For many years now, the debate about whether the net effect of private tuition is positive or negative has raged. As with many debates that attract polarised views, I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle, which may come as a surprise given that I co-founded a tuition agency and still continue to tutor to the present day.
I recall a number of parents who use our services forwarding onto me an article that was published by the Evening Standard in 2017 where Victoria Bingham, headmistress at South Hampstead Girls School, warned parents about the perils of private tuition. When I replied that, to a large extent, I agreed with many of her points, they seemed taken aback, but allow me to address some of the issues that are often raised and give my insight, for what it’s worth! Given the scope of the debate, I feel it appropriate to break it down into specific areas that I will address in a series of blogs, rather than bore you with a thesis.
Private Tuition Stifles Independent Thinking
A common argument that I hear is that private tuition stifles independent thinking and, as Mrs. Bingham puts it, children who are tutored miss out on the “struggle time” needed to work out problems for themselves. At the heart of this claim seems to be a perception of what a ‘typical’ tutor does, so let’s begin with that.
According to the Sutton Trust 2019 Report, approximately 25% of 11-16-year-olds say they have received private tuition, with that number rising to 41% in London. Whilst the demand for private tuition has soared over the past decade, so too has the supply of tutors. There is no shortage of websites that both experienced and aspiring tutors can utilise which allows them to create a profile and market themselves to thousands of parents around the country, and with the online tuition market booming due to COVID, the reach is now global too. It is here though where I would offer some words of caution to parents and explain why the perception of tutors “stifling independent thinking” does have some merit.
When we first began as an agency, back in 2012, our recruitment process consisted of reviewing a prospective tutor’s CV, looking through their teaching experiences, conducting a telephone interview, and attaining two good references. The assumption, naive as it may seem in hindsight, was that if a tutor had teaching experience – either privately or at a school – they must be great. It did not take long for us to realise how very wrong we were. Ever since then, it has been company policy to always conduct a teaching assessment of prospective tutors, irrespective of how little or how much experience they had when applying to us. Why do I flag this up? Because simply having an impressive academic background and experience in the education sector is by no means a guarantee that the individual in question will be a good tutor – many of those who we have turned away are on various tuition websites and, I have no doubt, getting plenty of parent attention and demand. Many parents are easily lured by impressive academic credentials, such as having a PhD, but if my experiences have taught me anything, it is to never assume that someone is going to be great or awful based on that alone.
I am struck by the number of prospective Maths tutors who enter into a monologue the moment we ask them to commence their teaching assessment. At times, those who have excelled academically can lack the soft skills needed to be a brilliant tutor. In that sense, I agree with Mrs. Bingham that, tuition in that form, most certainly stifles independent thought. Similarly, employing a tutor to help with homework is something we actively discourage because students should attempt questions and assignments independently. After all, the tutor will not be sitting beside them when they sit their exams.
Does this mean that I feel that tuition is exclusively a last-resort option? No.
Private tuition, when done properly, can completely transform a student’s academic confidence and spill over to how they feel about themselves on a day-to-day basis outside of academia. One of our core principles is that a tutor has the power to realign academic expectations and a segment of our tutor training seminars focus on this.
Whilst I don’t wish to bore you with the specifics, allow me to pick out just one brief example to explain how, subconsciously, this process can happen over time. Over the past 10 years, I have taught in excess of 600 students for A-Level Economics, either privately or in groups. Every single time I teach a topic known as elasticities, once I have gone through the basics with the students and got them to do a few simple questions, I will, every single time, say the following: “in my opinion, the hardest mathematical question they have ever asked in your syllabus is January 2009, question 4”. Now, I would not show them that specific question…not yet. Instead, I will put together a question similar to it based around their interests. Throughout the process, whilst I would guide them, I would ensure that they answer each mini-question, write every step out, and think through that step. For those students who struggle with maths, I would provide a second question and slowly back off to see if they can do it without my help. Once I knew that the student had fully understood the concept, I would then show them the infamous January 2009 question 4 and completely back off. I did so with the complete confidence and knowledge that they would get it right. When they did and I excitedly told them that they had just answered the most difficult question that has been asked (it is a tough question by the way!) there is credibility behind that statement and what has been achieved is a significant boost in their confidence.
I have seen far too many instances of students who felt intimidated by the classroom environment or had been told by teachers (and often their parents) that the limit of their ability was a certain grade. A superb tutor does not lie to them and give them false hope, but rather, has the ability to re-shape that expectation and impact how that student behaves both in-class and outside of class. If you repeatedly get told that you are a C grade student, you will eventually play that role. The one factor that unifies those students who excel academically is that they, in 99% of cases, behave and apply themselves like an A* student. A brilliant tutor has the ability to reconfigure the psyche of the child and to get them to look at themselves through a new lens – it is no guarantee of success, but I completely live by the motto that it is better to aim high and miss than to aim low and hit.
Exceptional tutors are those who involve a student throughout their lesson, ask probing questions that stimulate their thought process, and help develop skills. This is not to say that teachers at school do not do this or cannot. However, in the same way that schools such as Mrs. Bingham’s take prospective teachers through assessments and have rigorous quality control, so do top tuition agencies. In that regard, I agree with her that a lot of the private tuition that currently takes place is stifling to independent thought, but I would caution against painting all tutors with the same brush.