Private tuition debate on BBC Radio 4: a summary

On 7th September, Jane Garvey presented an interesting feature on private tutoring for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

There were interviews with two people who have detailed knowledge about this industry: Janette Wallis from The Good Schools Guide and James Turner, Policy Director at the Sutton Trust.

Below is a handy summary of what I think are some of the key points from their discussion. I hope you find it useful!

Why do parents hire a private tutor?

Janette mentioned there are two reasons why parents hire a tutor: firstly, a child who is struggling in a particular subject can improve their confidence and grades through tutoring. Secondly, there is the more negative aspect where tuition can be ‘contagious’, leading to the so-called tutoring ‘arms race’ among parents.

James agreed with the latter problem, noting there is more competitiveness and pressure than ever before. More children are getting top grades at GCSE and A-level, there’s a squeeze on university places and a squeeze on graduate careers. Parents naturally want to do the best for their child, and so will try to give them the edge.

Who hires private tutors?

James referenced a survey by The Sutton Trust which shows that a fifth of all children have had some form of private tuition over the course of their school careers, rising to more than 40% in London.

Parents of various financial means will make sacrifices to pay for a tutor, but there will still be many parents who can’t afford private tuition at all. As a charity, James mentioned how The Sutton Trust is concerned about those families from poorer backgrounds that miss out.

Janette talked about the type of parent who can’t afford £5000/term for private education, but who does have enough to pay £500/term for private tuition. In other words, these parents will go the state route but ‘top it up’ in certain subjects with a private tutor. She also stated that demand in some circumstances is driven by children themselves who are influenced by their classmates having tutors.

Does all this tutoring mean there is something fundamentally wrong with the state education system?

James noted that although private tuition is most popular in London, state school standards have actually risen faster in London than in other urban areas, so the amount of tuition isn’t necessarily correlated with the standards in state schools. He said how it’s more about an increasing consciousness of the issues and the competitiveness already talked about.

Tuition isn’t regulated in the UK: so how should parents choose a tutor safely?

Janette mentioned three key points in this regard. Firstly, parents should look for a tutor with a CRB check as a basic minimum. Secondly, some parents feel more comfortable if a tutor comes to their house because they feel that it’s a safer environment (although it’s a more expensive option). Finally, she recommended speaking to others who’ve used the tutor to help build up a picture of someone who’s trustworthy.

Does private tuition work?

James mentioned how research proves quite conclusively that private tuition provides the best way of boosting a child’s results. For that reason The Sutton Trust is currently piloting a tuition programme for children from poorer homes, not only to help those children but also to assess exactly effective one-to-one or small group tuition can be.

Janette mentioned there is research that shows how it’s the one-to-one nature of tutoring that works so well, and not necessarily whether a tutor is highly qualified or not. In that respect, parents often underestimate what they can do for their children themselves (on this point see Tutoring: A Tool for the Masses).

On tuition scare stories

A final word from Janette: Whenever I hear that ‘everyone in the class is getting a tutor’, you’ve got to be a little sceptical – it’s like ‘everyone in my class has an iPhone’ – I don’t think it’s always true.