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Parents who get their children tutored think they’re giving them an educational advantage, but growing numbers of educational professionals believe it can be abusive. Who is right?

The dangers

Sending pupils to private tutors for up to two hours after school is tantamount to ‘child abuse’, according Gail Larkin, headteacher adviser in Surrey and past president of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Larkin isn’t alone – professionals involved in children’s wellbeing, including educationalists, are increasingly speaking out against the fast growing body of so-called pushy parents who subject their children to additional evening teaching, sometimes as young as four-years-old and often against their will.

It’s no better at senior level, wrote the Guardian’s ‘secret teacher’: ‘Children at my grammar school are tutored intensively from the 11-plus to GCSE. It devalues our teaching, skews the playing field and denies them a childhood.’

The dramatic increase in private tutoring is less a case of children actually needing a helping hand academically and more a case of tutoring becoming the new normal, say critics – a claim borne out by the Sutton Trust’s findings that 27 per cent of secondary students in England and Wales have had home or private tuition, a figure that rises to 41 per cent in London.

Once a parent hears of little Johnny or Amelia having tutoring, that’s it – they’ve Googled their nearest tutor agency or tuition centre before they’re even out of the school gates. If entrance exams are on the horizon, tuition hours are snapped up quicker than organic sourdough loaves fly off the shelves at Waitrose, especially in the capital and some of the home counties.

The result, warn cynics, is that children are missing out on the likes of swimming, football, Scouts, ballet or simply playing or they’re just plain exhausted because they’re trying to fit all this in on top of hard-core one-to-one learning or tuition centres out of school hours. If they are falling behind at school, it’s no wonder, they say.

In any case, many argue that rather than increasing a child’s confidence in a subject, tutoring can make a child feel their parents are dissatisfied with their achievements and start doubting their abilities. An over-reliance on tutoring can also foster a culture of academic dependence – a child feeling they can’t do their homework or prepare for the next test without their tutor to help.

No wonder schools have traditionally been the first to rebuke tutoring and many point out that with tutoring commanding fees of £24 upwards (many are three of four times that), there is widespread concern that the private tuition industry is putting children from poorer backgrounds at a greater disadvantage.

Send your child off to sing in a choir or play football – or just go for a walk in the woods with them, goes the advice of opponents of tutoring. Much is reported on the pressures children already feel and school hours can be long – why add to them?

The benefits

It’s not hard – particularly the closer you get to London – to find hordes of parents raving about how extra tuition made all the difference to their offspring’s educational achievements, giving their previously underperforming children a track record of success.

There will always be children who struggle with a particular subject, even if they go to the best school with the smallest classes. No school can give every single pupil all the attention they need and sometimes that teacher’s approach won’t quite work for that individual child. This, they claim, is where tutors can prove invaluable.

It’s no coincidence that maths and sciences are the most commonly tutored subjects – these are the subjects children struggle with most. So what’s wrong with giving kids an extra hour here or there in these or other subjects to help solidify what they’re learning in class or to give them new ways of getting their heads round difficult concepts? So goes the argument. Schools themselves would offer this to children with special educational needs – why not to extend this to other children?

Parents whose children already shine in the classroom are not immune to singing the praises of private tutoring either – mainly to perfect their revision and exam techniques. In the uber competitive world of getting into top schools and universities, this can make all the difference, they say. And yes, that tutoring may need to start as early as four or five, they’ll tell you – if only because getting your child into the right prep school can have such an impact in the longer term.

Even some schools are getting in on the act. Pembroke Tutors is one of many tutoring firms now claiming to work in conjunction with schools – in their case, with Westminster Cathedral Choir School, among others, which give informal recommendations and whose teachers liaise with them regarding pupil progress.

It’s not as if all children are inevitably unwilling participants – far from it, with parents and tutors reporting that in many cases, it’s the children themselves requesting extra help. And it’s not as if tutors take on any child – good tutoring firms will tell families where they think there’s no need or benefit.

In short, say private tuition enthusiasts, what parent would stand by when they can afford to give their child a boost academically? And with tutor agencies increasingly offering a charitable arm to their business, tutoring is becoming increasingly accessible for children more disadvantaged backgrounds.

Checklist

  • Don’t tutor too young – we think there is no place for tutoring three-year-olds
  • Does your child really need tutoring? – if you haven’t identified a goal, you shouldn’t be doing it
  • Does your child want to be tutored? – at best, they should want it, and at worst, they should be on board with it
  • Do a sense check on the number of hours – these kids are at school all day, give them a break
  • Check on their confidence levels – tutoring should improve confidence, not make them feel worse about the subject
  • What is all this tutoring replacing? – if they have to ditch swimming that they love for tutoring they hate, take a step back and reassess
  • Beware of spoon feeding – children who depend too much on tutors can’t become independent learners

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