The stakes are high, so the wages of private tutors are even higher…

I wanted to write this blog about the growing industry of private tuition, the army of men and women delivering 1:1 lessons in dining rooms across the country each night. It’s a growing phenomenon, I don’t remember anyone having a tutor when I was growing up, maybe an older sibling who helped them with maths but certainly not someone paid by their parents to support their grades. I don’t even remember it being particularly widespread when I started teaching although I certainly noticed it when I moved to a more affluent area. There was little demand for private tuition in Moss Side, in Trafford (where they still have Grammar Schools, each with their individual exam) I think a teacher could easily replace a full time job if they wanted to.

So what is driving this increased demand for private tuition?

High stakes assessment and the only path to success is university…

School exams these days are very high stakes. Except they aren’t but everyone tells you they are. As adults we know that there are second chances (my 38 year old sister gained a grade B in GCSE maths last year) but still we keep up this relentless pressure on young people that this is their best chance. The country is also obsessed with particular qualifications, without that magic grade C in GCSE maths you’ll be doomed to a future in a dull and unrewarding job for little pay (apparently!). Despite the similar prestige offered to GCSE English I don’t think there’s quite the demand there, perhaps our cultural issues with maths are also to blame? Similarly it seems that university is the only place to go if you want a good job. So you must get the grades… A grades preferably. In my subject, chemistry, there is an endless stream of wannabe doctors and dentists willing to pay whatever the cost of that A or A* may be.

This is probably the biggest single factor contributing to the rise in private tuition. Exams these days seem so much more important than they ever used to be. Exams have always been important but there is now a huge media hype surrounding them. Schools are held up to strict accountability regimes where they have to be able to account for every missed grade. Education is seen as a predictable process where a child enters at age 4 and leaves at 18 having made the required amount of progress regardless of intellect, home circumstances etc. In the past there were plenty of jobs which could be accessed with basic qualifications, CSEs, O levels, GCSEs. Now for students entering employment it is all about those magic grade Cs which will gain them a job, most likely in the service industry. Schools panic and pass that onto students and parents, without that grade C then they won’t get into college for their Btec or onto their apprenticeship. And it is no better students whose likely path is A levels and then onto university. The number of A* is key to accessing particular courses and the coveted red-brick universities. Students are being defined by the metrics that accompany them, not by their skills, their eloquence, their kindness even. We (and by we I mean the system) are reducing our students to a series of letters and numbers on a piece of paper and we tell them that this will matter for the rest of their lives.

Consumer culture….

We live in a culture now that is used to getting what it wants, in short it is used to paying for what it wants. After all, you can buy almost anything these days so why not grades? Even if you’re already paying for an expensive private education, a few more £ for private tuition probably isn’t such a big deal.

Fragmentation of wider family life and secure social networks

When I grew up in the 80s and 90s the first place people looked for help with their schoolwork was their own family. This was pretty rubbish for me since my parents have only a handful of school qualifications between them but my dad could help a bit with maths and my mum was very strict about reading despite (or maybe due to) severe dyslexia. I also fondly remember the phone calls about homework that began at 6pm (cheap rate calls) between us school friends. I know my students often have group chats on Facebook so perhaps that is the modern equivalent but certainly the family input can be lacking. Economic uncertainty means the parents of teenagers are often out of the house working when their kids get home from school and homework is completed.

Lack of confidence in teachers and schools

The education system is complicated, too complicated. The pace of change has been so rapid recently that teachers are struggling to keep abreast of developments, and we’re the experts! 3 year GCSEs/2 year GCSEs, reformed qualifications, unreformed qualifications, letter grading, 9-1, criterion referencing, norm referencing… At the same time the status of teachers has been consistently undermined by the government. The media tells us schools are not good enough, that teachers aren’t doing enough. They are responsible for everything from low rates of literacy to teenage pregnancy and mental health. There are also quite valid concerns about the lack of specialist teachers in subjects like maths, physics and chemistry. It is highly likely some of your child’s timetable is taught by non-specialist teachers, who will be trying their very best, but whose subject knowledge and perhaps subject enthusiasm, are not as good as they could be.

Lack of confidence in the pupils

A large number of pupils lack confidence in their own ability. This is particularly apparent in subjects such as maths and modern foreign languages where people talk about having a particular flair or having a “mathematical brain”. Despite having the entire internet, YouTube, Khan Academy, BBC Bitesize, exam board websites and past papers and many other resources at their fingertips, pupils lack the confidence to work things out for themselves. I have seen girls reduced to tears because they “can’t do maths”, when they were just as able to do maths as anyone else they just needed a different way. Similarly parents lack confidence in their own children. Sometimes this is entirely justified, they know their child has a past history of being far too laid back and are prepared to throw money at the problem. Often, they’re just not convinced they’re going to do it without extra 1:1 help so they intervene and find a tutor.

Instant gratification, attention spans and writing skills…

At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy, is it just me or do kids find it harder to concentrate these days? Much of their life offers instant gratification, scores on video games, likes on Facebook and Instagram. Working for top grades takes commitment over a sustained period and many pupils just aren’t used to playing the long game. The discipline of a weekly/fort nightly tutoring session forces them to engage outside of the classroom on a regular basis.

I certainly can’t see the current tutoring culture changing anytime soon and without a doubt it does contribute to the inequalities we see with education. Charities like the Tutor Trust are seeking to redress this.





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