Private Tuition: The Best Start in Life?

Private tuition has been in the headlines a lot this month, and we’re not even two weeks in.

It began with a survey indicating that parents now spend £6bn a year on private tutors, with many worried that their children aren’t getting adequate support at school. Then followed research from the Daily Telegraph suggesting that rising numbers of pupils are trying for the 11-plus exams, with a report from York University claiming that grammar school admissions are significantly biased towards children from richer backgrounds. It seems that, in harsh economic times, not only is education becoming more prized, parents who may have afforded independent schooling in the past are now spending on private tutoring to get their children into grammar schools instead.

Following that, we heard that some grammar schools are now trying to make their tests ‘tutor-proof’ because of this ‘over-coaching’ phenomenon. Although the very idea has been met with ridicule by some, potential measures include basing selection on teachers’ assessments during the final year of primary education, preventing the sale of past papers, and rethinking the famous tripartite test of maths, verbal reasoning, and non-verbal reasoning skills.

Finally, to top it all off, a programme revealing the intensive private hothousing which some British children undergo was aired on ITV on Thursday. Entitled The Best Start in Life?, this broadcast was a depressing reminder of the lengths some parents will go to in order to ensure ‘success’ for their offspring. One child was doing 25 hours a week extra study for the 11+ exam; another boy stated that gaining intelligence was more important than having friends; and one parent said of her son that she was aiming for ‘A-level reading comprehension standard by the time he is 8 years old’.

To try and gain some perspective, I turned to the numerous comments on these stories across the web. There was certainly widespread shock over the ITV programme, but also recognition that the producers had found some pretty unrepresentative examples in order to make a good story. One comment summed up the dangers of forcing too much extra coaching on children, stating that genuine long term improvements may be likely but parents achieve this ‘by cutting into children’s playtime, leading to a generation without initiative, courage, social skills [or] the ability to take responsibility for their own decisions’. The sense that such children would end up feeling alienated from their peer group was emphasized by many, echoing the views of the child psychologist interviewed for ITV.

There wasn’t, however, a consensus that private tuition itself is to blame. On the contrary, some parents thought that the right private tutor is actually good for a child’s overall well-being; for example, mummov3 commented that for her child, ‘Since attending it has made him happier and more confident in school. I think it has actually put him under LESS pressure because he is now keeping up with the others in his class.’ Such a view has also been reiterated by a number of private tutors such as Rich Cochrane who observed, ‘I mostly work with older teenagers and adults, who are often experiencing a lot of stress by the time I meet them. I consider it part of my job to help them put things into perspective and take control’. Another tutor, Andy Flatt, summed up the need for ‘more interaction between secondary and primary schools’ to help find a school most suited to the particular child, while Jane King noted that ‘We all see the pushy parents, but part of our role is to make learning easier and more enjoyable. One of my students is working more effectively since she became her own person, and lowered the sights … there has been a collective sigh of relief as her own personal targets have been adopted’. Steven Beeley put it succinctly when he commented that ‘We could always adopt a hybrid approach where we work on EQ skills as well as IQ skills’.

All in all, I think it is fair to say that there are definitely pressure points within the education system, with private tuition sometimes characterized as making things worse. On the other hand, every child’s situation is unique, and private tutors often make a fantastic contribution to the lives of their pupils. As I have pointed out before, private tuition is fundamentally a medium of instruction, and can be used to attain either the holistic development of an individual, or indeed achievements at the expense of that holistic vision. It is the latter scenario which tutors, parents and society as a whole need to watch out for.

UPDATE (13/11/2012) One tutor has just added a fantastic and very personal article about the 11 plus ‘Kent Test’ – highly recommended.

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