The number of children getting extra support from a private tutor out of school – whether in order to pass national examinations or grammar-school tests, to catch up with their peers or as a result of ambitious parents – is on the rise.
But is private tutoring good for your child or does it put them under too much pressure? And what about those children whose parents can't afford it: are they at a disadvantage?
When does the question arise?
It's usually when families come to draw up a shortlist of prospective secondary schools – and discover quite how tough the competition is for selective schools or grants at private schools – that the question of tutoring comes up.
The demand for places at selective schools has grown to such an extent that passing an entrance exam is no guarantee of being offered a place: it's how well a child passes that counts. It hasn't helped that many of those parents who would previously have considered shelling out for a private school place, but who are suffering financially from the recession, have added their numbers to the burgeoning grammar-school application lists. But although tutoring for a selection test commonly starts in school years 5 or 6, some parents are paying through the nose ahead of this stage simply to improve their child's grasp of learning in certain areas.
Some teachers support parents' choice to pay for extra tutoring, but others feel that it undermines their own lesson plans, especially in subjects like maths where different methods can be applied, resulting in confusion between pupil and school teacher. And league tables are compromised as there's no way of knowing how much of an influence private tutoring has had on published results.
Another reason why some parents are opting for a private tutor is that they feel with class sizes of 30+ and so many government initiatives to adhere to, teachers simply don't have the energy, time or resources to give enough individual attention to each pupil. And in secondary schools, some feel – rightly or wrongly – that they need to top up their children's learning because some of the teachers don't have a degree specific to the subject they're teaching.
How widespread is private tutoring?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, private tutoring is most prevalent in London. A report published by the Sutton Trust – a charitable organisation set up to improve educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds – found that over two-fifths (43 in 2005.
The finding came from a survey of 2,447 11-16 year old students in state schools by Ipsos MORI, which also revealed that private tutoring is not restricted to more affluent areas, and that the proportion of students using tutors had increased in five years from 18 nationally.
Are poorer children at a disadvantage?
James Turner, Director of Projects and Policy at the Sutton Trust says: 'The Trust's concern is that the huge growth of private tuition will exacerbate the already substantial gaps between the haves and have nots. At £30, £40 and £50 plus an hour, private tuition simply isn't an option for poorer families - and this is where charities and the state should step in to level the playing field.'
The Trust is developing a pilot in a number of London schools which will offer private tuition in mathematics to 100-150 academically able Year 11 (GCSE) pupils from non-privileged homes who would not otherwise be able to afford it. Under the scheme, selected pupils will receive 10 hours of private tuition either one-to-one or in pairs in the run-up to the GCSE exam. Their results will be compared with a control group of students not receiving private tuition.
Is it worth paying for private tutoring?
The trouble with private tutoring is that once you find out that a percentage of your child's classmates are getting extra help out of school it can feel as if your own child's grades will suffer by comparison if you don't follow suit. Also, although there is some evidence that private tuition works, the research is not clear cut. In the end, the choice can only be made by you, taking into account the following:
• how well you understand the National Curriculum subjects yourself and whether or not you have time to offer extra coaching.
• how well you think your child would respond to your teaching.
• whether or not your child's teachers could offer the extra support in school.
• whether or not your child has the potential to improve his or her grades.
• whether or not you will eventually be vying for a place at an over-subscribed selective school.
• whether or not your child is aiming ultimately for a university place.
• whether or not the family finances can support the cost.
How much is it?
A government report published in 2009 found that the average cost of an hour's tutoring
was £24, but that at the top end of the scale some parents were paying £60. Given that, according to Athey Educational, a specialist publisher of practice tests for nine to 12-year-olds, children normally require 2 hours per week for 10 weeks preparing for selection tests, this brings the average cost to £480 – and the price at £60 an hour works out at £1200 overall.
In my case:
Same tutor, different result
Lynda Shelbourne from Brighton, West Sussex, says: 'We hired a tutor for Chloe when she was really struggling with maths in Year 4. A friend whose daughter, Emma, had also struggled at the same stage had used this particular tutor with remarkable success in a relatively short time: Emma had moved up from bottom set maths to top set in only six or so weeks, so we were very encouraged.
'Chloe didn't really get on with the tutor from the start: her teaching style was quite austere and formal (and she wouldn't even call me by my first name!). However, we persevered because Chloe felt that her understanding of maths was improving. After six months (and £500 in fees), however, Chloe was at exactly the same level as she was at the outset. And when her tutor had to use a calculator to work out what 15 out of 20 was as a percentage mark, we decided to call it a day.
'I don't know how the tutor managed to improve Emma's understanding so quickly: perhaps the penny was about to drop in any case. Chloe still finds maths hard now she's in Year 8, but moving to a slightly lower set has helped her gain in confidence where private tutoring failed, and we try to fit in some extra maths using special books for home tutoring each weekend.'
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