Education Arms Race – the secret weapon

Just in case you think the title of this blogpost is rather dramatic, here is a headline from The Times website: “The education arms race is out of control”. Actually, The Times is not the only newspaper that uses the phrase “arms race”, so does The Guardian, The Economist,   a report by UCL and many other news outlets.

Private tuition, or call it private lesson, is nothing new. In fact, it predates formal education, as it has been around since the time of the Ancient Greeks; we also learn that this was one of the main ways in which great composers such as Mozart made a living. Nowadays, whilst private lessons are how most young people learn musical instruments, private tuition is used extensively for those aspiring to gain admission to top universities. They use it at GCSE and A-level for core academic subjects such as Maths, English, the Sciences and others.

Going back to the article in The Times I mentioned earlier, here is a quote:

“For those who can’t or don’t want to pay for private schools, the premium on houses near the country’s top 100 state secondary schools is 42%. Tuition has taken off in Britain too, where the proportion of children who have had private tutors has increased from 18% in 2005 to 27% in 2019, according to the Sutton Trust”.

The Sutton Education Trust is an excellent organisation that carries out research and does tremendous work to address the education divide and its effect on social mobility in society. I have read this particular report, and also many of its other reports, in detail, and, whilst I completely agree with its findings, I’m of the view that the figure of 42% getting private tuition is a gross underestimation. Although the 42% figure is related to London and the South East of England, where there are a high number of families with high aspirations, if we dig deeper, the figure for those getting private tuition for at least one subject at GCSE or A-level will be closer to 80% of teenagers in certain demographics. We are not just speaking about affluent families alone, but also in high aspiration homes where parents are not necessarily earning much, but value education highly. One must also bear in mind that not all parents or teenagers give away the secret of their success!

I have spent the last 29 years in the English secondary education system, almost all of which has been in high achieving environments – mainly grammar schools, independent private schools and private tuition organisations.  Observation shows me that private tuition is the open secret which many parents have used to help push up their sons and daughters’ grades by a couple or so grade boundaries –giving them a competitive advantage in the process.

I’ve been using the phrase private tuition so far, but another could be extra tuition, as sometimes the out-of-school-timetable lessons are not paid for. For example, I help my own son and daughter with Maths and the science subjects sometimes. Although I am fascinated by History, Philosophy and almost all other subjects, neither am I equipped nor have the time to invest in learning so I can help them with those. The idea of asking an overstretched subject teacher at school to provide extra help for your child is quite unrealistic. Even if they do, it probably won’t be sufficient to make a real difference.

To be fair, many schools are organising extra classes at weekends and during school holidays. However, having spoken to many parents about this, I discovered that it is not always that effective. In fact, some parents and young people consider that it can be a waste of time.  There are all sorts of reasons why it is often not productive, not least the fact that, sadly, class disruption and all other sorts of time wasting still goes on in those extra lessons.

We hear of good schools, but often we are not told the full story behind the apparent success of those schools. Show me a successful school where teenagers achieve top GCSE and A-level results and I’ll show you a place where good parents congregate. Yes, there are some excellent schools with superb teachers out there. It’s just that there are too few of them. We all know the extent to which some parents go in order to find good schools for their children. The fact is that finding a good school is only the beginning. Most parents never just find a good school and then rest on their laurels. They keep a watchful eye, stepping in to support their teenagers throughout their secondary education in particular. Dinner table talk amongst parents often includes private tuition and discussions range from getting their teenagers to buy into the idea and how to find good tutors or private tuition centre to the king’s ransom they are having to fork out and whether it’s worth the investment…

Private tuition is often the game changer and I have witnessed many success stories; however, sadly, I’ve also seen it going wrong. It can be very powerful in helping a teenager to move up grade boundaries very rapidly, but can also have zero effect on the child’s performance or be even counterproductive.

I have put together a small, twelve-page A5 booklet to help guide parents who may be considering private tuition for their teenager. The booklet is called How to Choose an Effective Private Tutor for Your Child at GCSE & A-Level: A Smart Parent’s Guide. You can get a copy sent to you by visiting the webpage – and completing a short form. It is free of charge.