A week when everyone was talking about private tuition

I’ve been blogging on private tutoring for years, but have never seen so much media coverage of the private tuition industry in one week. Here’s my day by day account.

Friday 26th April

It all kicked off last Friday, when The Guardian and BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme both ran stories – coincidentally, it seems.

The Guardian took an unusual slant, suggesting that it is ‘parents on modest incomes and families from ethnic minorities’ who are behind a boom in the tuition market. Although the paper reported parents as saying private tutoring gave their children confidence and helped them secure top grades, interviews with headteachers were not very positive. Alongside The Guardian‘s main article was a case study of a modest-income family splashing out on tuition, as well as a collection of the views of 16 tutors, seven parents and two pupils.

The short item on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme was quite different. The programme started with a case study of Eleanor, a very well-adjusted GCSE student from Salford, who said she didn’t feel under any pressure – her tuition was just a couple of hours a week, and she liked how it had helped both her grades and her confidence. The presenter, Peter White, then sought to address the question ‘Are more controls needed over who can be a private tutor?’. He interviewed Mylene Curtis of Fleet Tutors and Jeanette Wallis of the Good Schools Guide, neither of whom thought greater regulation was a good idea. Instead, Mylene wanted providers of private tuition to ‘do a better job about setting standards’, and Jeanette answered the question by saying that ‘the majority of tutors in this country operate on word of mouth – so their names are gold dust and they’re passed from family to family, and they really don’t need any extra qualifications, or extra anything. You know, their track record speaks for itself.’

Monday 29th April

Monday began with an article in The Times about how two-year-old children are having private tuition in order to drop foreign accents picked up from their nannies. It was a story really more worthy of the The Daily Mail – and was indeed picked up by The Mail on the same day.

Meanwhile, The Guardian printed a letter from a university lecturer, entitled ‘Tutoring’s downside’. Her argument was that tutored pupils would struggle if they get into university, because higher education values independent, original thinking. (This view, of course, misses the fundamental fact that one-to-one or small group tutoring often sparks creativity, which is why Oxbridge will defend their tutorial system to the death.)

Tuesday 30th April

Tuesday’s most dramatic story reported in The Times and then later in The Evening Standard was about how Ben Thomas, headmaster of Thomas’s prep school in Battersea, had come out against private tuition, labelling it a ‘hideous concept’. Thomas was reacting to how children as young as two are being tutored for entry into his school, commenting that ‘it devours children’s time when they should be having a childhood’. He planned to host a debate on the topic for parents and students, the motion being ‘“this house believes that tutoring undermines education’. However, the irony that selective schools might themselves be to blame was not missed by online posters or indeed by Mr Thomas himself, who also remarked that ‘the thought that we’ve created a system where we’ve got three-year-olds being coached to get through an entrance test is fundamentally wrong’.

In the same article, Clarissa Farr of the independent St Paul’s girls’ school, was also sending mixed messages. On the one hand, recent research from the Girls’ School Association indicated that senior school heads discourage tutoring, with Ms Farr commenting that the industry ‘trades on insecurity and exam anxiety’; on the other hand, she put forward the idea of ‘a charter which requires all tutors to register with the school any child they tutor attends, so that all parties can work together.’

Following the fuss over tuition for the very young, Judith Woods for the Telegraph reported on how she thought she would hire a specialist elocution tutor for her 4-year-old daughter to see what would happen. Her conclusion about the female tutor who came to visit?: ‘In truth, she isn’t doing anything I couldn’t do myself – except that I rarely make the time’.

Wednesday 1st May

On Wednesday we woke up to Justin Webb on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme quizzing the headmaster Ben Thomas over his negative views on private tuition, alongside William Petty of the Bonas Macfarlane tuition agency. William Petty noted that busy parents often employ tutors to help with the increasing volume of homework – set, of course, by schools such as the one run by Mr Thomas.

Laura Perrins in the Telegraph also reacted angrily to the way Mr Thomas seemed to blame parents:

I think it is a bit rich for anyone to criticise parents who feel they need to tutor their children for competitive entrance to school; this is the system that has been created outside of parents’ hands. If you do not want young children tutored then do not have competitive entrance for them. Parents are only working with what they have been given.

In the Radio 4 interview, Justin Webb also raised the wider issue of the wealthy gaining an unfair advantage for their offspring through tutoring, an advantage that would secure them greater privilege and success throughout life. This was picked up by Melissa Benn on her Local Schools Network blog who naturally asked, ‘Why decry private tutoring but not the private school system which has institutionalised this advantage over such a long period?’. Anna Hubbard responded in the comments section by taking things a stage further:

To take the indignation to wealth buying educational advantage – which as you say is now masked as ‘parental choice’ – to its logical conclusion if I buy my son a book is that an unfair advantage? What about if I take him to a library? To what extent do we attempt to provide a level playing field and to what extent do we acknowledge that is impossible?

In reading this, I was reminded of Friday’s Guardian report, which showed how lower income families are certainly familiar with spending extra on education too.

Thursday 2nd May

While The Telegraph began today with a blog by Harry Mount on why tutoring is the natural answer to bad schools (both state and independent), The Times ran a feature in three parts on private tuition. The first part had journalist Carol Midgley cover many of the common areas: a parent finally deciding to employ a tutor to ‘give their son a chance’ since all of her son’s contemporaries had a tutor (an illustration of the ‘if you don’t run with the pack you’ll get left behind’ mentality); and Sue Marks, the headmistress of Withington Girls’ School, making some rather shaky claims that a) tutoring ‘is directed generally at helping children to pass specific exams’ and thus creates an unwelcome dependence on tutoring for the rest of their educational careers and b) there is no need for tutoring because school selection procedures can use interviews and references to see through the effects of coaching anyway. The second part of The Times feature was actually a refreshing change: an eleven point plan by the specialist learning mentor Jane Hanson showing how parents can perfectly well tutor their own child if they wish to. The final part was a ‘parent’s view’ written by Candida Crewe, in which she recognized forces other than parents’ pushiness at play in the rise of private tuition:

Schools and universities have upped their ante regarding admissions, grades and league tables, and the world is an ever more competitive place … We seem lumbered with the academic as the only marker of potential success in life, which we all know is poppycock … But while this system steadfastly remains, and while our own children remain stuck in it, they have to toe the line and do their academic best to have even a hope of getting into higher education and/ or scoring a job.

Despite this, Candida finished off her piece with a surprise tribute to ‘the joy that tutors can bring’. In her lone parent household, various inspiring tutors have acted ‘as counsellors, mentors, role models, wise older brothers, advisers, companions, heroes’.

Friday 3rd May

The week’s media storm was brought to a close by two more articles. An anonymous writer for the Guardian attempted to explain ‘Why I can no longer face tutoring the progeny of the rich and aspirational’, yet the piece didn’t quite ring true. It seemed to criticize the aspirations of any family, not just the wealthy ones, and indeed admitted that ‘Of course, one-to-one tuition is an amazing process’.

Finally, The Times reported today how Charles Milne, the admissions tutor at Eton College, has voiced concerns that gaining a place at Eton has become easier for pupils from London and the South East because of excessive coaching. This is despite Mr Milne’s claim that an interview with the boys ‘can blow their cover pretty easily’, and despite help from Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) to design a reasoning test which is as ‘tutor-proof’ as possible.

In Summary

So, what are we to make of all this media interest, and the thousands of online comments it has generated? Even the headmaster Ben Thomas, who labelled private tuition a ‘hideous concept’, spoke of how useful it can be sometimes. The medium of one-to-one tuition clearly ‘works’, not simply in raising standards for exams, but in developing confidence, critical thinking and achieving more holistic educational aims.  It is also clear that there are so many industry channels, with such a range in cost, that private tuition can no longer be characterized as only an option for the rich. That said, its intersection with both private and state sector schooling, and with the role of parenting, is becoming increasingly debated.

Too much tutoring, and too much academic pressure in general, is unhealthy for children. Yet, in my opinion, this phenomenon should not be criticized per se, but needs to be recognized as a symptom of wider social and environmental currents, as for example Jay Griffiths attempts to explain in her new book, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape.

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