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Three-year-olds being tutored? Yes, really – and it needs to stop

By Kate Hilpern

Children as young as three are being taught by private tutors at a cost of £40 an hour or more. In a fight to get them into top schools – or because they don’t trust schools to teach core subjects well later on - parents are paying these tutors large sums to give these tiny tots formal lessons, usually in English and maths, sometimes on a daily basis.

These children are on the tail end of toddlerdom. No wonder many tutors and tutor agencies turn them away, with a policy not to start tutoring children until they are at least six or seven. But worryingly, others have no problem at all with taking these parents’ money, with some specifically targeting such families with the promise of preparing them for the stiff competition at oversubscribed schools.

How do we know? Because we always ask the tutor agencies we review how old their youngest charges are. Some agencies have told us of even younger children being tutored – one as young as two-years-old. ‘It’s a supply and demand issue,’ one told us. If the parents feel they need it and they feel they can help, it’s considered a simple ‘win-win’. Another said, ‘It’s quite popular where children don’t speak English as a first language at home.’

But other agencies literally laugh at the question, deeming the idea of tutoring such young children as ridiculous as we do. ‘It’s both unprincipled and misguided,’ said one, ‘especially as many of the tutors are very bright but have no experience of working with young children.’ One told of a child hiding whenever the tutor turned up.

With study upon study revealing that today’s children are under too much pressure, we’d argue these tiger mums and dads need a reality check. School starts at a certain age for a reason. And don’t these parents realise that their plan is likely to backfire? It’s not as if private tutoring – often sat at a table with a pencil they can hardly hold – can be much fun for this age group. Rather than engaging children in the idea of learning, we suspect it is likely to make them switch off in the longer-term. The best kind of teaching at this age is through play. Doing jigsaws together, spotting letters on road signs and visiting conservation zoos are just a few of the more fun – and dare we say, normal - ways in which young children learn. Along with reading to your child.

Some blame the trend towards tutoring young children on the education system itself – notably school heads wanting to cream off the most ‘intelligent’. But not all are culpable, with many using assessment days to sing songs, play games and do other activities that you can’t coach for. As one prep school headteacher put it, ‘Our assessment day is about checking the child will be a good fit for the school in terms of behaviour and potential; it’s not a competition to see who has already had the most information crammed in their brains.’ Others blame the test-driven culture that this government has introduced to the state school system.

The parents who get their pre-schoolers tutored are most likely to live in cities and large towns, where tutoring more generally has become the norm. Increasingly, when we talk to parents at some of these (though by no means all) schools, it’s no longer a case of ‘do you have a tutor?’ but ‘which tutor do you use?’

There’s always been a certain subsection of parents who have been competitive – the my-child-can-read-faster-than-yours set. But tutoring kids who are haven’t even started school is a sad sign of the times in which there is so much more at stake.

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