Private Tutoring - Full Steam Ahead

It is with great concern and a fair amount of experience that I write about the growth of private tutoring for school entrance examinations, particularly at 11+ and sometimes even younger.

Private tutoring as a sector of education is probably bigger than most would imagine, and nearly half of pupils in London have had a private tutor at some point in their school career, fuelling an industry that is valued at nearly £3bn a year.

Given that the Birmingham grammar schools now hold their 11+ entrance examination in the September of Year 6, private tutoring is now commonplace in Year 5 when pupils are only 9 years old.  Some tutors are even advocating a Year 4 start, stating that waiting until Year 5 is too late.  In many families tutoring interrupts or even wipes out the summer break, replacing well-earned rest and recuperation with cramming and potential anxiety.  Independent schools, including Solihull, have added to the problem by following the grammar school lead and moving their entrance examinations earlier – decisions not rooted in pedagogical motives.

Some may argue that my blog is rather hypocritical given that independent schools set the exams and place so much reliance on them, and there may be some truth in this assertion, but the impact on children as young as 7 has now prompted me to share my thoughts and fears.

Before I go any further, I would also add that I have never met a parent who has not wanted the best for their son or daughter or one who set out to add to their child’s stress levels. On the contrary, I have worked with many wonderful families for nigh on 30 years.

As touched on above, evidence suggests that in areas of intense competition for places, for example Birmingham and London, pupils are being put through a gruelling private or home tutoring programme in preparation for the entrance examination season.  This is great news for private tutors, charging as much as £50 per hour, but is often at the expense of holiday activities and recharging batteries for the next academic term or year.  Furthermore, some children are being made acutely aware of the expectation on them, heightened by those parents who are inclined to share with them how much this tuition costs, and the sacrifices that others in the family might be making.  Whilst statements of this nature can motivate some (which I question), as educators and parents we must be more attuned to the adverse impact such leverage can have on our pupils and children.

When older siblings, and even generations, have attended the same school, the pressure can be even higher and young children may be incredibly anxious about not getting a place and breaking such long-standing family traditions.  Similarly, when twins are involved, particularly when one is more academically able than the other, the burden and subsequent fallout can be significant.  Logistics alone make it very difficult for busy parents dropping children off at different schools, which may be some distance apart, and despite best intentions, children may feel this pressure.  Tutoring can of course help, but the size of the margins involved in these cases is critical. Above all else it is important to establish the right fit at the outset rather than moving school some weeks or months after starting afresh.  

These issues can be compounded by tutors’ lack of expertise in a dynamic educational environment, parental desperation and imperfect information.  Where recommendations are difficult to find, particularly if parents are reluctant to share news of good tutors for fear of aiding ‘the competition’, worried families might turn to the small ads and cold-buying, and this can be a recipe for disaster.

Of course, children of more affluent families are at a distinct advantage over others and every year many heavily tutored pupils win places they were not expected to, while bright children from lower income families lose out.  Prep and junior school heads and parents themselves are increasingly questioning admissions decisions, drawing comparisons between pupils who got in (and maybe shouldn’t have) and those that didn’t, and appeals are an escalating and awkward feature of secondary school life, and very time consuming too.  In addition, it can quickly become apparent to teachers which pupils have been tutored into secondary school, and these pupils can struggle to cope with the demands of a selective school curriculum post-tutoring.  I have heard that some tutors claim to be able to prepare children for verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests without the necessity for full understanding, and I suspect very sadly that there is some validity to the anecdotal feedback. In this sense, the tutoring has facilitated a poor and potentially untenable fit between pupil and school, and it is invariably the child that suffers in these circumstances, with self-esteem and motivation taking the biggest hit.

So what of the future?

Tutoring does of course have its benefits and private tutors can make up for shortfalls in schools, particularly with the recruitment of specialist teachers becoming more of a problem or when a pupil or teacher has been absent from school. Furthermore, in some cases, a pupil may be very close to a ‘door opening grade’ and tutoring can make up the difference. Moreover, many schools legitimately advise some parents that a little tutoring may bridge the gap. I do not deny that there are many examples of genuine need and that parents are doing the right thing, nor that some tutors are excellent and even work with schools for the benefit of the child.  However, this is sadly not always the case and tutoring can have long term negative effects, albeit unintended.

Some schools have introduced ‘tutor proof’ entrance examinations which focus on skills already taught in primary schools such as spelling, vocabulary, mathematical problem solving, non-verbal reasoning and…natural ability!?  Whilst this is important food for thought, it seems to have done little to slow tutoring down and tutors are doing as they have done for many years in looking for ways to gain access to past papers and interview questions.  The likelihood is that little will change and the most advantaged will continue to benefit from a system that will still brand many children as failures at age 11 or even earlier.

Schools like Solihull generally do an excellent job for those gaining admittance, and the legacy is abundantly clear, but maybe we should all be more aware of the potential impact on those that don’t and those children mismatched with selective schools by the tutoring process.  That said, I doubt that a new exam or my meanderings will stem the tide of expectation that keeps tutoring so firmly afloat.