The spread of private tuition

Statistics show the remarkable spread of private tuition in North America, Asia and Europe. According to Jenni Russell, writing in the New Statesman in 2002, ‘it has become one of the most important, yet also unacknowledged, factors in a child’s school performance’. In the Republic of Korea, around 90 percent of elementary school students receive private tuition; in India, the figure is around 60 percent. In Hong Kong, 85 percent of secondary school students receive tuition after school. In the USA, the government invests around $134 billion in private tuition and enrichment programmes for low-income students. The global private tutoring market is expected to surpass $102.8 billion by 2018.

'With fees for one-to-one tuition starting from £50 an hour, she now earns more than the headmaster who was once her boss.’

This is what journalist Julia Llewellyn Smith wrote in the Daily Mail in October 2011 about a former school teacher, now giving private lessons on an almost daily basis. Like this journalist, many people focus on the financial aspects of conducting private lessons, as if the extra income were the main reason behind it. In fact, private tuition is a much deeper social and economic phenomenon, worthy of closer investigation on the part of all participants.

By private tuition, I mean lessons in academic subjects, such as maths, science and languages, given to students in addition to the teaching they are receiving in mainstream schooling. It does not, therefore, include extra-curricular subjects such as soccer and ballet, nor does it include extra help given by teachers or family members on a voluntary basis. Private tutoring is not like sports coaching, where the aim is to promote the student’s physical and mental well-being. Instead, it targets the student’s weaknesses in one particular school subject and, given the global demand for learning English, private English tuition is an important element.

With the growing demand for excellence in education, more and more emphasis is being put on private tuition as a means of helping students achieve better grades and climb the social ladder.

In my own country, Tunisia, private tuition is having a devastating effect on family finances. Even lower-income families strive hard to find tuition fees for their children. Around 70 percent of our students take lessons outside school, and Tunisia reports the world’s ninth highest rate of private tuition. People seem convinced that mainstream schooling is not enough to guarantee social and economic success and that private tuition is essential.

The factors involved

One of the factors that play a part in the spread of private tuition is peer pressure. Parents feel it is their duty to ensure educational success for their children, and they feel guilty if they cannot provide what the parents of their children’s classmates can give their offspring. Sometimes, parents feel the need to give their children a better education than they received themselves, or are seeking to reproduce their own academic success in their children. Since no schoolwork is ever 100 percent perfect, many parents are pushing their children into private tuition to improve their school grades, even if those grades are already satisfactory by any reasonable standards.

Another factor is the increase in the amount of testing that is done in educational systems, and the emphasis that is placed on good results. The private tuition market flourishes as increasing numbers of students rush to take more and more tests, particularly those that are identified as necessary to secure good jobs.

The problems involved

Although private tuition is widely practised, it often has a bad reputation. Newspapers tend to present a negative image of it – citing lack of quality in some of the teaching, the drastic reduction of children’s free time and opportunities to play and socialise with their peers, and the pressure it puts on them, particularly in their teenage years. Part of the problem seems to be inadequate supervision and regulation of the private tuition sector, especially when it is compared with mainstream schooling.

However, in its Education Sector Newsletter, published in 2009, UNESCO identifies some of the benefits of private tuition: ‘Private tuition can be a positive thing. It can help weak students to catch up, and strong students to aspire even higher ... Pupils may learn better, precisely because they have chosen the tutor, and they or their families are paying, It can build human capital, which in turn aids economic growth.’

Children’s own attitudes towards private tuition are often ambivalent. Although it is unpopular because it exerts enormous pressure on them and takes up much of the little free time they have outside school, many feel that they cannot do without it.

So perhaps the news isn’t all bad or all good. However, the main problem is that there is a lack of solid research, and much of the evidence both for and against private tuition is anecdotal. As Jenni Russell points out, ‘there is no official information on the extent of private tutoring, because it is in nobody’s interest to collect it. Parents are often reluctant to admit to it, and schools would rather take the credit for their pupils’ results themselves’.

Suggestions for solutions

What evidence we have suggests that private tuition can profit students, provided it is practised in a better way. Here are my suggestions for improvements that could be made, both to private tuition itself and to mainstream education, so that the need for private tuition is reduced:

  • Increase the quality of private tuition by more regulation. Make sure it takes place within schools, or in places which can be regulated and licensed by the education authorities.
  • Set up a code of conduct or code of ethics for private tuition, to be signed by all the different stakeholders, including teacher unions and parents.
  • Make sure private tutors use effective measurement tools to help them keep track of their students’ progress and keep the parents abreast of that progress.
  • Reduce class sizes in mainstream education. In my country, large classes may account for the rush to private tuition, where the classes are much smaller.
  • Improve curricula content and teaching methodologies in mainstream schools. Include new technologies and more motivating methods, so as to raise the students’ interest in schoolwork and to make it more appealing.
  • Reduce the importance given to school examinations, particularly the numerous achievement tests.

We may deplore private tuition, or we may embrace it as an excellent idea. We may even be involved in it ourselves. Whatever our attitude to it, private tuition is a fact of life in many countries, so we need to address the issue and try to make the experience as beneficial as possible for our students.