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Every little helps at the fast-learning counter

Education centres in supermarkets are expanding fast - one opens every month

The tills are ringing for a company offering state-school pupils cut-price private tuition in supermarkets while their parents do the weekly shop.

Explore Learning already has an annual pound;4.5m turnover and 20 centres in Sainsbury's and Tesco branches from Edinburgh to Bristol, where pupils aged five to 14 are taught English and maths.

It is opening a new centre every month and plans to operate in every major town in the UK.

Heather Garrick, Explore Learning's educational content director, said the demand was coming from parents who felt their children were not getting the personal attention they needed in school.

"The thing we hear repeatedly from most people is that they are pretty happy with their kids' schools, but just feel that the individual needs of their child are not quite being met," she said.

"It is usually a class-size issue, that they need to be stretched more, or that they need a confidence boost and help to catch up."

That is exactly the personalised "catch-up and stretch" approach that ministers have been calling on schools to use extra funding to deliver since 2003.

But Explore Learning is not unduly worried about state-sector competition and expects its American-inspired model to expand rapidly into a 200-centre chain.

It offers a ratio of one tutor - usually not a qualified teacher - to six pupils. The children are taught using the RM SuccessMaker integrated learning software package,

They work at computer stations, answering questions tailored to suit their particular needs and complementing the national curriculum work they do in schools.

The company, in which the education philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl is a major investor, says the approach allows pupils to make a year's progress in six months.

Ms Garrick said tutors were paid from pound;5.50 an hour. Many are graduates, and some trainee teachers. But others are sixth-formers still studying for A-levels. "They need to have a strong academic background," she said. "But primarily we look for people who have that passion and ability to inspire kids."

Parents pay a fee of between pound;89 and pound;98 a month, depending where they live, which entitles a child to two sessions a week, each lasting an hour and a quarter. They use Explore Learning as they would a gym, dropping in when it's convenient.

The fees compare favourably with the pound;25-plus an hour that can be charged by private tutors. There is a half-price rate for families on income support, and those entitled to family tax credits can claim back up to 80 per cent of the cost.

Ms Garrick said Explore Learning also attracted a proportion of independent school pupils in line with the national average, and did well among parents who wanted to help children prepare for Common Entrance or 11-plus exams.

The company aims to work with schools. It offers to take assemblies for them and provide free maths and English teaching workshops.

Nick Gibb, the shadow schools minister, said: "It is a concern that so many parents feel a need to spend pound;89 a month for an education they should be getting from the state."

John Dunford, the Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, said: "I don't think this necessarily says anything about the quality of teaching because parents in some very good schools pay for private tuition just to dot the i's and cross the t's."

'It's not like school at all. It's about having fun and motivating the children'

Vicky Smith became an assistant director at an Explore Learning centre after a year working as a qualified teacher of German and French at a Hertfordshire comprehensive.

"I really enjoyed teaching but it wasn't enough for me," she said. "I wanted more variety in my job."

Ms Smith, 26, works at the centre in Sainsbury's at Chelmsford, Essex.

"Here I get to manage tutors, work with a huge variety of children of all ages, speak to parents and run a business as well," she said. "I find it more exciting."

Ms Smith said a school management role might eventually have offered similar responsibilities, but her new position allowed her to take them on immediately.

She earns about pound;20,000 - almost exactly the same as she was earning as a newly qualified teacher.

In school, she used to meet parents for five minutes on one evening once a year. At Explore Learning, she has a three-minute feedback chat after every tutoring session, and a 30-minute formal meeting every two to three months.

Behaviour is not a problem. "We can give children more individual attention," she said. "It is a much more relaxed atmosphere. It is not like a school at all. It is about having fun and motivating the children to learn."

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