The impact of private tuition

13th November 2009 at 00:00

There is a school, in one of those leafy lanes you often hear about, which has 110 pupils studying Higher English. Of these, 53 are receiving private, one-to-one tuition.

The department concerned is a highly competent one, but the increasing pressure for the most sought-after university places has caused many parents to take no chances with these crucial exams by paying for some additional help. And it is help which makes a big difference. An hour a week with a tutor can help exam candidates to correct weaknesses, obtain a better understanding of the course and gain invaluable moral support and encouragement.

But private tuition also impacts on the fairness of our education system. Poorer families can't afford the cost of additional help and Scottish education's already uneven playing field is becoming bumpier still.

The better-off have always been able to buy educational advantages for their children, but the boom in tutoring threatens to widen the very noticeable attainment gap which already exists between the haves and the have-nots to unacceptable levels.

One-to-one tuition remains an invaluable means of providing personalised learning support, particularly for strugglers. Unfortunately, many of those who would benefit most from it don't receive any, while those who are already doing quite well often receive more than they need.

In Japan, I have viewed first hand how the private tuition business - where it is a multi-billion pound annual business - distorts the entire education system. Millions of teens attend after-school tutorials for additional help with their preparations for the highly-competitive high school and university entrance exams. Increasing the time spent with tutors, it is accepted, means increasing the chances of outperforming others.

As a result, a growing proportion of places at top Japanese universities are now going to students from families which are able to pay for the best private tuition.

In South Korea, a similar penchant for private tuition developed to the extent that many teachers felt it was impacting on the education system's cherished principles of equality of opportunity and advancement by merit. Private tuition, it was agreed, should be banned in the lead-up to exams.

In an ideal world, it might be better if private tuition for exams didn't exist. But it does, and we need more ideas for levelling out our uneven playing field.

The suggestion that schools receive additional funds to pay for after- school tuition for pupils from poorer families who have academic potential is fraught with difficulty. But it would, I believe, yield tangible results and go some way to narrowing the horrible attainment gap between rich and poor.

The levelling of opportunity has to be a priority for Scottish schools. In England, which has become such a hotbed of new ideas and innovations, a new one-to-one tuition programme is being introduced for younger pupils struggling in English and maths. It intends to recruit 100,000 people with qualified teacher status to raise overall levels of literacy and numeracy. By September 2010, around pound;468 million is expected to have been spent on it.

It is a spending strategy which the Education Secretary in London says will focus help on those who need it most and contrasts sharply with Scotland's preferred strategy of more limited help, by reducing class sizes in the early years of primary school, for a greater number of pupils.

The effectiveness of one-to-one tuition, and the impressive results of England's pilot scheme, suggests the English strategy might be the one which yields the superior results.

John Greenlees is a secondary teacher.

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