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Tutoring Debate in The Week

Mrs Bingham puts forward her case against tutoring in the Autumn/Winter edition of The Week Independent Schools Guide.

In an educational landscape dominated by phrases such as ‘learning loss’ and ‘catch-up programme’, it is easy to see why parents might turn to tutors for their children.

Tutoring has its place. The problem with the tutoring culture, however, is that pupils who need tutors the least are the most likely to have them. Independent school pupils are twice as likely to have a tutor as the national average.

The Sutton Trust argues that tutoring is a driver of inequality and on this basis, I could hang my entire article. We should give tutors incentives to provide their services to those who need them the most rather than to those already rich in support systems at school and at home. Indeed, the independent sector is stepping up to provide post-pandemic catch-up plans for pupils who have not benefited from sustained interactive teaching during successive lockdowns.

But parents are likely to be parents first and citizens second. So I speak here not to the socially-conscious citizen, but to the worried parent who wants the best for their child.

If you are reading this magazine, there is a good chance that you are considering private education or have already taken the plunge. Why would you pay school fees only to pay for a tutor on top? A good school will provide wrap-around teaching to help children who need extra support. That does not mean you should run for the hills if your child’s school does not provide a full range of twilight clinics from Reception upwards. You should run for the hills if they do! But by GCSE you would expect most schools to provide a decent level of voluntary extra support. I occasionally hear parents saying their child is too shy to pop along to a clinic or too forgetful to attend. My advice is to push back! Do they want their child to spend their adult lives being too shy to ask for professional advice? Or forgetting to put anything in their diaries?

Your child’s teachers will best understand the way in which your child has been taught. They will be qualified, skilful professionals. Some private tutors are brilliant, others less so. The market is virtually unregulated – caveat emptor! Glossy websites will promise you top graduates who can turn their hand to an incredible array of subjects without a teaching qualification in sight. Your child might really like them. You might think they do wonders for their confidence. They can have debates with your child about the global financial markets. But that does not mean that they are the best teachers.

Or you might secure a History don who knows more about the Tudors than your child’s A Level teacher. But do they know how to prepare for success at A Level? Or you might find a gem recommended by another parent – a teacher in another school who has not told their Head they are moonlighting. But can you trust the other parent’s advice? You are on your own in selecting a tutor or agency. In a school, experienced professionals like me will have decided which adults to put in front of your child.

But what if you find a good tutor (and there are lots), surely this is a good thing? The act of hiring a tutor will not address the underlying issues on its own.

Beware the false sense of security. Tutoring does not replace revision, consolidating notes or independent practice. 

Filling your child’s schedule with tutoring will eat into precisely those activities – not to mention the valuable time spent reading, doing hobbies, volunteering, getting outdoors… especially after the year we’ve just had. Arguably, you could see tutoring as an opportunity cost. When we fill our days with Zoom meetings, we have to tackle the ‘real work’ in the evening. If your child’s schedule is replete with tutoring, when are they going to do the real work of consolidating their learning?

If your child does not understand something, sometimes they are their own best resource. There are fantastic resources on the internet and of course in your child’s notes and textbook. Pupils need to be resourceful, to take initiative and in so doing they become more successful and confident. Tunnel vision is the enemy of resilience, including academic resilience. Your child’s best tutor should be themselves. If we are serious about creating adaptable lifelong learners, rather than engaging in the arms race of diminishing returns, our children need to be doing more for themselves.

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