There has been a lot of press coverage recently for independent school Heads speaking out against private tutors. The language is coded in terms of an industry of hangers-on, opportunists, as if tutoring firms were simply taking advantage of middle-class foibles, creating extra work, distraction and pressure for their pupils.
Yet, this very rise in demand has been fuelled by the schools themselves, and they must take responsibility for their part. Rather than sit in judgement on how awful the practice is, a little bit of self reflection would go a very long way.
The rise in activity in this area has come from demand from parents and directly as a result of the escalation in entrance requirements in schools. It is a problem generally, and particularly where competition for the 'best' places is already high, such as London. Who can blame parents who want the best (whatever that might be) for their child? When the entrance demands of the schools are so highly competitive, is it any wonder that parents do what they can to give their child an edge? So, not parent-driven aspiration, but an inevitable reaction to ever rising requirements set by schools.
In a commercial world of surplus and profit, where league tables are king, the schools themselves are responding to the power of such drivers: the best way to secure the highest league table position is selectivity, and the more stretching the better. And so we see a vicious circle, with blame being focused on the tutoring business.
It's a circle that needs to be broken. Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College makes a critical point - that schools should be developing the children's characters, and not just their ability to pass exams. Of course, all schools will claim to do this, but, how many actually do? There is also a clear irony here from China of all places. The intensity of attitudes towards education in China means that its parents have already been down the same route; the hurdle of standards cranked up to such a height that even the brightest, best-supported (and tutored) children start to struggle. So, forward thinking parents from China are turning to the British system to ease the pressure on their children, and to develop creativity, leadership, teamwork and confidence. Indeed, the requisite skills necessary to succeed in a global environment. But are they now in danger of sending them half way around the world for more of the same, where children are pressured to study for 12 hours a day and more in order to be able to progress to the next stage?
As the circle tightens in on itself, everyone suffers, (children especially), as more extra work with tutors or other forms of support becomes a necessity, and the more invested in getting results, the greater pressures and expectation. More parents feel like they have to earn more/spend more just to keep up with the minimum expectations of their family and social circles, let alone find ways to get ahead. For schools themselves, the fear of falling behind in league tables and therefore losing children is too great a risk to take and so the entrance requirements remain stringently high.
So what can be done to break the circle? I was fortunate enough to recently observe at close hand one of the UKs leading state schools - Wymondham College. It is a state boarding school in Norfolk. There are no academic entrance requirements, yet intellectual and academic aspirations remain extremely high. The characters of the children are fully developed and the whole child is supported. The school backs itself to succeed with the children that attend, and succeed it does in a spectacular way. Many of our so called top independents, particularly in London, could take a leaf out of its book, take the pressure off the child at entrance, and concentrate on doing what our greatest schools do best - turn out first class people who have exceeded their and others' expectations.
Tutoring is still a fledgling industry which is only now - with the acceleration of demand - being more carefully managed and developed. The Tutors Association has just been set up to do just this. Its right that tutoring operations are scrutinised and treated with some healthy scepticism - but it's not the source of the problems in itself. Tutors are - and will be - an important part of everyday education and achievement for the many, working with and for schools. The best way of achieving this goal will be more self reflection on the part of schools as to their role in the pressures that are placed on our children, not from downgrading the value and criticism of tutoring.