Private School, or Private Tuition?

September 5th, 2014, 1 Comment


private school private tuition1

In July this year, the Social Market Foundation published a report which found that adults who attended private school will have earned around £200,000 more than their state educated peers before they hit their mid-forties. A follow-up article in the Telegraph then asked whether it’s better for parents to spend on school fees or on private tuition.

Considering that parents will sometimes invest £100,000s in a private school education for their offspring, the financial pay off of such an education may not seem that great.  But parents of course know that a good education is about much more than an increase in salary, and it is still a stark fact that a disproportiate number of privately educated individuals make it to the top of their professions (consider, for example, the background of most UK senior judges).

When it comes to comparing the outcomes of private school with private tuition, however, there are no statistics available. After all, what kind of tutoring are we talking about? The experience and cost of a home schooled child engaging in an extensive programme of private lessons will be very different to (for example) a state school pupil having remedial tuition once a week.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic just made available is that it is children who already attend private school who are the most likely to receive private tuition. This has been noted anedotally by tutors before, but we now have the evidence for it in a new report by the Sutton Trust entitled Extra-Curricular Inequality. This report for the first time collates data on the extent to which parents from different socio-economic backgrounds will afford both academic private tuition and other extra-curricular activities for their children such as music, dance and sport.

Therefore, the lengths to which parents will go to secure good educational outcomes for their offspring is now becoming clear: for some, the choice is no longer private school or private tuition, but both.

One Response to “Private School, or Private Tuition?”

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Three trends in private tuition

May 20th, 2014, 6 Comments

Private tuition is a global phenomenon, and all the signs are that it is an increasing trend worldwide. Tom Maher’s excellent summary gives us some insights into the drivers behind this vast industry where ‘[i]n some cases, spending on private tutoring approaches the level of spending on the formal public system’.

In this blog post I want to highlight how the provision of private tuition is changing in the UK, and in some ways rather rapidly. Three inter-related aspects of this change are illustrated below:

tutoring three trends

Freelance tutoring

Research, discourse and debate about freelance work provide a rare opportunity to contextualize the private tuition industry in the UK. This is because tutoring in the UK has always been mainly freelance, with a report from 2009 indicating that around 84% of private tutors in England were self-employed.

Freelance working practices have in general proliferated sharply over the last 10 years, with 2014 seeing self-employment in the UK hit 4.5 million for the first time in history.  Simon McVicker, from the freelancers’ organisation PCG, has recently commented that ‘[w]e are now in the midst of a revolution in how we approach the concept of work in this country’, and has hence called on government to introduce measures to support this vast army of independent workers.

Attitudes are changing fast, with freelancing no longer being seen as the poor cousin of employee status. Almost three quarters of people now prefer this kind of work to being an employee and according to PCG, the vast majority of freelancers are happy with their choice to go it alone, with the amount they are paid, and with the control they have over their work/ life balance.

As the private tuition industry continues to expand, it is therefore safe to say that more people than ever before are deciding that freelance private tutoring is a good part-time or full-time career option for them.

Disintermediated tutoring

Disintermediation means the elimination of intermediaries – or ‘middle-men’ – in a supply chain, resulting in lower prices for consumers. The rise of the internet has resulted in a high degree of disintermediation, for example in the travel industry where consumers can now purchase flights directly from airlines rather than using a travel agent. The basic mantra for disintermediation is ‘if you don’t add value to a process, then you’re only adding cost.’ And if you’re only adding cost, you’ll quickly be disintermediated.

It is interesting to juxtapose the concepts of disintermediation and freelancing, because as any personal branding coach will tell you, freelancers are in the business of promoting their unique expertise and attributes directly to clients. Transposed to the world of private tuition, it is now easier than ever before to develop one’s own ‘brand’ as a private tutor through (for example) setting up a website, advertising online, creating high quality promotional videos or posting verified personal endorsements on Linkedin.

As the notion of the ‘credible freelancer’ matures, traditional tuition agencies are therefore going to be under increasing pressure to add value to what they offer to avoid being disintermediated by a simple Google search.

Online tutoring

The final driver of change I want to highlight is the rise in online tuition, as discussed in a recent article in the Telegraph.

In a sense, a tutor’s physical location can be seen as another barrier which the internet is beginning to disintermediate. I say ‘beginning to’ because up until even 12 months ago, my impression has been of a deep skepticism among many parents and tutors over the value or appropriateness of online tuition. But might this skepticism now be waning? I believe so.

Firstly, the available technology for conducting classes and taking payments online is improving rapidly, with current options including WizIQ, Skype, Scribblar, and Paypal. Secondly, anecdotally at least, concerns about the artificiality or unnaturalness of the medium are either starting to fall away, or simply being outweighed by the benefits. It is hard to imagine online tuition ever trumping face-to-face tuition in certain contexts such as music education. However, we’ve had several fascinating debates  (for example at and, with tutors such as Matthew explaining that for biology A-level tuition:

my personal feeling is that online tuition is far superior to face-to-face as the student is relaxed and in their home environment (and so am I!) and they are not flustered by travelling. The delivery is identical – we can talk to one-another and they can see my notes in real time.

With online tuition, a tutor’s prospective client base suddenly multiplies a thousand-fold, and this arguably boosts the potential for both freelance and disintermediated ways of working. With the advent of commission-based online tuition platforms, cyber- or re-intermediation has already taken place in the online tuition sphere, and yet as our Linkedin discussions have made clear, many tutors, students and parents are already circumventing these innovations in the same way that the use of Skype circumvents traditional telephony.


This has been a short review of three highly interconnected trends towards freelance, disintermediated and online tuition from a UK perspective. However, it is abundantly clear that, because of native proficiency in English and the high standing of British qualifications worldwide, UK private tutors are extremely well positioned to exploit such employment trends to the full.

6 Responses to “Three trends in private tuition”

  1. Victoria says:

    This is a brilliant article Henry. From what I’ve observed, the only people using tuition agencies are either those who require a tutor for a specialist subject or very well-to-do families who need to hire a tutor that has been vetted thoroughly. The majority of parents (and students) are now searching for tutors directly through the internet or through word of mouth recommendation.

    I think that it’s more important than ever for tutors to market themselves and treat this like a real business and that principle applies to part and full time tutors. It’ll be interesting to see how these trends unfold over the next few years.

  2. A truly brilliant article, Henry…could not have put it better myself! Well done…

  3. Anon. says:

    Just a couple of observations:

    The “add value or be by-passed” is going to pose a challenge for some intermediaries of that there is little doubt. There is a distinction to be made between intermediaries of once off transactions i.e. estate agents and those who provide “ongoing introductions”. The latter will be a little more resilient to disintermediation but they might still have problems justifying themselves of course especially if there are a number of intermediaries around offering a similar service.

    When any of us hire either an intermediary or a freelancer there is anxiety about “getting it wrong”. We often grasp at straws to reduce the risk. For instance, in the past when I wanted a plumber, I asked my builder friend Charlie to recommend one. Why? Firstly, Charlie is a good judge of a plumber, I’m not. Secondly, I am hoping that the plumber will look to Charlie for further referrals and that will act as a control of some kind. Thirdly, if the plumber does something wrong, I can go and complain to Charlie. You see my builder Charlie has not asked to be an intermediary but to deal with a number of my fears of “getting it wrong”, I have turned him in to an intermediary albeit an involuntary one. I also asked him which other intermediaries to recommend e.g. British Gas or N Power.

    I would add the following that Charlie is no typical intermediary: He has earned my trust over a number of transactions. If he knew of no reliable plumber he would tell me frankly and not recommend just anyone. He does not have anything to gain financially by suggesting someone. And finally, he goes out of his way to say that he has no “control” over who he has nominated. Yet he offers value to me and the freelance plumber even though he does not charge either of us. Why?

    He has information as to who is genuinely good and reliable and while he does not parade it, his referral has some impact on the behaviour of those he nominates and both the client and the freelancer respect him and behave. (To keep in with Charlie I (the client) pay his nominated freelance plumber in double quick time). Not so much that we live in terror of him; far from it. We all trust and respect him. He’s a very soft-spoken collegiate sort of a chap. The plumbers he recommends respect him and the clients respect the plumbers he puts forward. Otherwise Charlie would dump the client. This is crucial too. So the intermediary can offer value to the freelancer by screening clients for them. It is my view that the tutoring intermediaries that will add most value are those that screen the client for the freelancer as much as the freelancer for the client.

  4. Jon Ellis says:

    A thoughtful article about the evolving world of tutoring.

    Things are definitely changing, particularly in the world of online tutoring – full declaration: I am the co-founder of Tutorhub.

    Increased demand is coming from uni students and parents. The price saving associated with being tutored online is a big attraction for people who maybe cannot afford the higher rates associated with home tutoring.

    It’s a market that will attract lots more businesses, and prompt independent tutors to start their own online businesses.

    Technology also remains an issue, in my opinion.

    Your blog post has prompted me to write a blog post on why online tutoring is taking off in the UK, the issues, and how I see it evolving over the next year. It can be read at

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To Tutor or Not To Tutor?

April 10th, 2014, 0 Comments

education show private tuition debate

More than a quarter of parents in the UK now use private tutors, but there is a wide variety of opinion about where the industry is now heading. Recently, the Independent Schools Show hosted a 30 minute debate covering some of the main issues which you can watch here. Below, I summarize the arguments made by the debate’s three panellists: Sebastian Hepher, Charles Bonas, and Lord Ralph Lucas.

Sebastian Hepher (Headmaster, Eaton Square School)

Sebastian has recently become known for his criticisms of private tuition in The Telegraph and elsewhere. He started out by making it clear that he’s not wholly against tutoring, noting that there are some excellent tutors who provide much needed support to pupils and their families.

However, he then went on to make the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable drivers of tutoring. In his view, acceptable reasons for hiring a private tutor included when a pupil has a) particular educational needs (such dyslexia, dyspraxia, English as Second Language); b) missed stages of their educational journey due to illness or being abroad; and c) a need for reinforcement on a particular topic (though with this, the message was to tread carefully and go through the school first). On the other hand, the unacceptable reasons for hiring a tutor included a) gaining extra help before entrance exams and pre-tests and b) parents feeling the need to have a tutor because all of their friends are, even if the child is very bright and able.

Why is Sebastian concerned? His main reason is the welfare of the pupils, stating that he doesn’t want to see:

  • pupils exhausted at the end of the school day being sent to tutors, when they should have time to relax and be children;
  • pupils overloaded with work;
  • parents misinformed about what a child needs;
  • pupils taught methods and systems which confuse them because they conflict with the methods employed by the school;
  • pupils’ schoolwork and homework affected due to overload;
  • tutors who are doing fantastic work being tainted by those who are not;
  • parents pushed into a corner by what is perceived as necessary if their child is to stand a chance of successful entry in school entrance examinations;
  • genuine weaknesses being masked in the lead up to an exam, only to be flagged later;
  • years at secondary school dominated by endless work in a pupil’s effort to keep up with the pack (…ultimately resulting in:);
  • poorer performance at GCSE and A-level as a pupil’s frail confidence becomes even more so, along with little time for concerted and genuine revision;
  • a divide growing between those who can afford tutoring and those who cannot.

Sebastian was careful to point out that the above does not mean he is not ambitious for the pupils in his care. Ambition should not be confused with unrealistic expectations which is, in his mind, one of the gravest faults of the private tuition world. He believes it is entirely wrong to lever a pupil into a school which is too academic for them: they will feel inadequate academically, and end up having to strive all the hours that are set to keep up with those who are more suited to that environment. This, he maintains, is true at all levels: for entry into pre-prep school, prep school grammar school, senior school and indeed university.

Sebastian’s general sense is that senior school headteachers are ‘extremely concerned’ and are against pupils being tutored for entry exams and interviews. In addition, GCSE work and course work have become ‘overly supported’ by tutors. Is this right, ethical or fair towards pupils who work hard to produce their own work? Is it fair for those pupils whose parents cannot afford to have a tutor? Does it really benefit the pupil or does it harm them?

Before employing a tutor, he asks parents to:

  • first speak with their class teacher to clarify the situation, involving members of the learning enrichment/ SEN department if necessary, and certainly a member of the senior management team;
  • ask themselves whether the tutoring is to top up a learning need, to make up for an absence, or simply ‘tutoring for tutoring’s sake';
  • consider the above two points, and only then ask the school for advice on tutoring companies, agencies or individual tutors;
  • insist that the tutor remains in touch with the school and relevant staff member to ensure the work being done complements that done at school;
  • remain very sensitive to time fatigue and overload, and not allow tutoring to get in the way of pupils’ school work;
  • ask themselves whether the school they are aiming at for their child is too academic, and whether they should be considering a school that suits the child better;
  • bear in mind the child’s long term happiness and well-being.

Sebastian’s view was that, ultimately, parents and pupils should be able to rely on the schools to provide enough excellent and indepth tuition to allow their children to succeed. Otherwise he sees there may be some very damaging times ahead. He asserts that it is our collective responsibility to allow children to be children, not to create a childhood of educational burden and unrealistic behaviour, and not to confuse our responsibilities with over-ambition.

To that end, Sebastian endorses The Tutors’ Association new code of practice, and believes it is a step in the right direction.

Charles Bonas (Director, Bonas MacFarlane Education) 

Charles Bonas, a Director of the tuition company Bonas MacFarlane Education, then made a robust defence of private tuition. He began by arguing that pupils are not stressed because of tutors, but because headmasters ‘preside over the most competitive school entry system in the English-speaking world’. He claimed that headteachers such as Sebastian condone this system and indeed applaud it.

He then went on to question whether the parental anxiety Sebastian Hepher had identified was ‘neurotic’ or in fact ‘worthy anxiety’. We live in a competitive world: digitalization and globalization have impacted massively on children’s education. The question is, can schools cope on their own? Charles emphasized that his company has helped hundreds of children get into highly competitive selective secondary schools, and not once had he seen any of those families or children come back to them and say, ‘I can’t cope academically’.

Charles’ view was that all tutors are doing is giving children access to top independent schools and that, moreover, there is nothing wrong with having high expectations for children. He criticized what he sees as an incredibly outmoded view that the school is totally responsible for a child’s education. Thanks to digitalization and globalization, schools (which for the last 150 years have had a monopoly over education) are now faced with the fact that parents have an extraordinary choice which they never had before. There is the option to bring talented graduates into our homes and allow them to tailor-make our children’s education and build children’s confidence. Tutoring is resoundingly positive, but Charles seemed to think that all we hear from schools is a torrent of negativity. In the future there is going to be an increasing partnership between schools, parents and tutors.

Charles then made the point that the reason pupils are tired is that they’ve been at school all day. There’s a mythology that tuition agencies ruin children’s lives with over-tutoring: it doesn’t happen. Tutors and tuition agencies do care about children just as much as schools, if not more. And what makes it worse is the constant testing by schools – for example, the psychometric testing at Eton is outrageous, and it doesn’t work. Charles challenged headteachers to take a close look at the way they select students.

Charles’ final word was that tutors don’t just cram pupils for exams: they take them to museums, build their confidence and introduce them to reading. Tutors would love the chance to work more with schools, so please stop this alienation and polarization between schools and tutors.

Lord Ralph Lucas (Editor, The Good Schools Guide).

Ralph Lucas, who runs the Good Schools Guide, rounded up the debate. He asked parents to consider private tutoring in the context of the law: ‘it is you who are responsible for educating your children, and if you choose to sublet a bit of that to schools, that your choice, but it’s still your responsibility’. He maintained that tutors are an entirely proper part of education in the UK, and indeed that ‘there is something rather wonderful about being in a one-to-one relationship with someone not that much older than you who really understands the subject and who has real enthusiasm for it’.

However, Ralph then went on to point out ‘the extraordinary excess of tutoring in London at the moment’ where children are being tutored every evening and at the weekends. Such parents who employ tutors are not naturally ‘tiger mothers’ but do this because everybody is doing it and they therefore feel they have to. This is not the parents’ wish, and it is not something that is for the good of the children who are losing a year of their lives and their space for being children. Instead, Ralph argued, the fault lies with the schools. There is a system in London where schools are very selective, and where most of the selective schools have chosen to admit children who come top in exams. Now, if you have that as a system where only the top 50 are getting through, then of course, you push your child as hard as you can to be in that top 50 – how can you not?

It was Ralph’s view that schools therefore cannot complain when parents fight to win in that system because the rules themselves have been dictated by schools. He hoped that ‘we can have a go at changing that’, it being ‘quite clear that none of these tests work’. The tests don’t in some way produce the most perfect intake for a school because it is a tiny, momentary snapshot of a child’s performance and senior schools could be and should be doing much better than that. It is schools themselves that have caused this (not the junior schools, though they don’t really argue with it enough), and it is silly because outside London schools don’t really use this system. What schools outside London say is that exams are a hurdle, but above that we’ll go on school reports.

Ralph closed by saying, ‘I hope that what will come out of this is a rapprochement and we will find that schools and tutors are working better together because it is a good combination. You can always supplement what a school does, as you do at home anyway. Let us have a reformation that will get rid of the excesses of tutoring and leave the best bits in place’.

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