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What the media doesn't tell you about private tuition

Guest blog by by Henry Fagg, 9th June 2016

Girl Studying

Henry is a tutor and the founder of Thetutorpages.com, an award-winning directory of private tutors in the UK - one of the few such websites of which we approve.

If the British media were your only source of information about private tutoring in the UK, you'd end up with some pretty warped views.  

Two media tropes

Firstly, you'd think that only the super-rich can afford to employ tutors.  The favoured term is the 'super-tutor':  usually a young Oxbridge graduate who is paid thousands of pounds to dispense knowledge to their charge, perhaps on board a yacht or in the relaxed atmosphere of the family’s Swiss chalet.

The other common media story focuses on the so-called educational arms race. Here, the private tutor becomes a parent’s secret weapon in a results-obsessed view of learning. The prize is always the ‘best’ school or university, no matter what might be right or wrong for the child. It is a tutoring wild west, where opportunistic educators collude with ‘tiger mums’ to hothouse their exhausted children.

The essence of tutoring

At its core, tutoring is a benign, yet powerful force with an excellent pedigree. Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle, the Dalai Lama was tutored by Heinrich Harrer (‘Seven Years in Tibet’) and now millions of children across the globe benefit from it as well. Most parents intuitively know it works but there is also hard evidence supporting it as an educational approach.

In the educational psychologist David Ausubel’s conception, a tutor is in the unique position of being able to teach according to what their pupil already knows. For the child, being able to build on current knowledge is both the foundation of learning and also the wellspring of confidence. It can be difficult to create such conditions in the classroom, where the pace must inevitably be set to what is best for the group, and where peer pressure can mean a child can be afraid to ask questions, make mistakes or even get something right.

By contrast, parents instinctively know that with a private tutor a child can come on in leaps and bounds. As trust develops, the child can feel safe enough to check their understanding and ask questions without fear of ridicule. Before they know it, they are questioning just to satisfy their own curiosity and are beginning to enjoy themselves. A virtuous learning circle can thus develop within this framework and a child is happy to deepen their learning just because they can. This benefits them not just academically but in terms of their self-esteem and overall emotional development.

Not just for the super-rich

Private tuition is now more popular than ever and that means the market has created many different forms of tuition service. Paying large sums of money is not necessary and there are many ways in which parents can avoid being exploited when employing a tutor. You can employ a tutor independently or through an agency, face-to-face or online. Each tutor will have their own specialisms, strengths and weaknesses and they can range from enthusiastic, young graduates to those with years of experience, sometimes as classroom teachers. One of the best ways to find a tutor is through word of mouth. The important thing is to ascertain the tutor’s credentials, get references or recommendations from other parents and then observe how they get on with your child.

The average cost of an independent tutor is actually around £30 per hour. Prices often reduce for block bookings, for younger pupils, for online tuition (where there are no travel or time costs for the tutor) or for small group tuition at centres such as those run by Explore Learning or Kumon.

The ethnicity of pupils receiving tuition challenges stereotypes about the background of those paying for a tutor. Studies suggest that primary aged pupils from ethnic minority groups are more than twice as likely to receive private tuition as their white peers. Further, a number of educational charities now recognise private tuition as an effective way to transform the lives of children from any background. For example, Action Tutoring trains volunteers to work as tutors with under-privileged children.

Not just a sausage factory

The media line on the rationale for employing a tutor is that parents are hothousing their offspring for exams, often for entry into the country's selective schools. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that only about 7 per cent attend independent schools and 5 per cent attend selective state schools. In addition, when surveyed, only about half of children stated that the main reason for having a tutor was to pass an exam

This illustrates that what the sprawling private tuition industry has to offer is much more diverse than the media make out. Those who work in this sector know this and are aware that tutors use their diverse skills to achieve a multitude of aims.

Firstly, hard to measure traits such as confidence, resilience, inquisitiveness and love of learning naturally thrive under the right kind of private tuition. In addition, there are diverse reasons why tutors are employed: to learn a subject not on the curriculum, to catch up at school after an illness, to assist with homeschooling (an approach recently gaining in popularity) or for support with special educational needs such as dyslexia, ADHD or autism.

Tutors are also uniquely placed to develop skill sets traditionally associated with adult learning such as interview technique, communication skills, public speaking, career development or entrepreneurship. Finally there are all the subjects available which are usually viewed as extra-curricular - such as musical instrument tuition or sports, fitness and wellbeing.

Reality check on private tuition numbers

Part of parental anxiety over private tuition is the sense that ‘everyone’ is employing a tutor. This anxiety is again driven by the media which consistently report that about a quarter of all children - or half in London - are receiving private tuition. However, this figure is inaccurate and actually represents the proportion of children who have reported ever having received tuition in their lifetimes. The real proportion of UK children currently receiving tuition is much closer to 10-12 per cent, as one recent analysis has found.

Private tuition is often a wonderful opportunity for a child but it is by no means obligatory, necessary or ‘right’ in all cases. The great thing about private tutors is that they can be called on at any stage in life, whether it is to help brush up on a foreign language, achieve greater confidence socially or in the workplace, or to take up an entirely new skill.

Conclusion

With this survey of the private tuition landscape, my aim has been to puncture some of the myths surrounding this thriving educational world.

Although, in the main, private tuition remains an opportunity only available to families who can afford it, a combination of technology and market forces is making this opportunity both more accessible and affordable. Moreover, state schools are increasingly bringing in tutors to work with individual children, and often those from deprived backgrounds.

In a civilised society which valued the potential of each child, the chance to study with a private tutor should, when necessary, be available to all.

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