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Private lessons equal big profit;Briefing

UNITED STATES

Concern over standards has fuelled a boom in learning centres, reports Tim Cornwell

Private tutoring chains are booming. Hundreds of "learning centres" have opened in shopping malls and office buildings offering after-school tuition by the hour.

The growth in tuition firms comes at a time when parents are highly critical of standards at state schools and worried about rising competition for college places.

Sylvan Learning Systems - the acknowledged leader in the field - now has nearly 700 franchised learning centres across the US. They provided individual tuition to about 124,000 children last year, and the company has seen its revenues nearly double since 1995 to $44 million (pound;26m).

Smaller rivals lead by the Kumon Math and Reading Centres are also expanding. Newsweek magazine reported that 42 per cent of Americans believe there is a "great need" for children to get outside tutoring.

State schools in America have suffered a stream of bad press in recent years, over "progressive" trends in education said to have overlooked the basics.

In California, the number of students served by Kumon - a worldwide operation that focuses primarily on maths teaching - has leapt from 5,500 at 45 centres in 1993 to 10,000 students at 92 centres in 1997. "It's growing, growing, growing all the time," a spokesman said.

Tutoring was once the province of the upper classes. But working parents with more money than time are increasingly paying between $2,000 and $4,000 annually for two or more hours of extra tuition each week. Combining this tuition with state schooling is still cheaper than paying up to $10,000 or more for private schools.

The firms typically pledge to improve a child's performance in basic reading or maths. Sylvan's lure is one-on-one attention that costs $25 to $40 an hour. Instructors never work with more than three children at a time. The company has also been hired by several hundred state and private schools to provide tuition.

"It is individualised instruction," said Vickie Lazar, a Sylvan spokesman. "You hire a specialist when you have a specialised medical problem. We are that specialist in the education business."

Kumon focuses on maths learning based on worksheets and timed tests with a mantra requiring mastery of maths concepts in small steps. Adults act as supervisors rather than instructors.

Bruce Fuller, director of policy analysis for California education at the University of California at Berkeley, said the trend reflects "this on-going competition among American parents to make sure their kids get into four-year colleges ... it's a little bit like Japan, but not so intense."

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