As more Scottish children are sent to tutors John Greenlees urges parents to look to Japan for a cautionary tale
SCHOOLS in the leafy suburbs monopolise, somewhat predictably, the top positions in league tables showing exam passes. Credit for their success is attributed to the efforts of teachers, the encouragement of parents, the role of school policies and, of course, the diligence of the pupils. But there is one influential figure who tends not to receive any credit: the private tutor.
Several surveys show that a growing number of Scottish pupils are now receiving after-school tuition from private tutors and that has a beneficial effect on a pupil's academic performance. Good tutors not only correct weaknesses in pupils' work but will also attempt to boost their confidence and get them into a positive frame of mind for doing well in their exams.
In some schools more than half the fifth-formers taking Higher courses are now receiving private tuition from at least one tutor. It is not uncommon for pupils to receive help from five or more private tutors during the course of the academic session.
The growing popularity of private tuition is a phenomenon which I have studied first hand in Japan where intense exam-competition, and the desire for places at top universities, has resulted in the development of a huge network of private tuition services. These cramming services range from small, home-based, one-to-one tutoring to huge cramming schools called "juku" which accommodate thousands of pupils at one time.
The development of Japan's private tuition industry into a billion-pound-a-year business has had a number of benefits and drawbacks which are worth noting. On the plus side the popularity of after-school tuition has helped to raise academic standards. A large part of the credit for Japan's impressive performance in international tests of academic attainment is frequently attributed to the substantial amounts of additional tuition which the majority of pupils now receive.
On the debit side there is the personal cost for the millions of Japanese teenagers whose lengthy academic day involves travelling between lessons at school, personal coaching at a crammer and revision work at home. The crowded schedules of these "triangle teenagers" leaves them little time for sports, socialisation and relaxation. The number of young Japanese with stress-related illnesses is high.
Another problem is the dismissive attitude some Japanese pupils develop for the teaching they experience at school. It is the crammers, many pupils say, which employ the most effective teachers and best prepare them for the crucial exams that determine entry to university.
But the cost of private tuition, both in personal and financial terms, is considered worthwhile. A survey of students entering one of Japan's highest-ranking universities revealed that around 81 per cent had received private tuition during their three years at senior high school.
As many as 60 per cent of Japan's high school students, and around 25 per cent of elementary school pupils, are now receiving after-school tuition. Indeed Japan's learning competition stretches back to the pre-school years with education-obsessed parents enrolling their two- and three-year-olds for personal tuition which seeks to instil good study habits at an early age.
In Scotland the learning competition hasn't gone this far but after-school tuition is increasingly affecting young people's level of academic attainment. As more pupils benefit from private tutors others feel obliged to follow suit to keep pace.
There is no doubt that personalised and targeted help makes all the difference between passing and failing exams and between obtaining low and high grades. But private tuition also makes an already less-than-level playing surface even bumpier for those who cannot afford to pay for extra lessons creating an "education gap".
In Japan an increasing proportion of students entering the country's top universities are from richer families. Critics say the private tuition business enables parents to buy education success for their children and is destroying the traditional egalitarianism of Japanese schooling. It is a view which holds much sway in nearby South Korea where the Government has effectively banned private tuition in the pre-exam period.