As you and I are both interested in education, and as you’re reading this article on an online education website, you may reasonably expect a natural bias towards the benefits of private tutoring for children.

I know that it has its advocates and detractors, which is why it was interesting for me (and hopefully for you) to report on a country-wide debate held recently on Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ programme on 5th May, 2015 . During the 45-minute phone-in and discussion parents, teachers and privately-tutored school-age children up and down the UK were invited to call, e-mail or text their opinions on the merits and pitfalls of private tutoring.

The preamble told us that the private tuition market in the UK is currently estimated at £6bn annually, with almost one in four children tutored at some point in their school career. Later in the programme we learned that this further breaks down as 17% of children from poorer backgrounds and 29% from richer backgrounds: so not necessarily the big divide one might have expected (although the rich-poor classification was not clarified).


By far and away the recurring theme was not one of elevated exam grades but one of bolstered confidence. This came up time and time over as the greatest benefit of private tutoring.

The reasons behind this confidence boost vary. For some it proves beneficial for kids who, through whatever cause, just don’t ‘fit in’ with the class and who need the specialness of one-on-one help. Another mother expressed hers and her daughter’s delight when for the latter, after 18 months’ struggle with A’ Level studies, ‘the light finally went on’ and she understood what it was all about. The poor girl had been in despair at her progress despite studying hard and the mother iterated how hard it had been for her daughter to ask questions in class. The girl in question went from a predicted fail to a B-grade in under six months but this was almost by-the-by to their contribution to the programme. One privately-tutored student described how he felt far more confident having been tutored by someone who could listen to his own particular misunderstandings and explain them in a safe environment.

Unfair advantage?

The second most debated theme was whether or not private tutoring gives children an unfair advantage – and the ethics of this.

One of the programme’s earliest contributors was a man of Indian birth, working long hours in a care home on a basic wage. He views his children’s education as “an investment … the competition is global and very intense.” Wise words. He spends around £300 a month on private tutoring in the hopes of giving his children a better future.

Another caller argued that no other developed country would consider private tutoring an unfair disadvantage, again underlining that we live in a global market.

A later interjector argued that private tutoring merely papers over the cracks. They opened up a debate, particularly about pre-11+ examinations and pushing to get a child into a ‘good’ school. Two contributors argued that getting the child into the school is one thing, but helping them keep up once there is quite another. It was sad to hear one child’s plight of struggling throughout school once they’d passed the all-important exam. Another caller chipped in, quietly but loudly heard, that there are lots of dimensions to giving a child advantages, and tutoring is but one of them.

Tiger parents

Authoress Tanith Carey, who recently published her book, Taming the Tiger Parent, was an invited guest. She argues that a child’s general wellbeing is more important than the narrow band of exam results (a woman after my own heart, in this respect). While acknowledging the obvious merits of tutoring, she worries that some graduate tutors may have a 1st from a top university but that they are not qualified to teach.

Of course. She has a very valid point – and the same can be said of any tutor, recent graduate or not. So, again (as in previous articles), I would urge you to do your research and find the right tutor for your individual child. There are many, many tutors: the bad news is that it might take a while to find the right one; the good news is that there will be someone just great for your needs.

Peter Kent, president of the Association of School and College Leaders and a grammar school head teacher also echoed this point, stressing that tutoring is very important but it’s vital to make sure the style is right for the individual child. He, too, made the very valid point (in my opinion) that children and teenagers need time to just be children or teenagers, and that keeping things in balance and in the right environment is important for every child.

Another key point is that children have to want to learn, and if they’re pushed into private tutoring as well as school, this could make them really miserable.

Catching up

Some contributors to the Radio 4 programme shared their relief when support was available for their children if they’d fallen behind in a particular subject for some reason, such as when returning from a spell living abroad or following a period of illness. Very interesting.

Another caller described how her daughter wanted to study French and Spanish, but her GCSE options precluded one or the other. Another noteworthy point.

Several callers complained about the standard of Maths teaching in schools, particularly at primary level, and how tutoring has helped their child to overcome this. As this point came up a number of times one can only assume that, country-wide, it is a bit of a problem, although one caller refuted this.

Home tutoring

If you haven’t gathered by now, this was a well-balanced programme which also invited comments and experience of home tutoring by parents.

A father from the Midlands – a science teacher by profession – successfully tutored his daughter and then his son through their exams. This was an excellent example of bringing learning into the home environment and a great opportunity for wider bonding.

However, a mother who called in had to admit that it takes her an hour to study online before giving her daughter a half-hour tutorial. The presenter asked how she found the time to do this, to which she replied “she’s lucky enough not to have to work”.  So, if you’re thinking about home tutoring, bear this in mind and consider your personal circumstances.  (Personally, I’m very prepared to admit I’m not well-enough equipped to teach any curriculum subject to GCSE, let alone A’ Level.)

One final caller on the subject of home tutoring – a mother of three – shared how she’d home-tutored her daughter to help her through her GSCEs. When it all got too much she asked her daughter how she’d feel about enrolling with a third-party tutor instead of herself. Her daughter replied to the effect: “Thank goodness, now I can get my mum back.” ‘Mum’ then realised she’d jeopardised her parent-child relationship by trying to be parent and teacher.

So, after all this, better grades?

One contributor suggested that the average uplift for a privately-tutored student is 0.6 of a grade. Another, a teacher, corrected this figure to be more like “at least a grade”. There was a consensus that ‘cramming’ tutoring is not helpful: tutoring hard and fast over a few days prior to exams is counter-productive. Contributors seemed to agree that sustained tutoring over a longer period – maybe one or two hours per week – is a far better way to engage children and keep, rather than exhaust, their attention.

The debate continues.



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I'm an active energetic person. I enjoy long-distance running and have taken part in many organised events including the 2016 Prague Marathon. I'm a keen skier and love open-water swimming, when the weather is right!