education show private tuition debate

More than a quarter of parents in the UK now use private tutors, but there is a wide variety of opinion about where the industry is now heading. Recently, the Independent Schools Show hosted a 30 minute debate covering some of the main issues which you can watch here. Below, I summarize the arguments made by the debate’s three panellists: Sebastian Hepher, Charles Bonas, and Lord Ralph Lucas.

Sebastian Hepher (Headmaster, Eaton Square School)

Sebastian has recently become known for his criticisms of private tuition in The Telegraph and elsewhere. He started out by making it clear that he’s not wholly against tutoring, noting that there are some excellent tutors who provide much needed support to pupils and their families.

However, he then went on to make the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable drivers of tutoring. In his view, acceptable reasons for hiring a private tutor included when a pupil has a) particular educational needs (such dyslexia, dyspraxia, English as Second Language); b) missed stages of their educational journey due to illness or being abroad; and c) a need for reinforcement on a particular topic (though with this, the message was to tread carefully and go through the school first). On the other hand, the unacceptable reasons for hiring a tutor included a) gaining extra help before entrance exams and pre-tests and b) parents feeling the need to have a tutor because all of their friends are, even if the child is very bright and able.

Why is Sebastian concerned? His main reason is the welfare of the pupils, stating that he doesn’t want to see:

  • pupils exhausted at the end of the school day being sent to tutors, when they should have time to relax and be children;
  • pupils overloaded with work;
  • parents misinformed about what a child needs;
  • pupils taught methods and systems which confuse them because they conflict with the methods employed by the school;
  • pupils’ schoolwork and homework affected due to overload;
  • tutors who are doing fantastic work being tainted by those who are not;
  • parents pushed into a corner by what is perceived as necessary if their child is to stand a chance of successful entry in school entrance examinations;
  • genuine weaknesses being masked in the lead up to an exam, only to be flagged later;
  • years at secondary school dominated by endless work in a pupil’s effort to keep up with the pack (…ultimately resulting in:);
  • poorer performance at GCSE and A-level as a pupil’s frail confidence becomes even more so, along with little time for concerted and genuine revision;
  • a divide growing between those who can afford tutoring and those who cannot.

Sebastian was careful to point out that the above does not mean he is not ambitious for the pupils in his care. Ambition should not be confused with unrealistic expectations which is, in his mind, one of the gravest faults of the private tuition world. He believes it is entirely wrong to lever a pupil into a school which is too academic for them: they will feel inadequate academically, and end up having to strive all the hours that are set to keep up with those who are more suited to that environment. This, he maintains, is true at all levels: for entry into pre-prep school, prep school grammar school, senior school and indeed university.

Sebastian’s general sense is that senior school headteachers are ‘extremely concerned’ and are against pupils being tutored for entry exams and interviews. In addition, GCSE work and course work have become ‘overly supported’ by tutors. Is this right, ethical or fair towards pupils who work hard to produce their own work? Is it fair for those pupils whose parents cannot afford to have a tutor? Does it really benefit the pupil or does it harm them?

Before employing a tutor, he asks parents to:

  • first speak with their class teacher to clarify the situation, involving members of the learning enrichment/ SEN department if necessary, and certainly a member of the senior management team;
  • ask themselves whether the tutoring is to top up a learning need, to make up for an absence, or simply ‘tutoring for tutoring’s sake’;
  • consider the above two points, and only then ask the school for advice on tutoring companies, agencies or individual tutors;
  • insist that the tutor remains in touch with the school and relevant staff member to ensure the work being done complements that done at school;
  • remain very sensitive to time fatigue and overload, and not allow tutoring to get in the way of pupils’ school work;
  • ask themselves whether the school they are aiming at for their child is too academic, and whether they should be considering a school that suits the child better;
  • bear in mind the child’s long term happiness and well-being.

Sebastian’s view was that, ultimately, parents and pupils should be able to rely on the schools to provide enough excellent and indepth tuition to allow their children to succeed. Otherwise he sees there may be some very damaging times ahead. He asserts that it is our collective responsibility to allow children to be children, not to create a childhood of educational burden and unrealistic behaviour, and not to confuse our responsibilities with over-ambition.

To that end, Sebastian endorses The Tutors’ Association new code of practice, and believes it is a step in the right direction.

Charles Bonas (Director, Bonas MacFarlane Education) 

Charles Bonas, a Director of the tuition company Bonas MacFarlane Education, then made a robust defence of private tuition. He began by arguing that pupils are not stressed because of tutors, but because headmasters ‘preside over the most competitive school entry system in the English-speaking world’. He claimed that headteachers such as Sebastian condone this system and indeed applaud it.

He then went on to question whether the parental anxiety Sebastian Hepher had identified was ‘neurotic’ or in fact ‘worthy anxiety’. We live in a competitive world: digitalization and globalization have impacted massively on children’s education. The question is, can schools cope on their own? Charles emphasized that his company has helped hundreds of children get into highly competitive selective secondary schools, and not once had he seen any of those families or children come back to them and say, ‘I can’t cope academically’.

Charles’ view was that all tutors are doing is giving children access to top independent schools and that, moreover, there is nothing wrong with having high expectations for children. He criticized what he sees as an incredibly outmoded view that the school is totally responsible for a child’s education. Thanks to digitalization and globalization, schools (which for the last 150 years have had a monopoly over education) are now faced with the fact that parents have an extraordinary choice which they never had before. There is the option to bring talented graduates into our homes and allow them to tailor-make our children’s education and build children’s confidence. Tutoring is resoundingly positive, but Charles seemed to think that all we hear from schools is a torrent of negativity. In the future there is going to be an increasing partnership between schools, parents and tutors.

Charles then made the point that the reason pupils are tired is that they’ve been at school all day. There’s a mythology that tuition agencies ruin children’s lives with over-tutoring: it doesn’t happen. Tutors and tuition agencies do care about children just as much as schools, if not more. And what makes it worse is the constant testing by schools – for example, the psychometric testing at Eton is outrageous, and it doesn’t work. Charles challenged headteachers to take a close look at the way they select students.

Charles’ final word was that tutors don’t just cram pupils for exams: they take them to museums, build their confidence and introduce them to reading. Tutors would love the chance to work more with schools, so please stop this alienation and polarization between schools and tutors.

Lord Ralph Lucas (Editor, The Good Schools Guide).

Ralph Lucas, who runs the Good Schools Guide, rounded up the debate. He asked parents to consider private tutoring in the context of the law: ‘it is you who are responsible for educating your children, and if you choose to sublet a bit of that to schools, that your choice, but it’s still your responsibility’. He maintained that tutors are an entirely proper part of education in the UK, and indeed that ‘there is something rather wonderful about being in a one-to-one relationship with someone not that much older than you who really understands the subject and who has real enthusiasm for it’.

However, Ralph then went on to point out ‘the extraordinary excess of tutoring in London at the moment’ where children are being tutored every evening and at the weekends. Such parents who employ tutors are not naturally ‘tiger mothers’ but do this because everybody is doing it and they therefore feel they have to. This is not the parents’ wish, and it is not something that is for the good of the children who are losing a year of their lives and their space for being children. Instead, Ralph argued, the fault lies with the schools. There is a system in London where schools are very selective, and where most of the selective schools have chosen to admit children who come top in exams. Now, if you have that as a system where only the top 50 are getting through, then of course, you push your child as hard as you can to be in that top 50 – how can you not?

It was Ralph’s view that schools therefore cannot complain when parents fight to win in that system because the rules themselves have been dictated by schools. He hoped that ‘we can have a go at changing that’, it being ‘quite clear that none of these tests work’. The tests don’t in some way produce the most perfect intake for a school because it is a tiny, momentary snapshot of a child’s performance and senior schools could be and should be doing much better than that. It is schools themselves that have caused this (not the junior schools, though they don’t really argue with it enough), and it is silly because outside London schools don’t really use this system. What schools outside London say is that exams are a hurdle, but above that we’ll go on school reports.

Ralph closed by saying, ‘I hope that what will come out of this is a rapprochement and we will find that schools and tutors are working better together because it is a good combination. You can always supplement what a school does, as you do at home anyway. Let us have a reformation that will get rid of the excesses of tutoring and leave the best bits in place’.

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