Confessions of a 'Lax' Parent: The Only Private Lessons My Kids Have Are Swimming Classes

02/05/2016 17:46

"White British Children overtaken by 10 ethnic groups" screamed a recent headline as yet another study, published this month, showed that white children start well at school but slip behind Chinese, Indian, Asian and other minorities by the time they get to GCSE levels.

A key reason, said one of the study's authors, Jo Hutchinson of the Centre Forum, is parental engagement. "We are talking about such things as attending parent's evenings at school, talking to their children about subject options, supervising homework, ensuring that the family eats together and has regular bedtimes."

The first thing that occurred to me was another recent study that created even more volatile headlines "Ethnic Minority children are twice as likely to be tutored".

"Great," I remember thinking, As if the thorny subject of private tuition isn't emotive enough... let's make it about race. That'll make it easier to talk about".

That study by University of Newcastle and NatCen social research shows almost half of Chinese, black and Indian children in this country are receiving private tuition at 11, as are one in five white children. At seven around 5% of children are already being tutored and that jumps to 20% among kids from Indian backgrounds. It's Chinese and Indian children who are getting the best results at GCSE.

A straight talking Chinese ex-colleague of mine and self-confessed 'tiger mum' wasn't entirely joking when she called me 'lax' for admitting the only private lessons my seven and eight year olds had were swimming classes.

She thinks success of Chinese kids in England is simple, 'My kids just work harder than yours' she says with characteristic honesty. The latest research does shows Indian and Chinese kids also do more homework with 25% of 11 year olds studying for more than 5 hours a week compared to 7% of white children. She thinks that's at least as important as extra tuition.

But if you are part of the madness that is the London private day school system, these figures look tame no matter what race. Girls are tutored from four for places at the most competitive schools and tutoring for admission tests to prep schools at seven or eight is commonplace. As are tales of tutors flying out to join families on private yachts or skiing holidays. But this research isn't about that particular gilded cage, it's countrywide.

Tutoring is a bit like Botox, many more people do it than admit to it.

When parents do broach it, there's potential for the kind of judgement laden divisions and ensuing guilt you hoped were consigned to the nappy bin after the breast/bottle and working/non-working parent minefields had been picked across.

Indian and Chinese friends certainly don't have the monopoly on tutoring their children from an early age, they're just more honest about it. An old university chum, who is Indian, says she still has 'classic immigrant drive' and no qualms about paying for private lessons for her girls.

"Their success will only come from academic achievement, we can't rely on family connections or old school ties." She says her kids are well aware of the extended family's sacrifices to bring them to England and she's drummed into them the paramount importance of education.

Government data for primary schools shows the remarkable success rates of Chinese and Indian pupils in particular. Thirty-five per cent of Chinese pupils achieved the top grade (level 6) in maths tests for 11-year-olds in 2014, four times higher than the proportion of white children.

I do believe that there are situations where private lessons are useful. A week's summer school can stop kids forgetting what they've learned over a long holiday. A short burst of tuition before a key exam could make a valuable difference and extra help for a child who's struggling with a certain topic could boost their self-confidence as well as their grades.

But creating a life-long tutee at seven must surely damage a child's self-belief and limit their ability to learn independently. Tutoring becomes self-perpetuating, having had extra help to get into a selective school or to a top set many kids continue with the safety-blanket of private lessons so they can keep up.

This eternal hot-housing seems too narrow a way to spend childhood.

Think of the pressure it puts on children and the risks of burn out before they even reach GCSE or A levels.

I want my children work out for themselves what they really enjoy doing, what they are passionate about, what interests them; rather than where can they be taught to excel. I hope they learn from their mistakes, even dare to fail and when they do succeed have the satisfaction of knowing they did so independently.

When I was sitting my 11 plus in Northern Ireland my mum's sole involvement was to shout "Good luck" on the morning of my test. None of my friends had tutors either. Now those friends' children sitting today's equivalent test are tutored for up to three years. Why? Because everyone's doing it and they feel it's the only way to succeed.

There the divide isn't along ethnic lines (for once!) but it must surely be along social ones with better off parents more likely to fork out the fees. Research also shows that children whose mothers have been to university are more likely to be tutored. Grammar schools could do more by trying harder to make exams less, 'tutorable', as some independent schools already do.

Parents, regardless of ethnicity, tutor their kids because they love them, and want to do what's best, even if they tutor them unwillingly, feeling they are putting too much pressure on the kids.

That's the tyranny of tuition, a spiral of peer pressure at the school gates, a fear that other children will have an advantage over yours. If we could just call a tutoring amnesty on the escalating academic arms race it would be an emotional benefit to parents as well as children.

Ironically while we're eyeing the success of Chinese children, business leaders in China are partnering English public schools to set up offshoots there, providing a broader education.

In a future of artificial intelligence where computers will be able to do at least some of our jobs, the signs are that creativity, empathy, team building and social skills may be more valuable than ever. Thankfully these are traits kids are more likely to learn on the sports field or in their first band than in extra maths.