Attainment gap: Concern at private tuition spike

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
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Some parents are seeking tuition for their students because of the increasing use of supply ...

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There has been a notable spike in the use of private tuition to help students prepare for examinations. Chris Parr looks at why this might be and the impact on the attainment gap

The idea of teachers earning a few extra pounds by offering private tuition to pupils is not a new one – but research has revealed how widespread the practice is.

According to a Sutton Trust-commissioned survey of almost 1,700 teachers, carried out by the National Foundation for Educational

Research, almost a quarter of those at secondary level (24 per cent) said they had taken on private tuition work outside their school commitments in the last two years.

Two-thirds of those who tutored did so after being contacted directly by parents, they said, while some 11 per cent of secondary heads said their school had sent parents information about private tutoring – a smaller proportion than at primary level, where the figure was 18 per cent.

A separate poll of more than 2,800 11 to 16-year-olds, also commissioned by the Sutton Trust but carried out by Ipsos MORI, revealed that 27 per cent of secondary school students have received private tuition at some point – up from 18 per cent in 2005, when this annual barometer of how prevalent private tuition is in England and Wales was first carried out. However, numbers were down slightly on the highest level recorded: 30 per cent in 2017.

Private tuition is most prevalent in London, where 41 per cent of children have had a tutor at some point, this year’s survey found.

According to the Sutton Trust, students who receive tuition disproportionately come from better-off backgrounds, with more than a third (34 per cent) of those from “high affluence” households receiving tuition at some point, compared with 20 per cent among those from “low affluence” environments.

The charity also asked why pupils had received extra tuition. Some 35 per cent said that they had received tuition for general help with their school work, 24 per cent said it was in relation to a school entrance exam, and nine per cent said it was because they had a particularly strong interest in a subject.

However, the most popular reason pupils gave for why they received private tuition was “to help me do well in a specific GCSE exam”.

Pat Thomson, professor of education at the University of Nottingham, told SecEd that the switch to examinations as the major mode of GCSE and A level assessment “means that exam results are more high-stakes than ever”– something she believes may have contributed to the rise in private tuition use.

“The previous system based on teacher judgement and moderated school assessments did reduce the pressure on students having to do well in a one-off performance,” she said. “Arguably the previous system was fairer and less skewed to those with money.”

It was also important to consider “what students are missing out on when they are being tutored”, Prof Thomson added. “Sport? The arts? Being with family and friends? Do we want our children to spend all of their time cramming for tests and exams?”

A report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Mobility, published earlier this year, found that disadvantaged pupils in England score on average around half a grade less than their peers at GCSE. Within this, the cross-party group of MPs said there were significant social mobility “coldspots”, with poor pupils in London performing at about the same level as the national average for all students, while poor pupils in the North East have the lowest scores (SecEd, 2019).

The recent Sutton Trust findings suggest that disparate access to tutoring by both geographical region and family affluence could undermine government efforts to promote upward social mobility.

“With costs of at least £25 per session, many parents can’t afford (private tuition)”, said Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust.

But what is the solution? The Sutton Trust wants schools to prioritise one-to-one and small group tuition in their Pupil Premium spending, and is urging ministers to look at ways of funding access to such tuition sustainably.

“The government should look at introducing a means-tested voucher scheme to enable lower income families to provide tuition for their children,” Sir Peter continued. “Schools should also consider the implications of teachers offering paid tuition outside of lessons and how this is promoted in school.”

The charity says it would also like to see more private tuition agencies provide “a certain proportion of their tuition to disadvantaged pupils for free”, as well as an expansion of non-profit and state tuition programmes that connect tutors with disadvantaged schools.

“One question not asked by the Sutton Trust is whether school success ought to rely on tutoring,” Prof Thomson added. “What if tutoring is a problem created by the school system we have?”

However, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said that increasing use of private tuition reflected “the worries that the government has unnecessarily created in so many parents’ minds about school standards and students’ prospects”.

She explained: “Although offering support to students whose parents can’t afford private tuition may seem appealing, any extra funding available for disadvantaged students should be directed at addressing the shortfalls in Pupil Premium funding and the government’s decision to favour schools in less disadvantaged areas in its own recent funding announcement.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said that “with standards rising in schools we believe in most cases private tuition to be unnecessary”. They added: “We have invested an extra £2.4 billion this year alone through the Pupil Premium and schools have flexibility over how they use this funding, which can include providing one-to-one or small group tuition to ensure disadvantaged pupils get the extra support they need.”

  • Chris Parr is a freelance journalist.

Further information

Some parents are seeking tuition for their students because of the increasing use of supply teachers or cover supervisors for key lessons such as Mathematics. This often means that either the teacher does not fully understand the material provided, or the student does not engage well with the lesson, either because of disruption often associated with supply teachers, or because they are not used to the teacher. This is down to schools having difficulty in filling permanent teaching positions and being forced to go to agencies in order to cover all lessons.
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