Parents are paying pound;9.99 an hour for pupils to get online tuition from teachers in Bangalore. Michael Shaw reports
First it was directory inquiries, then banking and customer services. Now pupils seeking help with homework from teachers are being put on to helplines in India.
More than 3,000 pupils in Britain already receive one-on-one tuition, using internet telephony and their computers, from TutorVista, a company employing teachers who work shifts in Bangalore, in southern India.
Next month, the company will begin trialling its service with a handful of state schools in England which will pay to give pupils extra help in preparing for national tests, GCSEs and A-levels outside lesson time.
TutorVista refused to name the schools involved.
Parents pay from pound;9.99 for an hour of tuition, which is available 24 hours a day, less than half the average cost of a private tutor. The teachers in Bangalore receive around 200 rupees per hour, the equivalent of pound;2.28, more than a third higher than typical school wages in India.
The business was set up by Krishnan Ganesh, the founder and former president of ICICI Onesource, one of India's largest managers of call centres for British companies.
"We are not trying to replace the classroom or classroom teachers," he said. "The social aspect of going to school is important, and teachers in the UK work very hard. But, unfortunately, the teaching that pupils receive is not always personalised. If you want to get good at tennis you need personal coaching, one on one, and it is the same with education."
Pupils book sessions in advance, then log on to a website where they share essays and other work with their tutors. They are able to chat by using voice-over-internet systems. The pupils and teachers can also draw on a simulated whiteboard or load up prepared work and animations.
"Yes, there are certain limits to what can be taught online - drama, for instance, would be difficult," Mr Ganesh said. "But English, maths and science lessons work extremely well."
TutorVista has around 6,000 pupil-subscribers in the US, which it began targeting when it launched in 2005, and started offering its services to UK pupils earlier this year. The biggest demand for tuition from both nations is in mathematics.
The company has 60 tutors for the US and 20 for the UK, who are trained in the differences between the countries' curriculums. They are also taught some slang (see box) and to use a Western style of teaching, where pupils learn through discussing examples, rather than rote-learning, which remains common in India.
"The parents in America are more direct about what they want, while the parents in the UK are more subdued," Mr Ganesh said. "The British parents will be polite even if they are not happy, so the teachers have to ask questions and delve deeper to make sure they are satisfied."
The National Union of Teachers said it did not see hotlines as a threat to British teachers, as only a tiny proportion of the 7.5 million English state school pupils had so far expressed an interest.
"There's a difference between ringing a helpline to get a phone number and getting support with your education," a spokeswoman said.
"Whether it is in India or Blackpool makes no difference to the quality of education that can be provided by a graduate in a call centre, compared to face-to-face help from a teacher - although there are questions about the cultural awareness of Britain that teachers in India would have."
Cor blimey, that footie was pants
TutorVista's Indian teachers are given lessons on British slang as part of their training. These are some of the words and phrases:
Blimey: an exclamation of surprise ("Cor blimey!")
Bling: a description of lots of jewellery (many pop stars are "blinged up")
Bunk off: to miss one's school lessons
Lush: lovely, appealing or attractive ("That dress I saw in the shop today was lush!")
Dodgy: something that is viewed as not correct or not quite right ("Look at her dodgy hairstyle!")
Pants: not trousers, as we would think in India. In the UK it means ladies'
underwear and is also commonly used by teenagers to describe something they think is rubbish ("The film last night was pants!") FootieFooty: used to refer to the game of football ("Did you see the footie last night?")