Posted on 20th June 2009
Out of nursery, into the rat race
From The Guardian
By Jenni Russell
In Britain, one industry is booming - private tuition. Now widespread at every level of the education system, it distorts exam results, disadvantages poorer families and obscures the real problems in our schools.
It’s the only boom I ever predicted. Seven years ago I wrote about the hidden world of tutoring. It was clear then that all the competitive pressures on schools, parents and children were going to make it a growth industry. I didn’t do anything sensible with that insight - set up an agency, retrain as a tutor - but it did mean that I have watched the spread of the phenomenon without surprise. Well, almost. Actually, this month’s report from the Sutton Trust, reporting that 43% of 11- to 16-year-olds at state schools in London have been tutored, up from 36% four years ago, was genuinely startling. In the capital at least, tutoring has gone from a fringe activity to a mainstream one. And yet the reasons for that, and its effects on education, are still largely ignored.
It’s the naked competitiveness and target obsession of our education system that has pushed people into tutoring in such large numbers. Nationally, more than a fifth of children say they’ve been tutored. And tutoring is no longer reserved for the classic pinch points; 11, 16, 18. The government’s own research shows that in some cases it’s starting at a surprisingly early age. Now that pupils are being graded from the age of five, children who might have been allowed to develop at their own pace in the past are being told they’re falling behind, and because they’re being made to panic by anxious teachers, parents feel they have to respond too. One father wrote to me, distressed by the fact that his six-year-old son was coming from school in tears, saying he was stupid because he couldn’t read. That father had found a tutor because books had now become a source of such fear and high emotion that he needed someone calm outside the family to deal with it. He was furious with a school system that was ruthless about inducing guilt and anxiety in small children, but didn’t have the time to respond to their individual needs.
Mylene Curtis, who runs one of the biggest tutorial agencies in the country, Fleet Tutors, with 5,000 staff, says that in a survey of her clients 81% said they were using tutors because they were unhappy with some elements of the state system. She says that at the primary stage parents are often losing faith in teachers. Parents believe that teachers are trying their best, but fear that staff are worn out and over-burdened by the ceaseless flow of bureaucracy and government initiatives. That makes parents insecure. At secondary level, many are compensating for the fact that their children are being taught by teachers who don’t have degrees in their subjects - something that is particularly common in maths and sciences. Others want their offspring to get the kind of focused attention and chances to ask questions that just aren’t possible in a class of 30.
Curtis’s business has grown fivefold in five years. She believes a lot of that is business from parents who, for financial or ideological reasons, want to keep their children in the state system, but aren’t prepared to see them underachieve as a result. They may be able to afford £400 a term for tutoring, but not the £4,000 a term for private school fees. She thinks it is very positive that the tutoring option is keeping parents in the system who might otherwise feel they couldn’t stay.
Curtis is of course right that it has become common for parents who can afford it to reinforce teaching, or make up for a school’s failings, by paying for it themselves. It’s obviously more desirable for children to grasp maths or French or physics than to be left in a haze of incomprehension. At an individual level, tutoring is completely understandable. But its distorting effect is threefold.
First, the prevalence of tutoring means that the government’s league tables tell parents very little about the teaching at a school. High scores indicate only one thing with certainty; that this school has a parent body who will give their children whatever support they need to do well in their exams. It isn’t an assurance that the school itself will deliver those results.
Secondly, it means that poorer or less knowledgeable parents will fall behind in the competition, because they are unable to afford to do the same thing, or are unaware that it is an option. A fifth of parents from professional backgrounds have had their children tutored, while 5% of working-class parents have done the same. And thirdly, it successfully prevents a national discussion about real failings in the education system, because they are not being publicly recognised.
A nurse that I know feels the deep injustice of all that. She is a single parent, living in north London, who was hugely relieved when her daughter won a place at a grammar school at 11. It was only when her child’s peer group were sitting GCSEs that it dawned on the mother that all her daughter’s friends were being tutored in several of their subjects. Their results were slightly, but noticeably, better. To the mother’s anguish, the tutoring continued at A-level. She could not afford to do the same thing. When the grades came out, the friends had all got into their first choice of university; her daughter, who had one poor teacher, had just missed her offer. The mother wrote to me, saying that although she was proud that everything her daughter had achieved had been through her own efforts, she was bitter that nothing in the system gave her credit for that, or recognised the lifelong advantage that her friends had bought.
The question of what’s been bought, what’s fair, and what deserves reward is at the heart of our anguished debate about our education system. On the one hand, skills and education are undoubtedly good for the individual and for the country. On the other, they are also chips in an increasingly intense competition. Many parents are in a constant and uneasy debate with themselves and one another about the advantages they are buying or forgoing. Parents who condemn private education as securing privilege may think nothing of moving house, tutoring in five subjects, and doing their children’s coursework for them. Others defend grammar schools as meritocratic, but think helping with homework is cheating. Public-school parents can think that not helping a child in every way you can is tantamount to neglect. What none of them can avoid is the consciousness of how they are performing in comparison to their peers. Tiny differences in exam results can determine lives. When others start raising the stakes by engaging tutors then everyone else feels intense pressure to follow suit.
Nowhere is that pressure greater than at age 10 and 11, when children have to apply, and in many places compete, for places in state or private secondary schools. It is then that many parents realise the extent to which tutoring is operating as a shadow education system, with its own hidden rules. One mother of a 10-year-old was turned away by the tutors she tried to book in south London. They told her she was at least a year too late. The children getting places at a nearby school were all scoring 100% in the entrance exam, and her daughter, a bright girl, would have needed 18 months’ preparation to do the same.
Patty Rhodes is one of the thousands who found herself caught up in tutoring her child because she realised that he would be at a disadvantage if he didn’t. She lives in west London, sends her four children to a state primary, and because she is from the Netherlands the hysteria and competition over secondary-school places came as a complete surprise. Her first choice of school for her son Elliot was a Catholic comprehensive, and the second was Holland Park, also a comprehensive, but she was warned by other mothers that she couldn’t count on getting into either. Elliot would need to be prepared for private entrance exams. His mother says that doing two hours’ group tutoring every Saturday morning demanded dedication. The constant practise was vital. Elliot had to learn how to focus, and his creative writing had to become consistent. “Because there’s so much competition out there, he needed to be not just good at it, but very good. Everyone else is doing it, so you have to do it too - it’s a rat race.” She is relieved that she did, because Elliot wasn’t offered any of his state-school places, but he did get in to Latymer, a nearby private school.
State-school parents tend to assume that tutoring is something that is only necessary in the state sector, or needed as a bridge from state to private schools. After all, are not small responsive classes and individual attention exactly what private-school parents are paying for? But those who move into the private system can be profoundly shocked to find that their children still seem to be falling through the gaps, and that tutoring is widely seen as the answer.
An architect and single parent I talked to had assumed that once her boys had been through a year of cramming at 11, and had places at a prestigious private school, she wouldn’t have to think about tutoring again. Far from it. Some of the teachers at the school were excellent, and some were absolutely dire. The school did not seem to care - “If you weren’t Oxbridge material they weren’t interested in how you were getting on.” She couldn’t plug the gaps herself, because she didn’t have the time, knowledge or emotional resilience for it. “If I’d tried to make my eldest work, we’d have had world war three. He needed some discipline, and help I couldn’t give. I got tutors in to spare the relationship. I didn’t think I should have had to do it. In the end you realise that it’s par for the course, because everyone else is doing it. You’re cheating your child if you don’t. And the schools happily collude in it, because it gets them what they want; better grades without the effort of it.”
This mother’s experience suggest that the government and Sutton Trust figures on tutoring in fact substantially understate its extent. Their research only covers children in the state system. It seems clear that not only are many private school children likely to have been tutored before 11, but they are also very likely to be tutored thereafter. All the tutorial agencies have a substantial number of clients in private schools.
If that hasn’t been accurately measured, nor has the newest phenomenon in tutoring - the undergraduate client. Kate Shand at Enjoy Education in Chelsea had 10 undergraduates on her books two years ago, and now she has 100. She says that students are asking for help because they are disillusioned with the sizes of classes and lectures, and they feel that in a huge anonymous organisation, there’s no one to turn to.
Curtis has also seen a huge increase in demand, and is scathing about the reasons. She agrees that university students are horrified to discover how little contact or teaching time they’re given, but she thinks the main cause of their desperation is that many of them have had years of inadequate teaching. They arrive at university unable to write essays, or structure their thoughts. In north London, Dr Karina Halstead at Home Tutors says it’s the mature students at the new universities who tend to come to her. They aren’t getting the support they need form the institution that’s taken them in and frankly, she says, she often can’t understand what they’re doing in a university at all. They’re adults who don’t have the skills to manage it, and tutors alone aren’t going to take up the slack.
What the boom in tutoring exposes is that our education system, state and private, from five to undergraduate level, fails do what it claims. It is being supported by a shadow industry, only fully accessible by those who have money, the social networks to access good tutors, and the antennae to realise that their child isn’t doing as well as they could. It’s true that the government, in a belated recognition of the difference tutoring can make to children, is to offer some private lessons to the bottom 3% of performers in English and maths. But that still leaves a huge swathe of children in the centre who are not getting the chances that others do.
Only a fundamental reform to the system - less cramming, smaller classes, an education based on less testing and more on learning to think - is going to make any difference to this trend. If I had to make another forecast, it would be this - in five years, the proportion of tutored children is going to be sharply up again.