Private tuition

13th May 2005 at 01:00

Main text: Steven Hastings Illustration: Jan Martin Additional research: Sarah Jenkins Next week: Family breakdown

Did you know?

* Anyone can set up as a private tutor

* More than a quarter of 11 to 18-year-olds have had one at some point during their schooling, most of them for maths

* But the fastest growing market is at key stages 1 and 2

* Some tutors charge up to pound;40 an hour for shortage subjects. Many full-time teachers earn just over pound;16 an hour

* Some private tutor agencies have more than 10,000 staff on their books

The one-to-one tutorial has always been popular. To the ancient Greeks it was a way of provoking philosophical thought, while in Elizabethan England wealthy families employed tutors to educate their children in Renaissance refinements. Today, private tuition is still in fashion, but the aims are no longer so noble. It's not about developing independent thought, or stimulating curiosity. It's about results: passing an 11-plus, turning D grade "failure" into C grade "success" at GCSE; securing the A-level grades for a coveted university place. Some parents are willing to spend thousands of pounds a year topping up their children's education. Does this mean our schools are failing? Or just that parents value education highly and want the best for their children?

How many children have tutors?

More than a quarter of 11 to 18-year-olds have had a private tutor at some point during their schooling, according to research published last year by Judy Ireson at the Institute of Education, London. But that estimate, based on a sample of 3,500 pupils, may be conservative: some children keep quiet about extra tuition, deeming it a mark of failure or "swottiness". There are also differences from region to region, and from school to school. The Institute of Education research, for example, found one school where 65 per cent of Year 11 pupils had used a private tutor. London is widely seen as the hotbed of home tutoring and anecdotal evidence suggests that in some schools in the capital, among children preparing for public examinations, the proportion having private tuition is close to 100 per cent.

Passing fad or growing trend?

Tutoring agencies say business is booming. But the fastest growing market is not at secondary level, where there has always been a call for GCSE and A-level tuition, but at key stages 1 and 2. "The introduction of Sats led to a surge in demand, and it's grown steadily ever since," says a spokesperson for Cheshire-based agency Private Tutors. "Parents want tuition for their children from the ages of six or seven, so they don't fall behind." But at the other end of the age range, things may be changing. Some agencies report that demand for A-level tuition has dipped in recent years, as an increase in coursework and the chance to retake modules has removed the intensity from the examination process.

Who are the tutors?

The private tuition industry isn't regulated: anyone can set up as a tutor by sticking an advertisement in a local shop window. But most tutors do have some teaching experience, and there is an element of self-regulation as most work comes through word of mouth. Tutors who aren't up to scratch soon find themselves without students.

Many tutors are full-time teachers who squeeze in a few private lessons in the evenings. Sometimes they are even approached by parents to give extra tuition to children they already teach at school, though most have qualms about this kind of relationship. Other tutors are "professionals", for whom tutoring provides their main income (see case study). Some are retired teachers, while those with young families find tutoring offers flexibility and the chance to work from home.

Tutoring is also a popular way for students, especially postgraduates, to earn extra cash. "It's more dignified and lucrative than working behind a bar," says Karina Halstead, founder of the London-based co-operative Home Tutors. "And many parents choose a student rather than an experienced teacher because they think their child will relate to them." In science and maths, where national teacher shortages are reflected in tutor shortages, retired architects, engineers and accountants sometimes offer their services. "Parents shouldn't rule out people without teaching experience," says Karina Halstead. "Tutors just need good subject knowledge and communication skills. Whether or not they could control a class of 30 children is irrelevant."

Why do children have tutors?

In short, to get better exam results. In a survey carried out last year by Fleet Tutors, an agency in the south of England, 81 per cent of tutors reported that clients wanted "to compensate for perceived deficiencies in the state school system". A similar number, 83 per cent, reported that children were "increasingly anxious about exams". The Institute of Education research echoes this finding, with 71 per cent of children saying they received extra help to prepare for tests or exams. In particular, tutoring in Year 6 seems to be targeted at getting children into their chosen secondary school: where there is competition for places, or a grammar school system, extra tuition is widespread.

In some cases the schools themselves suggest to parents that their children would benefit from coaching, knowing that this will in turn boost results, improve league table standings, and make the school look good. In other cases the use of tutors escalates as a result of peer pressure - among parents. "We found that many felt under pressure to provide tutors for their children, because they knew others were doing the same," says Judy Ireson.

But not all tutoring is about exam technique and past papers. Pupils who have been off school sick may use a tutor to catch up. Some just want to study subjects not offered by their schools. And children who have been excluded or taken into care often receive their education in the form of extensive tutoring. Finally, there is the growing number of parents who choose to home-educate, many of whom use specialist tutors, particularly when their children reach secondary age.

Making it pay

A-level tutors in London typically charge pound;20 to pound;30 an hour, but sometimes as much as pound;40 an hour for maths or physics. Rates in the regions, or for primary tuition, are lower, usually between pound;15 and pound;25 an hour. By comparison, a teacher on pound;28,000 a year, working a 45-hour week during term time, effectively earns just over pound;16 an hour.

Some tutors prefer to visit their pupils, but many find it more cost-effective to have pupils come to them, saving on time and travel costs and making it possible to schedule back-to-back appointments. Hourly rates often seem less attractive, however, when you take into account preparation and marking time and the cost of resources or photocopying.

And then there's the taxman, although it can be tempting for someone teaching just a couple of lessons a week to pocket the cash and keep quiet.

But the Inland Revenue has a reputation for being tough on private tuition; an advertisement for your services in a local shop or newspaper, for example, may well be noticed by the authorities. Someone who teaches part-time and tutors part-time may find it worth registering as self-employed, which means expenses are tax deductible. It's best to contact your tax office and explain your circumstances.

On the books

Many tutors work independently, relying on reputation and word of mouth, but others join agencies that have the financial clout to advertise widely - some of the larger ones have more than 10,000 tutors on their books - and can also offer an element of moral support. "We act as a base for tutors who miss the camaraderie of the staffroom," says Mylene Curtis, director of Fleet Tutors.

Different agencies work in different ways. Some function as a go-between, passing on tutors' details to parents and taking a commission from the tutor. Others pay their tutors themselves, so are responsible for setting the price of the lessons and making sure clients pay. Some agencies are run as co-operatives, with tutors making a contribution to running costs, or giving up time to work in the office, but otherwise keeping all the money they earn.

Whatever the set-up, tutors are usually self-employed, and are free to belong to more than one agency. Many parents prefer to use an agency because they see it as a guarantee of quality: agencies will usually vet CVs, run criminal record checks and take up references before agreeing to register a tutor. In most cases, they also seek feedback from parents and monitor levels of satisfaction, weeding out tutors who are not up to scratch.

Plus points and pitfalls

Some teachers say that tutoring lacks the buzz of teaching a large class; others complain that an intense one-to-one tutorial can be mentally exhausting. But most find their work rewarding, and some suggest it improves their classroom teaching by giving a better understanding of how children learn. But one-to-one teaching can also make tutors vulnerable to false allegations. It's a good idea to ensure that lessons take place in an open, visible environment and that there's another adult in the house.

The Government has considered legislation that would make it mandatory for private tutors to undergo a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check, but so far this has been deemed unworkable. Even so, if you don't already have a CRB certificate it may be worth getting one voluntarily to reassure parents.

You may also want to consider liability insurance to cover you, should a pupil have an accident while at your home.

Weakness in numbers

Maths dominates the private tuition market. According to the Institute of Education researchers, 70 per cent of all pupils who have a tutor receive tuition in maths. English comes a distant second, science behind that, and other subjects such as history and geography barely register on the radar.

Partly, of course, this is because a C grade at maths GCSE is often a requirement for entry into higher education. It could also be a symptom of a shortage of maths staff, meaning teaching in schools may be of inferior quality, or heavily reliant on supply. "Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of the subject," says Barbara Ball, professional officer for the Association of Teachers of Mathematics. "It's a series of building blocks, where if you don't understand a key point, it can be difficult to grasp what follows. One-to-one tuition can help fill the gaps."

Land of the rising tuition rates

It can be a surprise to learn that as many as two million British children use private tutors, but the figure is similar in most western European countries. In some parts of the world it is much higher, with personal tuition regarded as an integral part of the education system. Up to 80 per cent of pupils in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have private lessons. Is this the kind of situation we are moving towards in the UK?

"Probably not," says Judy Ireson. "Those countries with high rates of tuition usually have extremely wide differentials between the salary of educated and non-educated people. Here the gap is smaller, so there's less incentive to invest in tuition."

Is it a middle-class thing?

Ten years ago, private tuition was the preserve of the chattering classes.

But not any longer. Tutoring agencies report a growing number of parents from less affluent backgrounds, including some on income support, forking out for tuition. "It's impossible to generalise any more," says Karina Halstead. "We have clients from estates in Hackney, Peckham, and Elephant and Castle. We provide tutors to children from single-parent families and ethnic minorities. Parents often tell me that they do extra hours of cleaning work to pay for the lessons." As people have become more open about employing tutors, it's also grown increasingly common for several parents to club together and share a tutor to cut costs.

Private education by the hour?

When The Spectator claimed in 2002 that the Blairs were paying teachers from Westminster school to give tuition to their sons, it caused quite a stir. Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, accused the Prime Minister of choosing "private education through the back door".

Many parents openly admit that they see tuition as a cheap alternative to school fees while appeasing their social conscience. "I'm an old-fashioned leftie, vigorously opposed to private schools," says a doctor from Sheffield, "but I'm happy to pay for tuition. It's not the same thing at all." Mylene Curtis agrees that tutoring offers a genuine alternative to private education. "If tuition encourages parents to keep their children at local schools, and this allows local schools to flourish, that's a good thing," she says. But she also admits that a survey she carried out among her tutors suggests many state school children who have private tuition move on later to independent schools. Even then, paying school fees doesn't always deter parents from stumping up for extra tuition as well. "We have plenty of tutored pupils," admits one independent school English teacher.

"Let's face it, if parents have already paid out thousands of pounds in fees they aren't going to baulk at a little bit extra, especially if it's to secure a pass in maths or English."

A social, moral and political issue

Critics argue that private tuition undermines the ethos of comprehensive education, allowing wealthy parents to buy better results for their children. They also argue that it makes league tables meaningless, since results may reflect the numbers having tuition rather than the quality of the school. Others counter that while hiring a tutor is an advantage, so too is having internet access at home, or a parent who helps with homework.

Some schools have tried to compensate for inequalities by widening access to individual support, offering out-of-hours help, for example through maths clubs or GCSE revision classes. Some tutoring agencies also work closely with schools, providing tutors on site, with the school meeting all or part of the cost.

This kind of crossover could be the first step towards the US model of integrating tuition into mainstream education: in some American states parents are awarded vouchers they can spend on private tuition if students are not making progress quickly enough. But other countries have taken a different approach to levelling the educational playing field. In Cyprus, supplementary tuition has been banned, and several teachers have been arrested for breaking the law. And in South Korea, tutors are not allowed to operate in the weeks immediately before exams.

Money well spent?

There has been little research into the impact of private tutoring. There is, however, plenty of evidence that small group and one-to-one work in schools raises achievement, so it seems logical to assume that tuition out of school is just as effective. But Judy Ireson points out that the quality of tuition is critical. "You can't assume that just because you have one teacher and one child it's going to work."

Her research shows that students who have private tuition in maths during the two years before GCSE achieve, on average, just under half a grade higher than students who do not have a tutor. And while some improve by well over half a grade, others do not see any improvement at all. Boys benefit most.

Another problem is that tutors are often used only for short periods. The Institute of Education research found that most are employed for less than two terms and many are hired for just a few weeks when an exam is looming.

"It's often a panic measure, and parents expect the tutor to perform miracles," says a spokesperson for Personal Tutors. "Tutors can make a difference very quickly, but real success requires long-term commitment."

Some children respond better to one-to-one learning than others; pupils who lack confidence or are easily distracted in class often benefit most.

Tuition is also more likely to be effective when the idea has come from child . And it's not just about academic progress; in many cases the tutor may act as mentor as well as teacher, providing wider advice and encouragement. "Tutoring is the perfect balance to school," says Karina Halstead. "Schools are competitive, masculine environments. Tutoring is more feminine: it's about continuity and nurturing confidence."

Resources

* The Association of Tutors (www.tutor.co.uk) is the national body for private tutors. It publishes booklets and provides information for both parents and tutors.

* There are dozens of tutoring agencies across the UK: a quick search on the internet should show up the ones in your area. Educational consultants Gabbitas (www.gabbitas.co.uk) offer parents independent advice on finding the best tutor. There is a pound;40 introduction fee.

* Fleet Tutors (www.fleet-tutors.co.uk).Tel: 01252 812262

* Personal Tutors (www.personal-tutors.co.uk). Tel: 0161 428 2285

* Home Tutors (www.londonhometutors.org). Tel: 020 88832519

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