on most media depictions of private tuition, the ‘tutoring arms race’ would undoubtedly loom large. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, this is where unscrupulous tutors collude with angst-ridden tiger parents in the theft of childhood. No less prominent a tag would be that most vicarious of interests: the ‘super-tutor’ of the mega-rich. These elite twenty-somethings may be as comfortable teaching in a Swiss chalet as on board a yacht, but will occasionally let slip their disgruntlement with being treated as staff by their charges.

Thankfully, private tutoring in Britain is much more interesting than this. As the industry has grown in recent years, so has the research base, meaning that various stereotypes can now be challenged. Private tuition is no longer the preserve of the wealthy, but is used across society. In 2015, a quarter of children in the UK reported having received help from a private tutor, and among children from ethnic minority groups the proportion was around half. Research from The Tutor Pages puts the current average cost of private tuition within reach of many families: at under £30/hour for KS1 to KS3, £32/hour for GCSE, and £35/hour for A-level.

To get to the heart of the popularity of this burgeoning, sprawling phenomenon requires a willingness to step back and recognize (as so many parents have done) the intrinsic power of this form of learning. At its best, one-to-one tuition allows the fullest attention to be paid to what David Ausubel called the most important single factor influencing learning: “what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.” With the effectiveness of private tuition not in doubt , it is no surprise that this modus operandi  is employed in so many contexts.

Parents will hire tutors for a multitude of reasons – for example, to help a child who has missed school due to illness, to support special educational needs or to supplement homeschooling. Yes, there are pupils being coached for school entrance exams, but we should bear in mind the proportions actually attending such schools (6.5% children are at independent schools and 5% at grammar schools). Yes, there are parents employing tutors because of perceived failures in state education, but if that were the whole story, why would pupils from independent schools be twice as likely as their state school counterparts to have a private tutor? Finally, tutoring has sometimes been criticized for its narrow focus on exams, but when surveyed, only half of children receiving private tuition said that it was to prepare for a particular test or examination.

The other half of the story often goes unreported, but it is the transformational educational experience offered by tutors, and many parents instinctively realise this. In some cases, a private tutoring session can be the first time a child has been recognized and valued as an individual, in contrast to the league table obsessed educational system they are immersed in. Increased self-reliance and confidence are often cited as outcomes of tutoring, sometimes because the child has finally felt able to express themselves without the threat of ridicule in the classroom. Private tutors are able to broaden a child’s horizons, act as a role model, instil a love of learning and more.

These often barely acknowledged factors contribute to the matrix of reasons for the popularity of private tuition, but there are deeper currents still. As I have argued elsewhere, private tuition in the UK needs to be set in an international context, where it is part of a worldwide trend. As with other areas of our lives moulded and enhanced by the digital age, employing a private tutor can be seen as part of a narrative of increased personal choice, flexibility and empowerment in our educational lives and those of our children.

Those who rail against private tuition prefer to ignore this larger shift, and the unique learning potential of the one-to-one format. Those who embrace it facilitate remarkable results, and in a huge diversity of contexts. Two of my favourite examples are British tutors using online tuition to share their expertise with families overseas, and the charity Action Tutoring which trains tutor volunteers to work in schools with young people facing socio-economic disadvantage.

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Why teachers may be turning to private tuition

September 1st, 2015, 1 Comment

There’s been renewed interest in the demand side of private tuition: why do more parents seem to be employing private tutors in the UK? Recently, the education journalist Nick Morrison has written about how he believes the popularity of private tuition is not down to school failure.  This would certainly chime with the fact that pupils attending independent schools are actually more likely to receive additional private tuition than those attending state schools.

Instead, Morrison suggests that the rise in private tuition is caused by parental anxiety, that is, parents who are ‘desperate for their child to gain a competitive edge’.

Whilst this might be true in some cases, it is perhaps simplistic. Employing a private tutor can also be seen as part of a narrative of increased personal choice, flexibility and empowerment, no doubt in part brought about by the digital age. This is a view explained eloquently by Tom Maher, former president of TTA.

Then there are all the other more standard reasons for employing a tutor: to support a child who has missed school due to illness, to help a child from overseas cope with school work, to boost confidence, to help with special needs, to teach a subject not covered in school, to supplement home schooling and so on.

As for the supply-side of private tuition, Daniel Boffey, writing in The Observer, has this to offer. As the economy improves (so the argument goes), teacher shortages are the result of fewer graduates being interested in the safe option of becoming a classroom teacher. He suggests that the relatively poor financial rewards and conditions currently on offer in the state sector has meant that those interested in this line of work are increasingly turning to the better-paid and more flexible career path which private tuition can provide.

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The Future of The Tutors’ Association (TTA)

July 24th, 2015, 3 Comments


Despite an inauspicious start back in 2013, The Tutors’ Association seems to be evolving in a positive direction. Below are some of its priorities, gleaned from the AGM speech on 13th July 2015 by outgoing Chair Tom Maher.

A focus on independent tutors

Following the elections last month, 5 of the 9 board members are individual tutors, including the new President Louisa Gamon and Vice-presidents Clare Daykin and Louise Ravencroft. This is an extraordinary turnaround, given the fact that TTA’s first board consisted of tuition company owners or representatives. The new aim of TTA is to create an open and democratic organisation, and one which is not ‘captured’ by commercial operators. As Tom Maher mentioned,

our focus over the next twelve months will turn increasingly to the recruitment of individual tutors, so that the make-up of our membership continues to develop in line with the make-up of the profession at large.

The AGM also marked the start of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) seminars for tutors, with talks on Special Educational Needs (SEN) and how to bridge the gap between study methods at A-levels and university.

Addressing media distortions of private tuition

The media likes a good story, and when it comes to private tuition the same themes tend to get recycled: super-tutors teaching the elite, the caricature of the ‘pushy parent’, tutoring for grammar school entry (despite only 5% of UK pupils attend such schools), the ‘theft’ of childhood by over-tutoring, and hostile reactions to private tuition from a small minority of headteachers.

Tom Maher has been at the forefront of addressing misconceptions, and outlined TTA’s approach:

Our policy when dealing with such stories is three-stranded:  first, we write to the newspaper addressing any factual inaccuracies that need correcting; secondly, we offer to meet the journalists themselves to try and ensure fair-comment in future; and thirdly we try to meet the actual protagonists, be they school heads, union officials or whoever so that we can engage in debate around the issues they raise or the perceptions that they have.

The fact is that the overlap and co-operation between private tutors and schools is already considerable, not least because of the way the pupil premium is being spent by schools on tutors. A mature dialogue between the tutoring profession and schools is what is required.

Giving voice to the real reasons parents employ private tutors

In his speech, Tom was quite clear that dissatisfaction with mainstream schooling was rarely a reason why parents were seeking private tuition for their child. The argument can be turned on its head:

It is hard to prevent “Quality education” from being perceived as what economists describe as a “positional good” i.e. its desirability is enhanced by its exclusiveness.  There is no greater driving force for this exclusiveness than the cachet associated with Ivy League universities, Oxbridge, Russell Group Universities, the Eton Group of Schools etc. Indeed, it is often the reverence that parents have for schools and mainstream institutions and the shortage of places that drives demand for tutoring and supplementary education not a recoil from mainstream education as such.

The cachet of attending certain institutions is by no means the only driving force for private tuition. Other more down-to-earth reasons for children taking private tuition suggested by Tom were: recently having arrived in the UK and needing to adjust to the system; having missed classes due to illness; being weak at certain subjects and needing extra support; having special needs such as dyslexia; and, finally, needing a boost in confidence.

As has been suggested before, private tuition in the UK really needs to be set in the international context, where it is part of a worldwide trend. Tom Maher’s own take on this is interesting:

The growth of tutoring should also be seen in the context of wider lifestyle changes: people are more geared towards self-help and engaging in supplementary provision in all sort of ways wherever they can.  People supplement their diet, they cross-check their GP’s advice on the internet and increasingly look for individually tailored treatment.  A population where half of adults have university degrees and access to the internet will not be deferential to expertise whether it be from medics, lawyers, dentists or mainstream educators.

According to this view, employing a private tutor can be seen as part of a narrative of increased personal choice, flexibility and empowerment, no doubt in part brought about by the digital age.


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