Do we still need to be hysterical about tutoring?

Yet again, a combination of lazy journalism and tuition agencies lining up to promote themselves has resulted in a news ‘story’ about tutoring. Both The Times and The Evening Standard have jumped on the bandwagon with tales of the tutoring ‘arms race’ and its ‘epidemic’ proportions. Take the following quote from Scotland’s Sunday Herald:

A combination of pushy parents and increasing pressure to do well has forced more and more pupils to sign up for extra lessons – so many that some educationalists are now worried about the effects of that pressure.

The funny thing about the above quote is that I actually dug it out from an article published in 2001 – almost ten years ago.

One of the problems with this area is that there is very little independent research into private tutoring, and that with a dose of media hysteria statements such as the following from Mylene Curtis of Fleet Tutors (in the Times article) can end up turning into self-fulfilling prophecies:

There is a fear factor among parents … They are unsettled by constantly changing initiatives, lack of confidence in local schools, dropping standards and under-qualified teachers.

The fact is that Britain’s schools are not in crisis, no matter what the headline writers would have us believe. The recent Cambridge Review – the most comprehensive enquiry into English primary education for 40 years – found that primary teachers have never neglected the 3Rs and that primary schools may be “the one point of stability and positive values in a world where everything else is changing and uncertain”.

Journalists’ assumptions about what it is that tutors do also need to be challenged. Anne McElvoy’s claim in The Standard that parents are so worried that they will pay tutors for “stuffing yet more learning into their young” fundamentally misunderstands the psychology of tutoring. The research (see here) actually shows that, more than any other form of learning, tutoring stimulates independent thinking.

Moreover, because the power of tutoring lies mainly in the constructive contributions of the student themselves, the need for so-called expert tuition is diminished and tutoring needn’t be as socially iniquitous as many commentators like to make out. In other words, a novice tutor (or parent, sibling or friend) with a good grasp of the subject could instead achieve excellent results through very simple means.