We should all be concerned by recent reports that some Scottish local authorities are encouraging parents to make use of a private home-tutoring organisation. The Student Support Centre, which has 1,200 Scottish pupils on its books, claims parents are turning to it because of poor standards of literacy and numeracy at state schools. The Kent-based firm offers teaching and learning materials to local authorities in return for informing pupils and parents of the availability of home-based private tuition.
Although there have been protests from various quarters, it is unlikely that any of the major political parties or indeed the large teaching unions will do anything to restrict the growth of such services. It will be argued that, since parents are entitled to seek fee-paying education outwith the state system, surely they also have the right to augment their child's state education with paid tuition?
Parents do have such a right. Many of the better-off have been exercising it for decades, and the local authorities that have decided to promote commercially driven tutoring organisations must do so in the certain knowledge that they will encourage an even greater divide between those who can and cannot afford paid tuition. They will be legitimising an already iniquitous situation. Worse, they will be signalling their tacit acceptance of the criticisms of politicians, sections of the media and the tutoring entrepreneurs that state education is failing pupils.
Some month ago I wrote in these columns about what I perceive as another quick fix: the growing number of after-school homework clubs across Scotland. I argued that if homework clubs are necessary for pupils to achieve what is expected of them, then schools should reassess the focus of their provision to meet those expectations.
Similarly with private tuition, if there is a genuine need for pupils to receive extra tuition at home then that too is an argument for reassessing the curricular demands made on them.
The increasing promotion of homework clubs and private tuition can certainly be viewed as an acknowledgement that schools face increasing difficulties in trying to deliver the same in-depth quality of learning across an ever broadening curriculum. There is a danger that it will also be seen as effectively admitting that teachers are failing pupils, that standards of numeracy and literacy are falling, or that national targets are not being met, and therefore the use of tutors and homework clubs is justified.
Arguments will rage about the validity of these and other criticisms of state education. But even if we accept the apparent consensus that schools are falling short in some way, homework clubs and private tuition seem inadequate, cosmetic attempts at resolving the situation. What is needed is not an extension of the school day in whatever guise but an honest appraisal of what we expect schools to achieve for pupils. Such an appraisal would examine the multiple demands placed on both pupils and staff.
Perhaps those who shape policy are finally realising that it is not possible to expand a school curriculum indefinitely, as has been happening for two decades, without reducing the depth of curricular coverage. Something has to give. For the recent target-setting initiative to have any real currency, less teacher time should be spent on bureaucracy and more time should be spent on whatever genuine research identifies as an area of deficiency.
Instead of admitting defeat and endorsing the use of tutoring organisations and homework clubs, local authorities need to face up to the criticism levelled at the state education system and act to address the perceived need. If there has been a reduction in levels of literacy and numeracy and it is accepted that these are the benchmarks against which our education system is to be measured, then let schools focus on these areas and make improvements.
If it is believed that teacher incompetence leads to poor examination results than such accusations should be investigated and measures introduced to rectify poor teaching if it exists. We must argue the case for realistic targets which are attainable for pupils irrespective of their ability to pay.
It should be the aim of the Scottish Office to ensure that local authorities provide quality of education across Scotland that negates any perceived need for supplementary private tuition. Tutoring agencies should not be endorsed, far less promoted. I look forward to reading powerful statements from COSLA, and teacher unions condemning the growth of private tutoring agencies and undertaking to implement the changes that will render them redundant. By doing so they will champion a one-tier education system that serves all our pupils equally well.
I'm not holding my breath.
Robert Naylor is principal teacher of mathematics at Dunblane High School.