Last week, the Centre for Market Reform of Education (CMRE) hosted a round table meeting to discuss the feasibility of setting up a UK professional association for private tutors, and to explore the case for wider consultation on self-regulation of the industry. Internationally, such bodies do exist, such as in the US (National Tutoring Association/ American Tutoring Association) and in Australia (Australian Tutoring Association), so the idea of one for the UK is not so surprising.
Representatives from about a dozen of the UK’s leading tuition agencies were invited to the discussion in Westminster, as well as Lord Lucas (editor of the Good Schools Guide) and a smattering of others including myself, representing The Tutor Pages (see below for a full list of attendees).
Despite the burgeoning size of the UK’s private tuition industry, it was the first time the industry’s leading players have met in this way, and so was a rather remarkable event.
The main purpose of the meeting was to discuss the feasibility of setting up an association or institute of private tutors, an idea which the CMRE is clearly in favour of. But would such a body be both practicable and beneficial to all concerned – private tutors, tuition agencies and the general public? There are clearly a large number of issues and vested interests.
Rather than running a tuition agency, I am the director of an online publication which accepts advertising from private tutors. My perspective is therefore unusual, and my main concern at the meeting was that independent private tutors – thousands of whom work independently of tuition agencies – have a voice. Could a tutor association accommodate their needs, instead of becoming a kind of trade body/ club for the tuition agencies? I have expressed skepticism before about the feasibility, let alone usefulness, of an association of private tutors – but the meeting I attended last Thursday changed my mind on a couple of points.
Here’s my current assessment of the arguments.
Inclusiveness vs Standards
Clearly, an association of private tutors needs to be delimited in various ways. James Croft, Director of CMRE, was helpful in suggesting that the proposed association might cover only a) private one-to-one tuition in the home b) academic-only core-curriculum subjects and c) school-age tuition, perhaps only up to 18 years. This was a good start, since private tuition can encompass a huge variety of activities such as adult language tuition, musical instrument tuition and tuition for professional qualifications.
Chris Lenton‘s input was then invaluable, since he has been extensively involved in both setting up professional bodies and in analysing the challenges they currently face (see, for example, his recent report on 44 of the UK’s leading professional associations). Chris informed us it would be feasible for one professional body to accommodate both individual private membership and membership options for organisations such as agencies. From my perspective, this was encouraging because it suggested that independent freelancers could benefit.
It was then that the thorny issue of standards arose. There is an inherent tension between, on the one hand, trying to get the tuition industry as a whole on board, and on the other maintaining standards of some kind. Every tuition agency has their own method of maintaining standards, for example by stipulating minimum qualifications for tutors, conducting face-to-face interviews, monitoring tutors’ performance and providing training. During the discussion it started to become clear, however, that agreement on standards for membership of tuition agencies may be nigh on impossible. As a very simple example, one agency representative pointed out that one of the best tutors on his books was a school leaver – with no degree, and no teaching qualifications.
And as for individual tutor members – would there be any way of maintaining standards among these freelancers? Perhaps the organisation could verify the tutor’s qualifications and references on joining, and help them to obtain CRB certificates. However, such measures do not in themselves identify good tutors. As I mentioned at the time, although an association can put up a barrier to entry, it would be impossible to expel a tutor except in the case of gross misconduct. In other words, an association of this kind has no way of monitoring or regulating the quality of tuition that a tutor provides.
This brings me to the heart of the issue. On the one hand, an association of tutors would imply to members of the public that its members are professionals, offering a professional service. But this would be rather misleading, because the organisation itself would have no mechanism to regulate or ensure quality. There may be partial solutions to this problem – for example, a public feedback system on the lines of Tripadvisor – but such systems are controversial, especially when tutoring depends so much on rapport between individuals. Even the ‘best’ tutor will not suit every child.
One thought is that a tutor’s credibility could somehow be linked to the number of CPD (Continuing Professional Development) training modules he or she completes during membership of the association. These could be undertaken both on- or off-line. As far as I am concerned, the potential for offering such training is the best argument for forming an association of private tutors in the first place, since training opportunities in one-to-one tuition are currently few and far between.
From my perspective, the case for forming an association on other grounds is currently weak. For example, CMRE’s suggestion that the private tuition industry needs to self-regulate because it currently remains vulnerable to unwelcome government intervention is contradicted by the current government’s lack of interest in regulation. And, as I have explained above, claims that a tutoring association might help the public to access a higher standards of private tuition are on shaky ground when such an organisation is unlikely to have any regulatory powers. In the light of this, the further claim that a professional body could help tutors access government work opportunities (such as within the state school system, or through the kind of voucher initiative championed by Nick Clegg) begins to look implausible, despite this being a major motive for the CMRE’s involvement.
I do believe there is a reasonable chance that an association of private tutors will get off the ground, but this is mainly because (at the risk of both sounding cynical and mixing my metaphors) tuition agencies may see it as a useful bandwagon to jump on and may be afraid of missing the boat in shaping the debate. But aside from the training and networking opportunities it may provide individual tutors (which may be worthwhile and substantial), I am yet to be convinced that a professional association would be of much benefit to tutors, students or their parents.
List of Attendees
Charles Bonas (Bonas MacFarlane), Woody Webster/ Oliver Eccles (Bright Young Things), Thomas Maher (British Home Tutors), Matthew Goldie-Scot (Carfax Private Tutors), Kate Shand (Enjoy Education), Mylène Curtis (Fleet Tutors) Julie Harrison (Harrison Allen), Jake Hall/ Edward Sibley (Holland Park Tuition), Will Orr-Ewing/ Josh Pull (Keystone Tutors), Lucy Cawkwell/ Shirley Hesry (Osborne Cawkwell Educational Consultants), Eddie Banner (Select Tutors), Nathaniel McCullagh/ Katie Haigh (Simply Learning Tuition), Rupert Syme (The Tutors’ Group), Adam Caller (Tutors International), Amelia Peterson (Freelance Tutor), Henry Fagg (The Tutor Pages), Stephen Beeley/ Alex Beeley (Knowledge Seekers), Ralph Lucas (The Good Schools Guide), Jonn Elledge (Education Investor), Chris Lenton (Wild Search), James Croft/ Relve Spread (The Centre for Market Reform of Education)