News analysis - Tutors buck recession, but will their stock fall?

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Buying extra academic help for children can cost up to Pounds 24 a session, but there is no sign of cash-strapped parents cutting back - yet. Adi Bloom reports

In bleak economic times, private tutoring may be the one career that remains reliably lucrative. In fact, while all other private industries falter, it is resolutely buoyant.

Research conducted for the Department for Children, Schools and Families shows that more than one in 10 state pupils receives private tuition in an academic subject, many at least once a week.

BMRB Social Research interviewed 1,500 parents and carers, all of whom had a child aged between five and 16 in state education. Eleven per cent said their children received out-of-school tuition in a subject other than music or sport.

Typical tutoring sessions are one-to-one weekly lessons that last for between half an hour and an hour. Tuition cost an average of Pounds 21.19 an hour for maths and Pounds 23.92 an hour for English or literacy.

Despite the cost, interest in extra tuition shows no sign of going the way of bankers' bonuses.

Henrietta Spiegelberg, managing director of Greater London Tutors, which employs more than 2,500 private tutors, said: "The downturn hasn't affected us at all. In fact, we've noticed a little bit of an increase in people having private tutors.

"It's getting much more competitive at the moment. People realise a good degree and good results are even more important than before. So investing in kids' education is more valuable in the long term."

Mylene Curtis, managing director of Fleet Tutors, agrees. "University applications are at an all-time high," she said, "so we've had very high demand for tuition at A-level this year."

As private-school heads have repeatedly avowed, paid-for education is often the last financial cutback to be made in a recession. A survey conducted earlier this year for the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of independent schools found that demand for places is still rising.

But few are optimistic that such upward trends will continue as the economy heads downwards. David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, suggested the effects of a recession take a year or two to trickle through to the independent sector. "In the next academic year, we'll see whether the credit crunch has had an effect," he said.

Ms Spiegelberg believes private tuition might eventually provide a fallback option for parents who can no longer afford paid-for schools. "Parents may consider taking children out of more expensive schools and supplementing their education with private tuition," she said. "It's a bit early to tell yet, but I think September, the new academic year, will be a major turning point."

The Government survey shows, unsurprisingly, that those parents with household incomes of more than Pounds 50,000 a year are the most likely to employ a private tutor: 16 per cent of children in this income bracket have extra tuition, compared with 9 per cent from lower income brackets.

While a fifth of children from professional families tend to have private tuition, only one in 20 pupils from working-class backgrounds has the same benefits.

Unusually, however, this trend does not apply to English tuition. While one in 10 pupils from wealthy backgrounds receives extra maths lessons, only 6 per cent employ an English or literacy tutor. Similarly, few pupils from less affluent backgrounds pay for a private English tutor.

Ian McNeilly, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, insists this is not because parents do not value the subject. Instead, he suggests that extra school-based help is often more forthcoming for literacy than for other subjects.

"When you're 14, 15 or 16, you have four hours of English in school," he said. "Then the school might have a support programme as well. If you have literacy problems, there's usually someone in school who will address those.

"But if you're not doing so well in history or geography, the school might not have that support system in place because league tables view these subjects as less important."

The benefit of private tuition is obvious to many. Faced with a class of 30, school teachers often struggle to find as much time as they would like to help individual pupils who have fallen behind. Often, one or two sessions with a private tutor are sufficient to clear up any problems.

Ms Spiegelberg believes pupils who receive private tuition could see their results improve by one or two grades.

"The tutors are troubleshooters in a way," she said. "If there's an issue the child doesn't grasp at school, or if the child lacks confidence to ask questions in class, the tutor can pick up on any problems.

"And they're there to inspire them. They can make the subject more interesting. In a few hours with a tutor, they can become more confident and knowledgeable, so that they're not afraid to interact with the class."

Teachers also benefit. "If you're an experienced classroom teacher, private tuition is quite enjoyable," said Ms Curtis, who employs some 5,000 tutors nationwide.

"You don't have the behaviour management issues of the classroom, and you can see direct results in your work. The cause-and-effect is much more direct than when you're teaching 30 children."

Private tuition is not without risks. When parents are placing not only all hopes but also all disposable income on a child's academic success, it is often easier to blame the tutor for failure than to accept that the child is simply not capable of better grades. A bad workman, after all, blames the tools.

Last month, The TES reported that teachers who work as private tutors have been advised to take out insurance to protect themselves from being sued by parents whose children do not achieve the hoped-for results.

Martin Pilkington, head lawyer for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "With the best will in the world, something could go wrong. We advise members to protect themselves against increasingly litigious parents and expansion of the compensation culture."

Tutors are, therefore, advised to place clear limits around parental expectations.

"Managing expectations is important," Ms Curtis said. "We recommend that the tutor agrees with the parent and child to what degree they feel they can improve. It's a three-way partnership."

Once clear caveat emptor conditions are established, private tuition can prove a simple and effective source of credit-crunch income. In fact, Greater London Tutors has received so many applications recently that staff are struggling to interview all would-be tutors. And, for the first time, Fleet Tutors has found that its supply of tutors is catching up with parental demand.

"When you're a teacher and you're already familiar with the syllabus, it's a good way of supplementing your income," Ms Spiegelberg said. "But we've had a lot of ex-bankers coming on to our books, too. We're just inundated with CVs at the moment."


11 per cent of state school pupils have private tuition in a subject other than music or sport.

Parents from higher income brackets and social classes were more likely to employ private tutors for their children.

Primary pupils, particularly those in Years 5 and 6, are the most likely to receive private tuition.

English and literacy tuition is received by relatively few pupils from all backgrounds.

Maths tuition costs on average Pounds 21.19 an hour.

The average hourly cost of English tuition is Pounds 23.92.

The most common form of tuition is weekly one-to-one sessions, lasting 30 minutes to an hour.

Source: BMRB Social Research.

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