THE BLOG

'Tutoring Boom'? Think Educational Bust

01/05/2013 11:39 BST | Updated 30/06/2013 10:12 BST

On Friday last week the Guardian published a slewofarticles on the so-called boom in private tuition. Competitive parenting, coupled with economic woes cannily exploited by tutoring businesses were cited as the primary causes, with one head teacher suggesting that these "traded insecurity and exam anxiety, sometimes undermining rather than building confidence".

Confession: I am a private tutor and the earnings from tutoring a number of school-age students often make up more of my income than I'd like to admit. This is not pass comment on the controversy surrounding the varying merits and detriments of private tuition. That's a separate debate.

Rather, I'd like to point out that the Guardian's coverage omitted to focus on exactly who is doing the tutoring, other than professional or semi-professional tutors from pricey agencies. Beyond these many tutoring businesses, though, there are also web platforms, such as TutorHunt, which seek to match prospective students with tutors. Gloss over these sites and you'll notice that majority of the tutors on offer are recent graduates.

So when one parent said that she would "eat beans on toast to see Toby go to university", I was struck by the sour irony that beans on toast - once just a shorthand for student life - is now a symptom of cyclically dysfunctional educational economy. And this is what was missed: many tutors and their tutees are in reality on the same pegging, merely separated by a five-year age gap or so.

With a paltry jobs market, crippling rents and living costs, and no tangible application for our expensively accrued educational capital we - the emergent service workers as the BBC termed us earlier this month - turn to the same squeezed milieu from which we herald for salvation. It's kids born before 1992, or thereabouts, selling a promise of university education and eventual prosperity to the parents of kids born after 1992, or thereabouts.

This situation arises especially when graduates have to defray the costs of an unpaid internship or a job search in one of the UK's expensive urban centres. That's what happened to Andrew, an Oxbridge grad with a first in history, who resorted to tutoring to "help finance the unpaid internship I did with a charity (though that didn't cover it) during the summer."

Even when the grad job is landed, emergent service workers may still rely on tutoring to bolster their income. Little wonder when, as is the case in almost all other career sectors, graduate starting salaries grew below inflation last year.

Dismissing this as middle class insularity is also reductive. Firstly, because less affluent families are increasingly turning to private tuition. Secondly, because this shores up our skewed view of educational promise: atomised stages, each with the assurance of unlocking future economic security and success. We value it and therefore we're happy to pay ever more for it, whether it's a one-hour math's lesson or a three-year arts degree. And yet the rat race is broken, as pressure is piled on GSCE students to one day excel in a manifestly lifeless job market.

Wry workers in Communist-era Czechoslovakia encapsulated the collective delusion that underscored the planned economy with the phrase, "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us". Today the systemic dissonance could be, "you pay and work for your education, and we all pretend it's worth it."

(Having said all of the above, I realise exams are coming up soon and will happily offer my services to any parent looking for an English, history or German tutor.)